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Racism, Spirituality and Sex: Three Shows and Three Themes at the Seattle Art Museum

Part I

John Akomfrah’s “Future History” (until May 3, 2020) majestically fills three major galleries on the fourth floor of the Seattle Art Museum with video works projected on huge walls in separate darkened rooms. Spanning 500 years of history from the beginning of the slave trade in Elizabethan England to the present moment, each work is immersive and mesmerizing.

We first encounter Vertigo Sea of 2015. Projected as three large adjacent images, it overwhelms us. Sometimes the images flow from one to another, other times they sharply clash. If you have ever seen one of David Attenborough’s BBC nature films, you will recognize some of his incredible footage: the artist gained permission to use it after befriending Attenborough for a full year. But Akomfrah goes the extra step that Attenborough only touches on in his most recent film: climate crises caused by our own actions.

Video still from Vertigo Sea, 2015, John Akomfrah, three channel HD color video installation, 7.1 sound, 48 minutes 30 seconds, © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

He juxtaposes stunning nature sequences with the murder of humans in the slave trade and the hunting of whales. We watch horrified as the spears enter the animal and the helpless whale bleeds into the sea and dies, even as another screen celebrates their beauty. We gasp in disbelief at the reenactment of slaves forced overboard alive. Akomfrah gives us the unrelenting brutalities of genocide by hunters of animals and people who shared a single-minded goal - to make money. Interspersed in the film are many quotes including Moby Dick and Heathcote Williams 1988 poem Whale Nation:

“From space, the planet is blue/ From space the planet is the territory/Not of humans/ but of the whale.”

Occasionally the sequences take a breath with three blank blue screens. But you will not be able to stop watching.

Akomfrah spoke of the flux and fluidity of water as suggesting the past, present and future. Our bodies are 90 percent water. But rather than acknowledge our connection to the sea, the planet, and its occupants, he stated, our hyper consumerism is destroying it.

The second film Angel of History, 1995, gives us Afro- Futurism: musicians, writers, poets, actors, journalists, philosophers and techies. As described by Greg Tate “It’s like a beautiful compendium of the cats who were obsessed with what I call the “imagineering” of ideas—putting Black folks in a science fiction setting, in the future, or in the retro-future, listening back to ancient African kingdoms as a kind of science fiction fodder.” (Capitol Bop, interview 2015)

Seventeen creative thinkers, ranging from the cosmic musician Sun Ra to Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actress, spin off Tate’s idea that “all those things that you read about- alien abduction and genetic transformation- they already happened. How much more alien do you think it gets than slavery, than entire mass populations moved and genetically altered, forcibly dematerialized?” (quoted by Kodwo Eshun). Tate died last fall at the young age of 60.

The third piece Tropikos 2016 silently and chillingly presents the historical roots of the slave trade in Plymouth, England, the major slave trading port during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Here Akomfrah quotes from Paradise Lost and The Tempest. He segues from images of the royal family and its pirates, decked out in the riches from the slave trade, to a silent raft moving up the river Tamar. The raft holds one slave with his back to us as well as potatoes, pineapples and a sculpture of Akuaba associated with childbirth in Ghana. According to curator Pam McClusky it evokes the yearning to return home.

Part II

Aaron Fowler’s “Into Existence” (until June 28, 2020) in the Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight gallery, brings us another young cutting-edge winner of the Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight award. Fowler collects trash to bring “into existence” homages to friends and family. It metamorphoses into deeply spiritual imagery.

Baby J celebrates his nephew’s birthday, with a delightful neon extension across the wall evoking one of the toys at a children’s party. Amerocco joins America and Morocco, honoring a friend from Morocco. We see the artist washing his friend’s feet in a last supper scene attended by his friends. In Pops and Me Fowler collaborates with his father in a workshop. At the entrance to the gallery, he sets an imprisoned friend free in Debo Free. After admiring the brilliant transformations of discarded junk, we can explore the spirituality that permeate all of the works.

Part III

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations” (until June 28, 2020) includes seven works from the first decade of the artist’s career starting with drawings created on the high plains of West Texas in the teens to her 1920s abstractions promoted by Alfred Stieglitz in New York City. The works change from soft to hard edged. Look for the unmissable symbolism shift in Gray Lines with Black Blue and Yellow, 1923, right before she married Stieglitz. The Stieglitz photograph of O’Keeffe is from right after they met: it is obviously post-sex. Today we would call that exploitation. Georgia O’Keeffe spent the rest of her life contradicting that utter exposure. We see resistance already setting in with the sharp angles of Black, White and Blue, 1930.

~Susan N. Platt, Ph.D.

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