by Lola E. Peters
The first clue was the full parking lot at Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). The opening reception for the Everyday Black exhibit was scheduled to begin at 6:00pm, and it was 5:55pm. One of the few bonuses of being physically challenged is the parking placard that usually enables me to find an open Handicap-signed spot. Otherwise, there was not an empty parking place anywhere in the close lot. By the time I reached the front door, there was a line. Once in the museum, I found at least 50 people had already entered ahead of me. The crowd was a mixture of race, gender, and age. People brought their children: babes in strollers, elementary school age, pre-teens, and teenagers. This was a family event, a community event, an all-of-us event.
Everyday Black, in NAAM’s Northwest Gallery, is a display of portraits by two, local, Black photographers: Zorn Taylor and Jessica Rycheal. The Northwest Gallery has two sections partitioned by a floor-to-ceiling, walk-around wall. Because it was closest to the entrance, I began by viewing the south section where the majority of Zorn Taylor’s photography was hung.
The distinctive characteristic in his collection is that the subjects are seldom looking at the camera or smiling. Most of them face the camera with eyes closed or are in profile with eyes focused elsewhere. I found the black-and-white image of Tracy Rector the most striking. Dressed completely in black, her body is centered in the frame and turned toward the camera while her face is in profile, facing left. Her right arm is elevated perpendicular to the right side of her body. Long black feathery strands dangle from her cloak along the full length of her arm. The right angles in the image exude Ms. Rector’s power while the feathers and her clothing evoke her indigenous grounding. It is a dancer’s pose.
The image of dancer David Rue is titled (not your Michelangelo’s) David. He faces the camera, head held high, eyes seeming almost, but not quite, closed. The black-and-white image places him, head, neck, bare shoulders and chest, slightly right of center. The very dark shadow his head casts across his neck conjures a sense of solidity, immutability. His curly, high top, haircut and the rich, smooth fullness of his lips underscore the portrait’s title.
In the north section of the Northwest Gallery, Jessica Rycheal’s images are a contrast to Taylor’s. With few exceptions, her subjects face the camera straight on, and most are laughing or smiling. Many are shown from head to toe and in outdoor contexts. More of her images are in color.
One image, unlike most of her others, is very dramatically composed. The context of the photograph is a red brick wall. To the left, vertically centered, is a dark green sashed window with vertical blinds visible behind it. At the center of the photograph is an industrial doorway set into the brick. The doorway is divided into three sections with a broad topper that spans all three. The bricks immediately surrounding the doorway have been painted a now-faded white. Negative signs are posted on the doorway with messages like “No Parking,” “Do Not Block” and “Warning”. At the bottom of the photograph a Black woman wearing white, crop-length pants, red top, black jacket, sunglasses, and beige pumps lies prone on the sidewalk in front of the doorway. Her head, toward the left of the doorway, rests on an old-style brown valise. Her right arm is bent at the elbow so that the back of her wrist sits on the valise. Her right knee, closest to the camera, is bent skyward so that her right foot sits adjacent to the left knee. The photograph is titled, Unbothered.
Both artists give us much to contemplate about the theme Everyday Black. These are photographs of commonplace people doing their routine things. It is this normalcy that shows the hand of curator Davida Ingram. Her stated passion for underscoring the daily grandeur of Black people is evident in the collection as a whole and in each piece she selected to be in it. During the short presentation near the end of the evening, Ingram spoke about her desire to have an exhibit where Black people didn’t have to be stereotypically superhuman or in some way broken to be noticed. She wanted to shine a light on what regular Black people know to be the beauty in the mundane. Even the unadorned way the images are displayed, without frames and sometimes with literal tacks, underscores that mission. Co-curator Leilani Lewis’ expert logistical hand assures no details are accidental.
This exhibit felt much like an update to MOHAI’s exhibition of Al Smith’s photographs, and a broadening of Inye Wokoma’s recent exhibit at the Frye Museum. All of them ask a variation of the T-Mobile question: Do You See Me Now. Each carries an internal and external message. The external invites non-Black people to redraw the images of Blackness in their minds. The internal reminds Black people of the quiet magnificence that rests unacknowledged within our community: friends, family, lovers, colleagues, and others, and asks us to remember who we really are despite what the culture around us might say.
A friend and I debated the meaning of the closed eyes in Taylor’s images. She felt it made the subjects less accessible. I felt it raised the question of whether it’s possible for someone to be seen even if they don’t see you. While I saw the eyes as powerful ways of boundary setting and still found expression in the posture and position of other features of the face, she found it difficult to connect. I wondered about the many cultures where direct eye contact is discouraged and how they would perceive these images.
I left the exhibit with the deep satisfaction of being surrounded by loved ones, known and unknown, and gratitude that NAAM is claiming its space as a center for community. Listening to new Executive Director LeNesha DeBardelaben’s words gave me hope that this would continue the new acknowledgment of local visual artists begun by NAAM at the end of 2017 with Lisa Myers Bulmash’s artwork.
If you’d like to join the 800 people who saw the exhibit on opening night, it will be showing at NAAM until May 5, 2018.
This was a good way to start a new year.
Lola E. Peters is Editor-at-Large for the South Seattle Emerald. She is an essayist and poet who writes about politics, religion, justice, art, and other forbidden topics. She has published two books of poetry (Taboos, and The Book of David) and a book of essays (The Truth About White People).
Featured image by Susan Fried