Object of the Week: Kurtal

An azure blue circle becomes a stop sign in this canvas now on view in Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water at SAM through May 30. The circle is a jila, or sacred waterhole, in the Great Sandy Desert that you do not dare get too close to. Kurtal is the moral protector of this source of water and can be seen as a swirling black snake. In the painting, Kurtal has called in clouds which appear as horseshoe shapes set against the sky to unleash rain which enables dots of bush onions to grow around the waterhole.

Artist Ngilpirri Spider Snell was once part of a remarkable act of activist painting in 1997 when he joined 42 others to paint a giant canvas mapping all the waterholes and major features of their country around Lake Prinini. It became a document in an appeal for native title legislation and was presented to the Australian government in Canberra where Spider danced on it, wearing a headdress in the shape of a long rain cloud, and revealing his renowned position as a ceremonial dancer.  

For the next ten years, this canvas, called the Ngararra Canvas, traveled around Australia and Spider often appeared as part of the delegation to explain what features of the country were being claimed. 

By 2007, a Native Title settlement confirmed that what outsiders called “stories” were legal documents, and that paintings were evidence to prove land ownership. Soon thereafter, a major victory gave 80,000 kilometers of land back to its original owners. However, Kurtal’s site was not included, and Spider continued to agitate—taking his grandson back to visit Kurtal in 2015—a trip that became the centerpiece of a film whose clip gives a brief glimpse of his allegiance to the snake spirit and the enormous power he unleashed in the year before his death.

For an account from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about how the large group painting became an activist force for legal change, this short segment follows the painting back to Lake Prinini with some of the painters in 2018.

– Pam McClusky, SAM Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African Art

Image: Kurtal, 2005, Ngilpirri Spider Snell, (1930-2016), Australian Aboriginal, Wangkajungua People, Fitzroy Crossing, Kimberley, Western Australia, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 83 7/8 x 59 13/18 inches (213 x 152 cm.), Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, 2019.20.14.

Object of the Week: Oil Spill #5

One of the thrills of working on Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water was the chance to collaborate with my colleagues, Barbara Brotherton and Natalia Di Pietrantonio. Of the many outstanding photographs that emerged from a collection that Natalia was familiar with, Edward Burtynsky’s Oil Spill #5 is now on view with other efforts to document how our species is enacting the desecration of water.  Here is Burtynsky in his own words:

“When I first started photographing industry, it was out of a sense of awe at what we as a species were up to. Our achievements became a source of infinite possibilities. But time goes on, and that flush of wonder began to turn. The car that I drove cross-country began to represent not only freedom, but also something much more conflicted. I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat.”

– Edward Burtynsky

This image is of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The colors of the red emergency vehicles, the orange flare of the well flame, and the arc of water sprays appear minuscule against the backdrop of a blackening sea. 

One of the agonies of curating is the need to reduce an artist’s corpus to a short paragraph, so I’d urge you to move on to hear from this artist to learn more about his process and intentions. Oil Spill #5 is part of a series he narrates in this video, Water—Where I Stand: A Behind the Scenes Look.

On April 12, 2022, Edward Burtynsky was awarded a SONY World Photography Award in London. In his acceptance speech, he spoke as the son of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, and deferred his contribution to honor others, saying, “Photography is about light conquering darkness. And as we speak, Ukrainian photographers are conquering an unimaginable form of darkness. I can think of no more outstanding contribution to photography than that.” More about Ukrainian photographers that he is supporting can be found on his website.

– Pam McClusky, SAM Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African Art

Image: Chloe Collyer.

Object of the Week: Kifwebe

Striations animate this mask to help us see the moon as a benevolent star that connects us to the world of benign dead. In simplified terms, it is said, “to chase away, or put in flight, death.” Now’s the time for it to allure Robert Farris Thompson (1932-2021), as he cartwheels his way into the cosmos, looking for a good cosmogram, as a hero of African art history should. 

I first saw Bob appear at an academic conference whose schedule said a Yale professor would give a summation. When the doors to the quiet auditorium opened, a wave of people swarmed in. A Black family took seats next to me—a grandmother and her grandson—whose excitement was contagious. Once the place was packed, Bob began walking toward the podium and yelled, “Turn the lights down so they can’t see how white I am!” Then he gave a talk like none other—filled with call and response, drumming, dancing, parables in multiple languages—and the crowd cheered, laughed, and collectively sighed. Here was someone whose love of art had put him in touch with Africa and transformed him into an oracle for recognizing the depth of its teachings. 

A few years later, he came to Seattle for a press conference when the museum announced its acquisition of the Katherine White Collection, which he knew well, having curated and written African Art in Motion. He admired Katherine enormously, yet he launched into revelations about the art she collected as a tribute to her, and told me, “small people talk about people, big people talk about ideas.”

He became a constant source for guidance on exhibitions and books, such as Praise Poems and Long Steps Never Broke a Back. Whenever I need a boost, I reached for research notebooks filled with his drawings and cryptic commentary, and considered another one of his sayings, “with African art, the evidence machine of Western thinking doesn’t work.” 

Page from Robert Farris Thompson’s notebook from 1972 notes on the Katherine White Collection, SAM archives.

SAM hosted his exhibition, Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of the Black Atlantic World. We cared for live altars, recreated a beach altar with tons of sand, placed a cosmogram on the floor, involved priests and priestesses, and got to revel in his unpacking of iconography. We also took walks in the Central District where he would find yards that impressed him and knock on doors to say, “Hi, I’m Bob, and I’d like to talk about your artistry.”

So, if you haven’t come across his name before, I hope this might nudge you to look into his writing and thinking. We’re also reviewing recordings of his appearances in Seattle, including one about his book Tango: The Art History of Love. For now, here’s a quote from an interview he did with Rolling Stone to demonstrate his way with words. Ashe, Master T. 

“[The people of Africa] stand like giants in teaching us how to live. There is a moral voice imbedded in the Afro-Atlantic aesthetic that the West can’t grasp. They don’t see the monuments, just barefoot philosophy coming from village elders. But the monument is a grand reconciling art form that tries to morally reconstruct a person without humiliating him. 

These are the canons of the cool: there is no crisis that cannot be weighed and solved; nothing can be achieved through hysteria or cowardice; you must wear and show off your ability to achieve social reconciliation. Step back from the nightmare. It is a call for parlance, for congress and for self-confidence.”1

– Pam McClusky, SAM Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art


1 Fred Iseman, “Robert Farris Thompson: Canons of the Cool,” Rolling Stone, November 22, 1984, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/robert-farris-thompson-canons-of-the-cool-58823.

Image: Kifwebe (Mask), late 19th century, Congolese, Luba, Wood, raffia, bark, pigment, twine, 36 1/4 x 24 x 12 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.869.

Object of the Week: Leaves

White flecks on a black background, over and over, could be an invitation to savor minimalism, or is it also something else? Viewers have guessed that it is fur, feathers, or seaweed floating in a tide pool.  Then the label gives it away with the title, Leaves, and suddenly you’re watching a maze of leaves fly in the air. An abundance of layered, swirling movement surrounds you. A closer look reveals how strategic the painter is. She places each stroke of paint so carefully that no two leaves merge, but barely touch each other. Something is being said when the crowd is composed of leaf after leaf, each made distinctive with infinitesimal difference.

In the fall season in the Northwest, leaves are letting loose everywhere.  We may notice them as masses, but often may not recognize their other properties. Gloria Petyarre, whose home is in the center of Australia near Alice Springs, is honoring leaves filled with medicine. She was taught by her mother to mix fat from kangaroos and echidnas with crushed leaves to make an ointment to apply to one’s face and hair. The ointment carries a powerful aroma and is a potent aid in helping fight off colds. Kurrajong, the source of the leaves, is also known as the perfect shade tree (Brachyohiton Populneus). It is a tree that only grows in the sun, has deep roots to survive droughts, is a host to butterflies, is fire resistant, and drops its leaves only in dry winters.

Petyarre’s family is famous for painting to enlighten outsiders about their knowledge of their homeland. Her shimmering waves of leaves—created by powerful ancestors—convey their value in her interactive world. Now is the ideal time to take a hint from her and appreciate leaves for the botanical wonder they offer.

– Pam McClusky, Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Leaves, 2002, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 70 7/8 x 157 1/2 in., Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, in honor of Virginia and Bagley Wright, and in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.21 © Gloria Petyarre.

“Libraries and Museums Liberated Me”: An Interview with SAM Board Chair Dr. Constance Rice

During their September 21 meeting, SAM’s Board of Trustees elected Dr. Constance W. Rice as their new Chair. A celebrated leader and activist in Seattle, Dr. Rice has been a member of the museum’s board since 1995 and previously served on the board’s Executive, Governance, and Education & Community Engagement Committees, serving as co-chair of the latter since 2010.

To celebrate her new role at SAM, we spoke with Dr. Rice about her proudest accomplishments on the board, how the pandemic affected its functions, her favorite memories at the museum, and what it means to be the first Black chair in SAM’s history.

SAM: Can you talk a bit about the role of SAM’s Board of Trustees at the museum and its purpose?

Dr. Constance Rice: The board of trustees is the governing body of SAM. I think one of our biggest responsibilities is being ambassadors for the museum. We work to make sure the public knows that Seattle Art Museum is a community resource and that we uphold the museum’s mission to “connect art to life.” To make that happen, we try to bring in people from a variety of different backgrounds and career fields to serve on the board so that we are get input from as many different communities—corporate and non-corporate—as possible. Our official duty is to manage the Executive director and CEO of the museum. There is also a fiduciary element: making sure the museum has an operating budget and is accurately tracking expenditures. We are the activists of the institution, and it takes money, time, commitment, and a love of the overall mission of the museum to make sure it functions properly.

SAM: Compared to work you’ve done on SAM’s board in the past, what are some important parts of your news role as SAM’s Board Chair?

CR: This role is a bit more outward facing than my previous roles on the board. As the board’s primary spokesperson, I’m responsible for talking with various community members and institutions to support the museum. Like many other art institutions right now, Seattle Art Museum is looking for better funding stability. To get that stability, I work with opinion leaders at the state legislature—both elected and non-elected officials—to develop a broad constituency of support not just for SAM, but for all art institutions in our area: Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Seattle Theatre Group, and Northwest African American Museum, among others. The other main responsibility of my role is relationship building. The chair is responsible for ensuring the cohesiveness of the board and making sure every member knows their role. I am there to support every member and to make clear that we all are there to support one another and the institution.

SAM: You’ve served on the board since 1995, in many roles, most recently as vice chair. What are some accomplishments you are most proud of?

CR: My level of activism has varied throughout my many years on the board. But I think my most proud accomplishments are working with Sandra Jackson-Dumont, former SAM Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs, and co-chairing what is now the Education and Community Engagement Committee (ECEC). Sandra has been an inspiration for me throughout my life and I feel honored that I was able to work so closely with her before she moved on from SAM. As co-chair of the ECEC, I was able to focus on community building and had the opportunity to work with several more wonderful people. My first co-chair, Herman McKinney, was very much an activist. He helped found The Breakfast Club, chaired the Martin Luther King Memorial Committee, and served as the first director of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s Urban Enterprise Center. Eventually, José Gaitán took over Herman’s role and José was very interested in ensuring the museum understood Seattle’s Latinx population and was actively reaching out to them. After José, I co-led the committee with Sandra Madrid. Sandra really got the museum interested in developing partnerships with non-profits like Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Atlantic Street Center. Co-chairing this committee has been a great joy for me in terms of watching it expand and engage with local communities over time.

SAM: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the way you approach leadership roles?

CR: Professionally, I’m extroverted, but personally, I’m introverted so the professional side of me has really had to adjust since we began holding our meetings virtually due to the pandemic. My leadership style is very focused on establishing relationships, and it’s been harder to do that remotely the last two years. In interviewing for this position, I had the opportunity to meet with board members mask-to-mask since the museum is open to the public and it made me realize just how much I value person-to-person interactions. Going forward, I intend to meet every single one of the board members in person at some point throughout the next year. That’s the only definite plan I have right now.

SAM: What are some of the top priorities you’re looking to address within the museum?

CR: The COVID-19 pandemic made me a lot more introspective and gave me an opportunity to read a lot more. As a kid, I was pretty much a loner. No, I was totally a loner. I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and in junior high school I would go into Manhattan on the weekdays to the 53rd Street Library to do my homework. After I finished, I would go across the street to The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) because it was free to all students at the time. The library and MOMA opened a whole new world for me—it was liberating. Libraries and museums liberated me.

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as a kid—I couldn’t imagine it. Being in the position that I am in right now, I want to focus on creating more opportunities for children and their communities to access the arts. Because without art, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Whether it’s through singing, painting, dancing, dreaming, or reading SAM offers a space for every kid to be creative and that’s what I want to emphasize as I take on this new role.

SAM: You are the first Black person appointed as SAM’s Board Chair. What does that mean to you? And why is it important for a museum board to be diverse?

CR: One of the things I asked myself when I was first approached about becoming chair was, what’s wrong with this picture? Well, I’m not male, and I’m not rich. One of the challenges of the board is the diversity within it—age, gender, ethnicity, etcetera. And while we are the ambassadors of connecting art to life, we still have work to do in terms of bringing more life into the art world. And that means really considering what work we’re putting on our walls and who we are hiring to shape and guide the museum.

SAM: The summer of 2020 was a difficult time for many people across the nation. It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the world was grappling with the murder of George Floyd. Many institutions, including museums, were called upon to reevaluate how they interact with the communities around them. How did you see this materialize within SAM?

CR: I live nearby the museum, so I was very pleased when I first saw Kimisha Turner painting the plywood on the windows that summer. As I watched her progress, I noticed that she brought her son with her and sat him down on a chair outside every day while she worked. One day I stopped by to ask about him being there, and she said, “I create better when he’s with me.”

I marched a lot that summer and the museum was on the route for many demonstrations. I am very aware that the marches, and what was going on nationally with George Floyd, bolted me to this new position on the board. I am deserving of this position, but I am also aware that my colleagues looked around and said, “we’re not going to do business as usual.” That’s what I believe I represent. It’s also why I really admire and respect my peers on the board. They looked around at what was going on in the world and decided it was time for change.

SAM: Can you share any favorite memories of being at SAM?

CR: I have so, so many wonderful memories of being at SAM. I knew Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Knight well. Jacob was from Harlem and the only living creature that could make me smile when he called me Connie because I hate being called Connie. But I was fortunate enough to attend one of their gallery talks in the old auditorium in the basement of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It was there that I got to know Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art, and I immediately became a fan.

Being at SAM, I have also been able to meet so many wonderful artists, like Brenna Youngblood and Theaster Gates, two former winners of the Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Prize. I met Theaster when he lived in Seattle and was doing The Listening Room at SAM. He had a satellite office set up in Pioneer Square and asked members of the community to bring in their albums to add to the exhibition. When I was looking through the donated albums one day, I saw a Nina Simone album with a cover that I loved. I asked Theaster what he was planning to do with albums when the exhibition was over, and he said, “I’m going to give it to you.” I nagged him and nagged him throughout the exhibition, but I never got the album. But, you know, one of the things I hope for as chair is that I have more of these special moments and memories with artists at the museum.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Courtesy of University of Washington.

Virtual Art Talks: All About Walkabout

As we continue to reflect on the ways that living in quarantine impacts our daily rhythms, Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art, is here to share artwork propelled by walking. Walking becomes one of our rhythms that adjusts to each landscape we cross. Translating that rhythm into paint became a goal for Dorothy Napangardi who walked hundreds of miles across her homeland. She spoke of the unconditional happiness and freedom she felt when she traversed her family’s country and slept beside them with stars as a canopy.

With fewer cars on the roads and the rare airplane in the sky, more of us are walking as a way of getting outside. Often, we are walking without destination, but rather, just to walk. How have you become aware of your surroundings differently on your daily walks? Let the artwork of Dorothy Napangardi, on view in Walkabout at SAM, inspire you to put on your mask and take a stroll through your neighborhood, giving plenty of space to the other pedestrians around you. Maybe your path will follow the one suggested by Pam at the end of the video, and lead you to the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Walkabout: The Art of Dorothy Napangardi at Seattle Art Museum is filled with Napangardi’s paintings from 2000–13 and takes us to the shimmering salt lake, where she absorbed indigenous laws and stories from the land and her family. Visit these large-scale and intricate paintings in person once SAM is able to reopen.

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Spend Your Mid-Winter Break at SAM!

In honor of Presidents Day and Mid-Winter Break, SAM is open extended hours over the week of February 20-24. We hope you can take advantage of this time to visit Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise. Michael Church, arts writer at The Seattle Times, said, “Dazzling is the defining word for the extraordinary display of work by Paul Gauguin at the Seattle Art Museum.”  Please note that tickets are reduced by $3 from 5-9 pm every day!

  • Monday, February 20: SAM is open 10 am – 9 pm.
  • Tuesday, February 21: SAM is open 10 am – 9 pm.
  • Wednesday, February 22: SAM is open 10 am – 9 pm. Check out a free exhibition talk by curator Pam McClusky at the Seattle Central Library.
  • Thursday, February 23: SAM is open 10 am – 9 pm. The François Truffaut film series continues with Two English Girls at 7:30 pm.
  • Friday, February 24: SAM is open 10 am – 6 pm. The late-night art explosion SAM Remix is 7:30 pm – 12:30 am.

Docent-led tours of the Gauguin & Polynesia exhibition are featured every day at 1 pm and 2 pm and are included with your admission ticket.

Drop-in art activities for kids are available in the Chase Open Studio. Visit the galleries and then make your own masterpiece to take home!

Everyone deserves a bit of paradise. Escape the gray of winter at the Seattle Art Museum!

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