‘Black and Center’ September 2020: Moving With Art in Seattle

 by Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud

Outside, an eerie somberness permeates the atmosphere. Burnt air and still, gray haze evoke our proximity to fire, smoke, evacuations, and devastating climate change. Inside, Kiné Camara uplifts the mood. On screen she glides. Camara reiterates a four-beat movement stepping rightwards, center, leftwards, and then center again. With each step, her head is angled, hands flexed, and shoulders structured to punctuate pulsing music. She is teaching us the Azonto, a Ghanaian dance move that compels our bodies to loop into the entrancing beat across this four-step.  

Off screen and at home, I stand sweating on a yoga mat in my makeshift dance studio. Here, I attempt to replicate Camara’s bounce, rhythm, and flow, and do so with 18 others on my laptop. We are virtual students in her “Online Afro Dance Class Series,” which started earlier this month and meets twice a week on Zoom. Of West African (Senegalise) descent, Camara is a Seattle-based dancer and instructor. In her class, we dance to Afrobeat artists Tiwa Savage, WizKid, and Diamond Platnumz, while she exuberantly teaches us technique, syncopation, and persistence. 

How are we moving at this time? How are we engaging art in South Seattle amidst the pandemia of COVID-19, ongoing racism, and now the interstate fires and smoke? In “Black and Center,” this monthly column for the South Seattle Emerald, I am centering art by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian Diasporic makers, and by those otherwise marginalized. What are their stories? How are we archiving, being present with, and remembering them? These questions bring somber resonance as the city mourns Rahwa Habte, who devastatingly passed away this month. 

“The entire Central District is what I like to call a living and breathing Black history museum,” Rev. Dr. LaVerne Hall recently told me. “Living and breathing because it still has the blood, sweat, and tears … and it is up to us not to discard it or disrespect it, but to build on it.” 

Rev. Dr. Hall is Executive Director of the Dr. James W. Washington, Jr., and Janie Rogella Washington Foundation, named after the Black couple — he an artist who sculpted from stone and she a nurse — who lived in the Central District until 2000 when they both passed away. Since 1992, their home has been a Seattle landmark, and since 1997, a cultural center, archiving the Washingtons’ art, letters, and books, and hosting artists in residence in Washington’s former studio space. 

Rev. Dr. LaVerne Hall in James Washington, Jr.’s former studio. June 2019. (Photo: Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud)

Born in Mississippi in the early 1900s, James Washington Jr. worked in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) artist. The WPA program pioneered what now seems so rare and needed (and what many arts advocates seek today): federal funding for artists-as-workers. Emerging from New Deal-era policies including redlining, it was also racially segregated. So in the 1930s, Washington Jr. organized, “the first negro art exhibition sponsored by the WPA in the state of Mississippi” to center Black artists denied those opportunities. In 1944, he and his wife moved to Bremerton, WA, and later to Seattle where, according to Rev. Hall, they moved in community with residents including Frank and Goldyne Green (who owned the home that is now Wa Na Wari) who attended Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where Washington Jr. curated art exhibitions. 

“Indigenous Sovereignty | Black Liberation.” This banner hangs outside Wa Na Wari’s entrance, a mile south of the Washington house. Last week, with mask on and hands sanitized, I visited Wa Na Wari, the Black art house to view the current exhibition. In one upstairs room is Jamaal Hasef’s “Kitchen.” Bright yet muted solid backgrounds hold sleek, bold images of flatirons, combs, clippers, and other hair tools. Next door: Elise Peterson’s hypnotizing short film “A Meditation on Thug Life.” While watching, I felt vibrations of voices describing Black American life, while viewing moving images of Black figures meandering in green, open fields. Downstairs are large-scale works by the Portland-based Lisa Jarrett centering Black hair, hairnets, and family stories. 

Earlier this month, Wa Na Wari hosted Jarrett’s virtual artist talk, where the artist shared ruminative questions behind her practice, including “How do you learn what you know?,” “How do you talk with your blood-memory?,” and “How do you stay inside a question?” Elisheba Johnson, Wa Na Wari’s co-founder, convened this talk, and has been brilliantly curating virtual engagements during this pandemia, including postcolonial Zoom karaoke, lectures, meditation sessions, and other aesthetically adventurous community-building engagements (see the list below for upcoming events).

Exterior view of Wa Na Wari, September 2020. (Photo: Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud)

In Pioneer Square, a massive net woven by Hanako O’Leary, the Rainier Valley-based artist, consumes an interior space. Hung from the ceiling, the straw-colored net funnels downwards into a cone echoing a womb; under the net, clusters of textured clay pots (each featuring a vulva shaped by O’Leary, a signature of the artist) rest on the floor. This is “Yomi,” a recently opened exhibition at METHOD gallery by O’Leary. “Yomi translates to mean the land of the underworld in Japanese,” O’Leary told me. “I started to think about the structures that societies are built on and histories that are buried versus histories that are glorified.” Originally, she intended to make a haptically interactive clay exhibition examining those themes. But with physical distancing, she reimagined this work

“I created this piece in May and June while deep in quarantine,” said O’Leary. “I was left in my home with materials including paper ribbon, spun cardboard used in furniture. I just needed something to do. I started hand crocheting it in a big circle and it became this intentionally meditative experience. I felt this urge or obsession to use it all. I turned it into this giant net, my version of this portal space I [originally] wanted to create.” 

The artist, Hanako O’Leary. (Photo: Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud)

Also in the exhibition, a film played of an outdoor candle-light gathering O’Leary brought people together for in August 2020 in South Beacon Hill wherein other artists engaged her art through ritual and poetry. They distantly gathered at the “top of this hill, overlooking Rainier and the Boeing Field, so there was the water,” O’Leary recalled. “It was on a new moon, so as the sun set, the sky was totally dark.”

In my conversation with Rev. Hall, she recalled her recent drives throughout the city: “I see so much art on the buildings, like a free art exhibit every single day. It’s so colorful and it’s so bright.” Her observations ignite my own, including of Feed the People Plaza in Beacon Hill, where chefs, musicians, artists, and artisans gather in safe distance, and in community. When I visited in August, I cherished this temporary community, including Ebony Arunga, whose company, Seaweed International (which sells jewelry by Kenyan artisans), had a booth set up.

In another virtual dance class, Kiné Camara gave a brief history of Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat, and Nigerian musician, multi-instrumentalist and composer. He committed himself, she narrated, to activism and to fun through the arts.

Inspired by this, I am centering the following arts engagements over the next month:

Dance classes —  ongoing (online)  

Follow Kiné Camara on Instagram (@kine_camara) for updates about her upcoming classes. Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center offers online classes including hip hop with Jaret Hughes and Lex Ramirez.

Local Sightings 2020 — Northwest Film Forum: September 18 to 27, 2020 (online)

Everything looks amazing at this annual film festival, including sliding-scale pricing. Some things I want to see: 1) “24 Hours in the CHOP,” co-presented with the Black Collective Voice and Social Justice Film Festival; 2) Sky Hopinka’s (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) “małni—towards the ocean, towards the shore”; 3) “Motion Reel (Dance Shorts Program)” with works by Seattle-based SassyBlack and Kiana Harris, 4) “House of Angels: Living with AIDS at Bailey-Boushay House, 1992–1995,” the live-streamed panel on September 24 at 5 p.m., and 5) Opening Night with live screenings of Vanishing Seattle’s newest short films, followed by a panel including VS’s founder Cynthia Brothers. Brothers told me: “The tagline ‘Vanishing Seattle’ is broad, but also reductive, so it doesn’t necessarily capture the breadth of stories that we’re trying to tell through these different short films. Yes, some of these businesses are in the danger of vanishing … but we also wanted to show finding ways to survive and to thrive.” There’s an urgency as Brothers also narrated how the pandemics have “exposed and accelerated and worsened these inequities of which People of Color and independent businesses are usually the most vulnerable to when it comes to disasters of this scale and the disaster gentrification that follows.” This festival reminds us to center those most vibrant and vulnerable.

The (M)others: An Oral History Performance” by Nikki Yeboah, directed by Denise Yvette Serna: September 17, 18, 25 & 27 (online)

A few years ago, Nikki Yeboah, a Bay Area based playwright and professor, began to interview mothers who had lost children due to police violence. She transformed their family stories into the documentary play, “The (M)others,” where each live production includes actors as well as the mothers themselves. This month the play will have its virtual debut. 

Self-Love and Care Art Show — Nepantla Cultural Arts Center: September 19 to October 7 (online and in-person) 

Browse virtually or wear a mask and see the work in person at Jake Prendez’s White Center community arts space dedicated to Latinx art; also view this work online. Thursdays to Sundays, 12–6pm. 9414 Delridge Way SW, Seattle, WA 98106. 

TBA 2020: Take Your Time — Portland Institute for Contemporary Art: September 10 to 30, 2020 (online & in person)

Although not “in” Seattle, this year’s 18th-annual Time-Based Art (TBA) Festival thoughtfully balances safely distanced live performance art in Portland, OR with work presented online. The theme: “Take Your Time.” Fascinating streamed events including bart fitzgerald’s “Speak to God in Public” (September 18 & September 20 at 6:30 p.m.) and “A Movement for Black Laughs” (September 24 at 6:30 p.m.) a collaborative work by Debbie Wooten, Anthony Robinson, The Real Hyjinx, and Dahlia Delu Belle, and many talented others. Download and peruse the beautiful catalog.

Wa Na Wari: ongoing exhibitions and programming (online & in person for the exhibition)

Virtual engagements include an evening of films by Gabrielle Tesafye, “The Water Will Carry Us Home” and “My Love, Ethiopia” (September 25 at 6 p.m.); a puppet-making and stop animation workshop with Tesafye (September 26 at 12 p.m.); and a talk by scholar Judith Madera on Black worldmaking (October 14 at 12 p.m.). You can also engage the art exhibition in person Friday 2–8pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am.–5pm 911 24th Ave, Seattle, WA 98122. 

“Sheen” by Lisa Jarrett from the recent exhibition at Wa Na Wari. Photo courtesy of Elisheba Johnson.

‘Yomi’ — Hanako O’Leary at METHOD Gallery: August 28 through October 17 (in person) See above. 106 3rd Avenue South, by appointment only.

Installation view of “Yomi,” by Hanako O’Leary at METHOD Gallery. (Photo: Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud)

Let’s care for ourselves and move with each other this fall. 

Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud is an arts writer, curator, and assistant professor in Performing Arts & Arts Leadership at Seattle University. She lives on the border of Westwood, South Delridge, and White Center in (south) West Seattle.

Featured image by Susan Fried.

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