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Far Away and Right Here: Deep South Tales and Central District Families

May 2, 2017

Don’t miss the two special exhibitions at the Northwest African American Museum! In the main Northwest Gallery are Daniel Minter’s delightful hand colored woodcarvings, the basis for illustrations for several of his children’s books. Inye Wokoma’s display in the smaller “Paccar Gallery,” beyond the permanent installation, creates a collage about the life of his family in the Central District and by extension the complexity of gentrification and its forces.


Minter’s original carved wooden blocks and linoleum cuts used as the basis for reproductions allow us insights into the physicality of his unusual technique. Minter comes from Southern Georgia. His art poetically invokes and preserves the stories and symbols of the rural deep South as a way of bridging the distance from the original African diaspora to the present and preserving them for the future.

 

“New Year Be Coming, A Gullah Year” illustrates poems by Katharine Boling inspired by the rhythmic cadences of the Gullah people of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. Each month represents a different activity that culminates finally in the New Year with its traditional food of “hopping john” (made from black eyed peas.)

 

Daniel Minter, illustration for Bubber Goes to Heaven by Arna Bontemps early 1930s.


“Bubber Goes to Heaven” is based on a 1930’s story by famous Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps. Bubber falls unconscious while pursuing a raccoon up a huge tree and dreams he goes to heaven. The story is, of course, a metaphor for seeking freedom. Minter underscores the fantastic and spiritual elements with foreshortening and distorted proportions in complex black and white linear drawing.

 

“The Foot Warmer and the Crow,” fills a long wall: “A wise old crow comes to the aid of Hezekiah, a slave seeking to escape his cruel owner, Master Thompson, by advising him to discover the weaknesses of his owner.” Minter dramatically depicts the three characters with exaggerated perspectives and stunning, but simplified, color contrasts.

 

Daniel Minter, colored woodblock for illustration in The Foot Warmer and the Crow, by Evelyn Coleman, 1994

 

“The Day Daddy Left” is set in the Depression. According to Minter, it is about, “a family during the depression, everyone is looking for work, there are soup lines. The family has to move to a shantytown and the father has to go away in order to work on a WPA job. A little girl in a wheelchair from polio becomes friends with a new girl in the community and shows her around.” (It is not available in English). “Seven Seals of Thread, A Kwanzaa Story” tells the story with linoleum cuts: “In an African village live seven brothers who make life miserable with their constant fighting. When their father dies, he leaves an unusual will: by sundown, the brothers must make gold out of seven spools of thread or they will be turned out as beggars.”

 

A collection of Minter’s tools and plates, further demonstrate his process. This is a rare opportunity to understand his working methods.

 

Inye Wokoma’s “An Elegant Utility” also pursues preservation and story telling, but with documents, texts, tools, photographs, videos, maps and a massive family tree that spreads out on one wall.

 

Inye Wokoma, photocollage drawn from images and objects in “An Elegant Utility”

 

Here is the artist’s own description:

“I live in the first house that my grandfather purchased within a year of migrating to Seattle after World War II. It is a home that resonates with the collective memories from 70 years of family life. Because of this, when I am in my home I feel centered and alive. My home is surrounded by five other houses that used to belong to family members, the people that used to live there have moved away. On the streets outside my home, I often feel lost. The houses where family used to live are like shells, echoing with ever fading memories. My home is still here, I keep the energy alive but the community that made it is largely gone.

 

I have chosen to stay in this community and in this home. This choice forces me to grapple with three defining questions: How did I get here? Why am I still here? Where am I going?

 

“An Elegant Utility” . . . is about passion and pragmatism, holding the line and pushing the boundaries. It is about tradition, irreverence and the places where the two are indistinguishable. It is about race and land, economics and self-sufficiency, conflict and love. It is about who we imagine ourselves to be and who we aspire to be. It is about how black family was maintained and black community was built, one choice at a time, one relationship at a time. I am embracing one sliver of my family history as an expression of black people’s collective struggle for freedom in Seattle. I am telling one version of this story, the story of black resistance and self-determination in Seattle as expressed through the life of Frank Green.” (Inye’s grandfather)

 

“My intention in this work is to meditate on the value and communal strategies that allowed us to confront the challenges of racism in housing and economic policy and still build vibrant community. This work is a very intimate treatment of that larger historical narrative. It is a way of investigating the forces that shape our current reality (gentrification/displacement) in ways that access personal and academic, intuitive and rational ways of knowing.

 

…To say that gentrification pushed black people out of their community grossly oversimplifies a long and complicated history which prevents us from fully understanding where we are today.”

 

So eloquent is Wokoma’s statement that I need hardly amplify it! His work makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of what is happening in the Central District. He asks us to spend time here, meditate, celebrate and weep. Wokoma’s highly original approach to using artifacts, poetry, text, photographs, and the vintage tools that he found in his grandfather’s workshop, gives us a rare insight into what roots, home, family, freedom from oppression and finally, displacement mean today.

 

Northwest African American Museum

“Daniel Minter: Carvings” April 8-September 17

“Inye Wokoma: An Elegant Utility” January 28-May 28

2300 S. Massachusetts Street Seattle, WA 98144

Hours: Wed 11am-5pm, Thurs 11am-7pm, Fri-Sun 11am-5pm

206-518-6000 – naamnw.org

 

~Susan Noyes Platt, www.artandpoliticsnow.com

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