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Countering Violence with Creativity

Winston Wachter Gallery, 203 Dexter Ave, ph 206.652.5855; Tues-Fri 10am-5pm; Sat 11am-5pm

Henry Art Gallery, 15th Ave NE & UW, ph 206.543.2280; Thurs 10am-7pm; Fri-Sun 10am-5pm, Free 1st Thursday

ARTS at King Street Station, 303 S Jackson St, Top floor; Wed-Sat 11am-5pm; First Thursdays 11am-8pm (Octavia Butler show until May 23.)

This article responds to Georgia McDade’s column last month “Rage on the Page” in which she advocates reading and writing and creativity in general as a way forward from so much violence in our society. She cites the example of “Pongo” a poetry writing program for teens that reaches out to youth in prisons and foster care, among other places.

Last month I briefly mentioned Barry Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, both making art in response to the deaths of young men in their families. Here I give a little more detail on these two artists, followed by a comparison with an exhibition dedicated to Octavia Butler at King Street Station by Mia Imani Harrison and Mayola Tikaki “Dream Temple (for Octavia):”

Who can afford to dream? Given the systemic racism and racial trauma that Black people often face in society. “Dream Temple” aims to counteract the exhaustion and stress that is carried intergenerationally while also creating a portal of healing and imagining.

These three artists all address ways of healing from violence.

Barry Johnson’s “Never Leave without saying goodbye” exhibition (Winston Wachter Gallery) consists of a series of paintings in which the artist is grieving for the loss of family members to drugs, especially his brother. Each painting is a stage of grief. In the first image, the artist is sitting on the branch of a huge tree leaning against its trunk. He sits meditatively. The caption says, “First Cry in 20 Years.”

Barry Johnson, First Cry in Twenty Years, 2024, oil on canvas

“More than a Tree” expanded to a larger frame.

I leaned against the rough bark of the tree, the weight of Black History on my mind, particularly the horrific legacy of lynchings. Despite that burden I place my hands behind my back and looked up slightly, my gaze hopeful. It was a stance of resilience, a declaration that I refused to be defined by fear or worry about the future.

In contrast to the personal exploration of grief by Barry Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas in “Loverules” (Henry Art Gallery) addresses major features of society that produce racism and violence particularly in advertising.

After his cousin was murdered in a vigilante attack in 2000, apparently to take a gold necklace that his partner wore, Thomas found it obscene that the murder occurred basically to obtain a commodity. Commodities for status are deadly.

In two series of photographs titled “Unbranded” he removes the original text and replaces it with brief phrases that highlight their sexism and racism. “UnBranded” one with the subtitle “Reflections in Black by Corporate America,” the other “A Century of White Women.” In “Farewell Uncle Tom,” we see two beautiful black people in the style of the 1960s, one of them smoking. In “A Century of White Woman” racist and sexist images become obvious with new captions like “The Hardened Snowman.”

His flag with over 20,000 stars representing black men lost to violence in ten years emphasizes the catastrophic violence we accept as a daily reality.

“Choose your leaders

with wisdom and forethought.

To be led by a coward

is to be controlled

by all that the coward fears.

To be led by a fool

is to be led

by the opportunists

who control the fool.

To be led by a thief

is to offer up

your most precious treasures

to be stolen.

To be led by a liar

is to ask

to be told lies.

To be led by a tyrant

is to sell yourself

and those you love

into slavery.”

~Octavia E. Butler, “Parable of the Talents” (1998)

Enter Octavia Butler. We all know Butler as a science fiction writer, but she fills her fantasies with spirituality and emphatic political statements. In Mia Imani Harrison and Mayola Tikaki’s “Dream Temple (for Octavia),” we are invited to lie down and listen to Butler’s blunt wisdom: videos present Butler reading short invocations from her 1998 Book of the Talents. They are astonishingly pertinent to our present moment, undoubtedly the reason for their choice by the artists. Octavia Butler “prophesied 2024 as the year society in the United States grows unstable.” The artists continue:

DREAM TEMPLE (for Octavia) features an enclosed resting space with low lighting that contains resting mats, an altar, and projections featuring imagery of Black rest and contemplation of Octavia Butler’s work. Over the course of the exhibition, the space will feature rest rituals, interviews, and performances by the artists.

Butler was amazingly clairvoyant in her books to the point where her science fiction feels like a description of our present condition. Her writing opens our eyes to new possibilities for moving beyond violence, as do Barry Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas. She died prematurely in 2006.

~Susan Platt, PhD

1 commentaire

as always, I have learned from your writing, but is there a way to access the Butler videos? thanks and take care, pam

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