The Northwest African American Museum’s Youth Program Showcases A Central District Collage

by Agazit Afeworki

Opening day of Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum’s Youth Curator exhibit titled Intersections: Finding the True North provided 10 local high school students the opportunity to discover their rich history.

On Apr. 8, teenage duos – ranging from 14 to 18 and hailing from the Central and South Seattle area— proudly shared these discoveries in the form of acrylic-collage-construction before an audience of family, friends,museum staff, Seattle Black Panther Party co-founder Elmer Dixon and William H. and Mary Gates.

The showcase was a tremendous effort punctuated by moments such as youth curator Denaijah Kennedy-Smith wholeheartedly sharing how she became educated on redlining— an institutional measure prohibiting people of color services such as access to housing markets through price inflations and federally-supported loan denials— and Allani Seals’ politically spirited homage to her 5-year-old brother who inspired a character in her painting, but perhaps the most telling sentiment was the profound relationship this single program nourished between the curators and their urban metropolis.

“It was really timely to have this conversation now about the central area and the development within the central area. So this is what I call a creative mapping with storytelling and history,” said Dr. Carver Gayton Youth Curator program lead Stephanie Johnson-Toliver.

In a low-lit gallery, 12 acrylic panels — modeled after the 12 grid sectors composing Seattle’s Central District—  constructed into a 8-by-9 master-map display glowed from posterior LED lights brushing against soft tissue paper, painted faces of community figures and cardboard cut-out buildings.

Picking the Madrona grid where the Black Panther Party occupied Madrona Community Presbyterian Church as the site for the first Seattle-based free breakfast program, 16-year-old Allani Seals painted three grade-schoolchildren uniformly smiling, holding up symbolic black power fists while sitting in front of paper-cut-out breakfasts. Her mixed-media panel represented  the programs political mission to aide, feed the underprivileged. On another, Aujah Anderson,15, illustrated Jimi Hendrix strumming his supreme Stratocaster upon a red-curtained stage at Judkins Park for her two grids covering the Atlantic area.

Garfield High School student Aujah Anderson, 15, diligently works on painting Jimi Hendrix for Atlantic-grid panel at Equinox Studios. [Photo: Agazit Afeworki]
This is the NAAM’s eighth annual Dr. Carver Gayton Youth Curator program commissioning 10 proximal high student applicants to produce art ranging in a particular medium each year from spoken word to videography. The program is also intricately connected to an existing NAAM exhibit. This year the students’ work orbits around An Elegant Utility, artist Inye Wokoma’s reliquary assembly of familial and cultural belongings emblematic of the Central District’s intraurban experience.

Furthermore, the curators were assigned Calabash: A Guide to the History, Culture and Art of African Americans in Seattle and King County, Washington  by Ester Hall Mumford. The dense read packed with listicles of events, figures, and dates tracing African American settlement in the King County area acted as a research marker for the students to translate information about their assigned sectors into an artistic expression.

This year the curators hit their creative stride at the Gage Academy’s spacious Georgetown-located Equinox Studios. Gage Academy teaching artist and instructor for 2017 class Aramis Hamer encouraged students to take ownership of their work by exercising creative freedom. And although art wasn’t within the purview for most of the curators, they shared a unifying will to learn about the city they occupy— something Johnson-Toliver noted after the first visit.

“There is a lot of curiosity about the history. Most of them [youth curators] don’t have a lot of history on the central area yet they go to school in the central area, they live and play in the central area so that was the target for this project,” she assessed.

This is the reason the program aims to cultivate an immersive connection to place. Particularly these evanescent spaces that, in times nary a shortage of causes, artists like Wokoma feel a compelling reason to redirect the public eye to matters of historical preservation due to Black egress as a  result of widespread mix-use development.

Former education director for the NAAM and current heritage lead for King County’s 4Culture Brian Carter developed the program with this very concept in mind.  By opening the doors to the less typical museum patrons— like youth inhabiting the area—  through an interactive and educational program, Carter said there was an institutional responsibility to share these spaces with this large demographic.

Additionally, there’s a clear reciprocal exchange wherein prospective curators comfortably access the museum’s offerings while also contributing their raw and energetic lived experiences to the art they create and share.

As a devout anime and manga fan,  Garfield High School student Anderson is quite familiar with the world of illustration. Having worked on projects for the Hillman City Collaboratory and large-scale murals, depicting Jimi Hendrix brought about a unique experience like expanding her music pallette. But even further, she drew pride in knowing there was in fact a Black rights movements birthed in Seattle.

Seals, another Garfield High School student,  created a novel piece after deciding against a simple portrayal of the church-occupied Black Panther Party program building. Instead, she magnified her lens onto the poverty-stricken elementary kids who the free breakfast program catered to. On her panel, she assumes the political overtone of the programs development by making the original decision to leave the middle child— depicted to resemble her brother— without a breakfast plate.

A close up of Garfield High School student Allani Seals’, 16, acrylic panel depicting Seattle’s Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program. [Photo: Agazit Afeworki]
“The center character, he’s missing a plate, at the time, it was 1969 or 1970, one-third [sic] of African Americans were affected by poverty so he represents the kid that wouldn’t have breakfast without that program,” she said.

For both, the program undoubtedly strengthened the geographical kinship they have with the ever-developing Central District.

“I think the program has influenced how I think about the Central District,” Seals said. “I mean I go to Garfield [High School] so I know the importance of black people, but just because of gentrification and the overall erasure of culture I feel like this program has really helped bring to light all of the different cultures.”

Agazit Afeworki is Seattle-born freelance journalist with a concentrative passion in writing about design. More specifically, she aims to produce compelling stories about cultural impactors composing this genre in an inclusive manner. 

Featured image: Northwest African American Museum’s Dr. Carver Gayton Youth Curator 2017 project installation titled Intersections: Finding The True North. Image by Agazit Afeworki