Art Reviews

Editor’s note: We received four art reviews this month: two from our art critic, Susan Platt, and two from our “Renaissance Woman,” Georgia McDade, who goes everywhere and comments on her experiences.

Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness

South African superstar artist Zaneli Muholi bursts out at the Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight corner gallery at the Seattle Art Museum: “I’m reclaiming my blackness.” Her exhibition “Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness,” spills into four adjoining spaces.

First, a four feet high self-portrait confronts us in the gallery adjacent to the art of the abstract expressionists (mild white man art by comparison). The artist wears a headdress of sheepskin that takes a lion’s mane to the next level of luxuriance. Keeping in mind that it is the male lion that has a mane, this lioness identifies as they. They look to the side, focusing beyond us.

Turning around, we see the artist posing in a mural scaled photograph in what evokes a classical reclining nude posture, until we realize that it contradicts that tradition of exploitation. Lying on their side and holding tightly to multiple plastic pillows that cover all specifically sexual body parts, they displace and occupy the reclining nude tradition constructed for male eyes throughout art history.

Moving into the next space, another 4-foot self-portrait evokes the statue of liberty, with the crown replaced by large coils of black foam and the gaze directed skyward. Again, the icon is redefined, reoccupied, remythologized. As “liberty” has become an empty word, this upward gaze expresses that impatience and absurdity.

The oblique gazes accent the whites of the eyes in every image in the show. As we enter the main gallery, painted entirely in black, we experience these intense looks over and over, trapped as though by pincers on four walls of self-portraits. In each work the artist transforms, with junk from the street, into a goddess, a miner, a queen, a king, and even a rocky cliff or forest. The props enable layers of metaphors and political references that range from historical to contemporary, from personal to public.

For example, in a self-portrait with South African money pinned to their head, a cow’s skin pinned on their shoulders, the references can be to the “bride price,” the selling of woman like cattle, but defiance and resistance embodies the posture and the gaze, even as it seems to suggest surrender.

In another work, an homage to her sister, a gentle and proud Muholi wears a crown and necklace of rubber inner tubes that confer majesty, and a defiant inversion of the violent history of rubber in Africa, where the Belgian King Leopold ruthlessly killed thousands to satisfy his thirst for that “natural” product. We can draw a straight line to the exploitation in the Congo today to obtain the minerals for our electronic gadgets.

Zanele Moholi: Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

Every single image can be approached with layers of meanings, as brought out by the intense and indispensable series of essays in the catalog. About the portrait “Kwanele, Parktown 2016 it is enough,” a face surrounded by plastic detritus, Ama Josephine Budge writes: “Enough a plastic wrapper for a headdress. Enough chemical spilled oceans. Enough burning of carrier bags. Enough the animal carcass choked with used needles and candy wrappers. Enough electronic waste that will never decompose. Enough acid poisoning that never washes off. Enough villages under sand. Enough sand stolen for cement. Enough salinized cropland. Enough desertification. Enough brown bodies on the shoreline. Enough plastic wrappers forced migration. Enough polyethylene saran-wrapped suitcases—everything I could grab in a moment—abandoned at the immigration centre. Enough tear gas in the eyes of protestors. Enough extinct species. Enough plastic-strewn beaches. Enough. Enough. Enough. Enough. Enough. How many times must I say, ‘kwanele’ it’s enough, before what you hear is not more but too much.”

The directness of the artist’s bold head shots controls us as we look back seeing the steely gaze, the power, the anger, the courage. Muholi speaks of occupying public space, the spaces given to white people. As a South African, Muholi is particularly aware of the segregation of public space and its history in apartheid, but the entire planet is rapidly becoming an apartheid state with migrants imprisoned at militarized borders or drowned at sea.

Prior to this series, Muholi photographed the LGBTQIA people of South Africa to honor those murdered and those living amid murders and crimes against their community. Their own studio was ransacked, and unprinted work deliberately destroyed.

Turning the camera back on their own face in these portraits, Muholi allows no objectification of the other, deliberately negating a long tradition of the black body in ethnography, anthropology, tourist and so called “documentary” photography. The body is Muholi’s, the narrative is Muholi’s.

The statement is both local and global: the artist has constructed the images all over the world and identified each image by city, and in isiZulu, their native tongue. Working in black and white (albeit with color film) is another political reference to photography as created by white eyes and cameras calibrated in F stops for white skins. Here the subtle tones of black emphasize the many nuances of dark skin colors.

We are caught in the web of these layered metaphors that defy the state of our present world with brilliant defiance. “Hail the Dark Lioness”! (until November 8).

Don’t miss the videos behind the “Lioness” and read the articulate catalog!

Challenging Dominant Stories

On the same floor the Betty Bowen award winner Natalie Ball (Modoc, Klamath) installed a provocative pair of works. Ball is descended from the famous leader of the late nineteenth century Modoc resistance, Captain Jack. That heritage of warrior defiance is obvious here. You Mist, again (Rattle) and Re Run make up the installation “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Snake.” The title interrupts the familiar nursery rhyme about the stars with a snake that can be both threatening and magical. Ball explores the collision of indigenous and white cultures as well as African American, also part of her heritage (note the bullet shells embedded in one of the giant rattles). But she is also celebrating indigenous vitality and incorporating trickster humor.

Natalie Ball, You Mist,Again (Rattle), 2019, part of installation “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Snake” cotton, crystals, pine, polyester, rattlesnake, deer and porcupine hair, braiding hair, Converse shoe, acrylic beads, bullet shells, and deer rawhide, photograph by Susan Platt

Rattlesnake skin appears as part of both works (although significantly identified simply as rattlesnake), a skin that a snake has shed, after it regrows another, a clear reference to the survival abilities of indigenous peoples, in spite of white man’s best efforts to obliterate them. The quilt filled with diamonds suggests joy, but it is rudely interrupted by the words “Run” and “Ran.” The violently cut up sports jerseys and letters in these pieces interrupt any cliché of Native or African American culture, giving us instead a proud declaration of survival and humanity. (Until November 17)

~Susan Platt www.artandpoliticsnow.com

Inspiring Art

When I think about the amount of time I spend volunteering for several groups, I should be happy that I had a hiatus from The Leschi News! However, the truth is that I missed writing the column. Over the past two months I have considered countless conclusions, revelations, or events as good topics for this column: the environment—climate change and dangers to bees, butterflies, whales, and people; death of loved ones; mass shooting deaths and grief, the deaths not labeled “mass”; tweets; the mean-spirited Mitch McConnell and what the Founders had in mind; paying to park on a street—on a Sunday; Brexit; $40,000 cap for assistance for a property tax waiver; Boeing; reparations; Ashland; the country’s world standing; redlining; family and friends; disagreements; health concerns and professionals; plays; church; revising the book Tribute; radio interviews; books; movies; articles; touring the Liberty Bank Building; television news and shows; swimming; privilege; $800-a-month prescription—with co-pay! A few times I began a column, to get ahead, but never finished one. Receiving a deadline, however, sent me back to work.

One of the high points of these two months has been art, in a variety of disciplines and a variety of places. Because art educates and uplifts me, I want so much for you to know about two visits that left indelible impressions: Yehaw Native American Art at King Street Station and the Seattle Art Fair at CenturyLink Field. Although these exhibits have ended, I believe the uniqueness of each makes comments about them worth sharing.

Yehaw was held at King Street Station March 23–August 4, 2019, housing 280 pieces of art by 200 artists—all Native Americans. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and American Art Museum are the only places to house more Native art! Diversity was the order of the day. Some artists identified as indigenous Latinx and others indigenous Mexican. Among the 100+ nations represented were Ojibwe, Crow, Tlingit, Tahltan, Winnebago, Klamath, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chippewa, Tulalipi, Puyallup, Zapotec, Aleut, and Steilacoom. Washington is the base for more than half the artists, but Oregon, Alaska, Montana, and British Columbia were represented too. Media used by the artists were as varied as they were—steel, wire, porcelain, paint, feathers, linocut, beads, ink, acrylic, fabric, string. On the wall, in cases, installations, storytelling, video are some of the forms. Sculptures dotted the room. Established artists and first-timers were sometimes next to each other.