top of page

Seven Simultaneous Exhibitions of African American Artists in Seattle!

All of a sudden, we have African American art everywhere in Seattle. And it isn’t even Black History Month! Some of these museums may be responding to the political critique of exclusion at white museums by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Posing Beauty,” at the Northwest African American Museum (ends September 4) features photographs of stunning men and women in high fashion clothes, but only some of it is actually “fashion show” art. The two parts of the exhibition are labeled “Posing – Where Does Beauty Reside? Face, Figure, Hair, Dress, Bearing Character. How Do You Want to be Seen?” and “Beauty: Distinguished, Thoughtful, Stylish, Outrageous, Celebrity, Proud.” Black people dress and perform in white society with great care in order to avoid harassment, but even then, they are often stopped for no reason. In this exhibition, we see many elites, and some ordinary people, presenting themselves with dignity and pride.

Most pointed to the issue of how African Americans present themselves is Carrie Mae Weems’ take on Snow White. Wearing an attractive dress, she looks in a mirror and says, “I looked and looked to see what terrified you.”

Tariqa Waters answers that question defiantly in her one-person show “100% Kanekalon: The Untold Story of the Marginalized Matriarch” in the same museum until October 16. Jumbo packs of day glow colored Kanekalon hair extensions fill one wall. Elegant church hats (borrowed from her grandmother) appear nearby and the mundane reality of a messy kitchen table appears at the entrance. Tariqa Waters herself is a dramatic performing black person. She usually steals the show in any forum she attends because her dazzle overwhelms anxiety in white people as she offers satirical comments on contemporary racism.

Kara Walker offers a blunt answer to Weems’ question at the Bellevue Art Museum’s “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slaves and Power” (until November 27). The renowned and controversial Walker works in black cutouts of crude Victorian era stereotypes of blacks. She confronts us with the sexual coercion that was part of the nightmare of slavery, an aspect that is rarely discussed, but obvious in the many skin colors of African Americans. Walker has been heavily criticized by some contemporary black artists as catering to white prejudices and not participating in the ongoing necessity to present blacks as dignified human beings.

Emancipating the past more subtly are two exhibitions at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (until October 2). In the window facing the street, you see Marita Dingus’s huge “Hanging from the Rafters Big Girl” made from recycled hot tub covers and other humble found materials. Once inside (admission is free), find “Heaven on Fire” a thirty-year retrospective of the work of Barbara Earl Thomas, which begins with “The Illuminated Story” a dazzling installation of patterned cut paper walls and light boxes. Embedded in this seductive setting, three wall texts “A Catechism”, “White Noise”, “If They Were All Like You, I’d Like Them,” sting with narratives about the artist’s racist experiences.

(Barbara Earl Thomas, Bloodletting I, 2016 paper cut installation, 60”h x 5.5”d x 86”w, Courtesy of the Artist)

The exhibition includes a selection of her paintings from the 1980s and 1990s, lino cuts from the early 2000s and her new work in glass and cut paper. As she experiments with new materials, Thomas becomes more lush with line, more exuberant in spirit, and more intense in the subject matter. The large white paper cutouts of 2016 called “Blood Letting I” and “Blood Taking” have red cutout paper to mark blood gushing out. These cut outs clearly reference the recently documented shootings of black youth by the police.

Ending too soon, on September 4, Inye Wokoma’s installations at the Frye Art Museum, “This is Who We Are ” begins with large photographs of members of his family juxtaposed to provocative poetic verses renaming themselves as a way to transcend one aspect of colonization. In the main gallery, two facing video installations layer Native American and African American displacements. Haunting and immediate, mythical and personal, Inye’s installations engage us with nostalgia, history, myth, spirituality and politics. His family roots are in both the Niger delta and the American South, but most present on his mind is the rapid displacement of the black community from the Central District by out-of-control gentrification.

(Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P. Performance Piece, with Maren Hassinger, Pearl C. Wood Gallery, Los Angeles, 1977,photo by Harmon Outlaw, printed 2014)

Overlapping in provocative ways with Inye’s exploration of identity, ritual and geography is Senga Nengudi’s pioneering performance art on view at the Henry Art Gallery until October 9. The exhibition includes a selection of artifacts from her performances as well as trance-inducing videos filmed in a thread factory in 2007. Nengudi first emerged in the 1970s, working in collaboration with artists such as David Hammons and Houston Conwell, as well as her long-time partner Maren Hassinger. She stretches humble found materials, particularly panty hose (referred to as nylon mesh) into provocative elongated shapes weighted down with dirt. Used frequently in R.S.V.P a dance/ performance piece that has taken many iterations over the years, Nengudi and her collaborators explore movement, ritual and magic.

On Saturday October 1 at 1:30 in the Henry Art Gallery, there will be a performance of R.S.V.P. by local avant-garde dancers Haruko Crow Nishimura and Jo Blake accompanied by cellist Lori Goldston.

Ranging from nationally known artists like Senga Nengudi and Kara Walker to our brilliant local artists Inye Wokoma, Barbara Thomas, Marita Dingus and Tariqa Waters, these exhibitions expand our understanding of the contemporary world by means of African American histories, myths, and geographies presented with subtlety and intelligence as well as defiance and resistance.

By Susan Noyes Platt,

bottom of page