Black and Center: Archiving Indigenous and Black Futures

by Jasmine Jamillah  Mahmoud

On one street mural, a radiant yellow circle frames a feminine figure who holds her right palm outwards and left arm downwards. Adorned in a cedar hat, turquoise necklace, and multi-colored ribbon belt, the figure stands in front of outstretched butterfly wings rippling with red, orange, yellow, and purple colors. Most distinctive is the figure’s face, smeared with a jarring red handprint. Beyond this, the words “PROTECT INDIGENOUS WOMXN” anchor the mural’s mostly purple background.

While walking through Pioneer Square the weekend before Indigenous Peoples Day, I found myself mesmerized by this mural. It is by Matika Wilbur, who belongs to the Swinomish and Tulalip peoples of coastal Washington; her “work as photographer,” she tells me, “is geared towards empowering Indigenous communities.” She originally designed the mural for May 5th, “a day to remember missing and murdered Indigenous women.” In our conversation, she continued:

“How are you going to protect native women? It doesn’t seem to be a conversation that’s centered in the national dialogue. Native women are murdered at more than 10 times higher than the national average. When given the chance to have large public spaces, there’s nothing more important than talking about protecting Indigenous women.”

The woman in the mural is Quinna Hamby, from the Tuscarora Nation, part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. “The so-called forefathers of this country … spent a lot of time studying Haudenosaunee democracy, where the Mohawks, Seneca, Cayuga, Tuscarora, Onondaga, and Oneida formed an alliance recorded in a Wampum Belt which is made from the quahog shell, which is purple,” Wilbur explained. The mural’s purple backdrop, then, evokes the central but often unrecognized Indigenous influence on this nation’s democracy. Wilbur continued, “I wanted to pay homage to Quinna’s favorite color and her nation and pay respect to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is always represented in purple. She’s also wearing my cedar hat, a Navajo necklace, and a ribbon skirt, so she has all of these different traditional spaces represented in what she’s wearing.”

Photo Courtesy of Matika Wilbur

These details dialogue with Wilbur’s broader work which archives Indigenous people, places, stories, and histories; in 2012, she created Project 562, photographing people from all 562 federally recognized tribes. The mural also animates Wilbur’s geographic and ancestral lineage. She told me, “My relatives were relocated from Duwamish to Tulalip. Part of my Indigenous territory is in the city of Seattle, and our people have been relocated and displaced from our ancestral homelands. In order for Seattle to be a city, it required that Native people be moved, and longhouses be burned, and that our communities be disrupted. I always like to acknowledge that I have ancestral ties to that place.”

What are the archival powers of the arts? How do the art archives decenter pasts and presents, and imagine more just futures? I thought of these questions with Wilbur’s work and again last month while virtually attending The (M)others, a documentary theater production based on playwright Nikki Yeboah’s interviews with four Bay Area women of color who have lost children due to police violence. The Zoom iteration centered home. Actors moved throughout their actual kitchens and living rooms, and asked us, the audience, to chat out what we were drinking (for me ginger tea), while they performed the play, with stories of the births, birthdays, lives, and deaths of their children. After the production, the actors, director, and playwright were joined virtually by the interviewed mothers streaming in from San Jose, CA. While sobbing, I thought of the multiple archives in this production: stories, the script, our chatted audience engagement, and this virtual theatrical event knitting them all together. 

“Supernova Study” photo courtesy of Tanekeya Word and Koplin del Rio Gallery

For the past four years, Kemi Adeyemi has been training scholars to build archives of Black art in Seattle. Adeyemi is a professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, where she also directs the Black Embodiments Studio (BES). This month, Adeyemi will publish the third annual A Year in Black Art, with essays by university students enrolled in her BES arts writing incubator, where critique, conversation, and community amplify regular sessions. Adeyemi told me:

“The journal started accidentally when I started the Black Embodiments Studio. Part of the work … was for students to write about art. They had to go out to galleries and museums, and see Black art actually being exhibited. Then we would come together and talk about what they had seen and approaches to writing, and we would workshop the writing. I realized that over [the year] students had seen almost all of the Black art that was exhibited in the city. But there wasn’t a local place for them to pitch and publish their writing.”

Prior to the lockdown, Adeyemi blanketed the city with printed copies of the journal at various arts venues so residents could “pick it up for free, and see there is a lot of Black art that happens in the city and that there’s actually discourse that circulates around it.” Covertype by Tré Seals, a Black designer, animates this edition that will mostly be accessed virtually. Adeyemi emphasized, “It is important to support black creatives.” 

Image from ‘Project 562’ by Matika Wilbur featuring Hannah Tomeo of the Colville, Yakima, Nez, Perce, and Sioux people.

Some essays archive performances including Sharon Nyree Williams’s Dare to Claim the Sky performed February 2020 at the ACT Theater, Autumn Knight’s M_ _ _ _ R at On the Boards in Fall 2019, and Earth Pearl’s Sovereign performed January 2020 at 18th & Union. Rounding out the annual journal are critical compositions by Adeyemi and community members, including Berette Macaulay, the Seattle-based curator and Black Cinema Collective co-founder, Wa Na Wari’s Elisheba Johnson, and me.

“One of the components of our mission is to be a historical archive,” Elisheba Johnson told me recently. “We think about archiving and history as an embodied thing, so that’s where the oral histories come into play. It’s not just documents or items, but people’s lived experience that needs to be shared and saved. When you put all those things together, it gives you a better picture of what history was like.” Johnson described how that embodied archival work particularly resonates with many artists who present work at the 5th-generation, Black-owned home in the Central District now repurposed as the arts venue Wa Na Wari.

One such artist: Mia Harrison who will exhibit work in January. “Her most salient memories of the Central District [are] going from Bellevue to the Central District and getting her hair done at Miss Annie’s,” Johnson describes. “I went to Miss Annie’s too. She was this woman who had a shop out of her house. We started talking about the connected thread of Black women getting our hair done and how that’s connected to place.” If you visited Miss Annie’s and would like to share your story, Johnson and Harrison ask you to contact them at More immediately at Wa Na Wari is a virtual Black Lunch Table edit-a-thon event on Nov. 3, where participants will update Wikipedia pages about Black artists, reframing those very public archives. 

To close this month’s column, I return to words from Matika Wilbur, who I also asked about Indigenous futures. She explained:

“I imagine a future for Indian Country with children that are born with less trauma, that is to say that when our children are born, they’re given an equal right to have a safe birth. It starts right there because right now birth is not safe for Indigenous women. And so is that futurism? Is that dreaming of a new world? Absolutely. Because right now it’s not safe to be Brown. I also imagine a world where our intelligence is valued, where we have the opportunity to speak our Indigenous languages with people that are newcomers to this land. The newcomers to this land also have a responsibility to become stewards and to learn the Indigenous systems that were here before they got here. And that includes the language. We also have to include our relationship with land, water, spirit, one another, and each of those systems has an Indigenous value system tied to it. Those are worth knowing and teaching.”

Courtesy of Dawn Okoro and Koplin del Rio Gallery

Ongoing and Upcoming Arts Engagements:

Alicia Garza. Join Black Lives Matter co-founder and principal of Black Futures Lab for a talk about her new book The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart. Co-hosted by Langston, Northwest African American Museum, and the Elliott Bay Book Company. Friday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. (online streaming), $35 includes book, $10 general admission. 

The Channel. This month, The Future Ancient (the Asian Pacific Islander community arts collective convened by Che Sehyun) debuted a new television channel produced by more than 30 artists. Sehyun describes: “How do we create our cultural futures and work towards our collective liberation? What kind of community is needed to become the change our world is so desperately crying for? Where is our place and our responsibility in all of this? The Future Ancient public art team works to value our cultural heritage in a future forward, socially transformative way, based on our experiences.” Tune in for episodes which display an earnest, public television aesthetic energized by the explosion of content including “local artist interviews and behind-the-look insights into their practice, performances, storytelling, and food” as part of Season 1, “Culture Without Borders.” 

‘Dia de los Muertos’. Browse virtually, or wear a mask and see the work honoring ancestors in person at Nepantla Cultural Arts Center, Jake Prendez’s White Center community arts space dedicated to Latinx art. Through Nov. 8. Thursdays to Sundays, 12-6 p.m. 9414 Delridge Way SW, Seattle, WA 98106. 

‘Drawing the Ghost’. A group exhibition at Pioneer Square gallery Koplin del Rio, curated by Black artist Robert Pruitt, featuring 18 artists who “explore ideas of Race, Class, Gender, Futurism, Celestial phenomena & History,” through drawing, painting, and mixed media. Through Nov. 28. By appointment, Wednesdays to Sundays, 313 Occidental Ave S. 

Earshot Jazz Festival. The 32nd Annual Seattle-based jazz musical festival is all digital this year. Enjoy jazz from wherever you are, including by Johnaye Kendrick Quarter (Oct. 23 at 7 p.m.), Eugenie Jones (Oct. 25 at 8:30 p.m.), Elnah Jordan & Eric Verlinde (Oct. 29 at 7 p.m.), Ahamefule J. Oluo Jazz Quartet (Oct. 29 at 8:30 p.m.), and the Benjamin Hunter Quintet (Nov. 6 at 7 p.m.). A closing event includes the streaming of Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, presented by Northwest Film Forum. Festival runs through Nov. 8, and event prices range from $0 to $25.

Gallery Onyx Exhibit. Now through Jan. 8, 2021 view the latest exhibit of art by Onyx Fine Arts Collective. Onyx presents original visual art from its pool of over 350 local artists of African descent. Check their website for the topic of virtual artists talks held on the third Sunday of each month.

Grayseas Pies. Local restaurant-worker (Archipelago) turned baker, Gracie Santos, has started her own pie making-and-delivery business. Seasonal flavors include plum with brown sugar crumble, blueberry, strawberry rhubarb, banana cream, salted honey, chocolate meringue, and as an ode to her Filipina heritage, kalabasa. Find and order her pies ($25 plus each plus $5 delivery to the Seattle-area) on Instagram at @grayseas.pies.

Rahwa Habte Memorial March to the Ballot Box. The community walk honors “Rahwa’s legacy by uplifting how passionate she was about civic engagement in the political process.” Starting at 12 p.m., the event gathers attendees at Pratt Gallery (nearby Hidmo’s former location) for an Eritrean coffee ceremony and sign-making, and to view an altar in honor of Habte, after which attendees will travel to the Garfield Community Center ballot drop box. Saturday, Oct. 24 at 12 p.m., starting at Pratt Gallery (20th and Jackson). 

(Re)Imagine Civic Theater and (Re)Imagine Indigenous Theater. Two upcoming virtual roundtables presented by the Seattle Rep center voices of Indigenous, Black, and People of Color artists. (Re)imagine Civic Theater takes place Thursday, Oct. 29 at 5 p.m. and includes Manny Cawaling (Inspire Washington), Kathy Hsieh (Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture), Miki Kusunose (The Washington Bus), ChrisTiana ObeySummer (Epiphanies of Equity), Sara Porkalob (Artist-Activist), and Naho Shioya (Educator, Artist, Consultant). (Re)Imagine Indigenous Theater takes place Thursday, Nov. 19 at 5 p.m., and follows the Saturday, Nov. 14 discussion of What Would Crazy Horse Do? by MacArthur Award-Winning playwright, Larissa Fasthorse. Prices vary, and pre-registration required.

Tasveer South Asian Film Festival. The 15th festival runs virtually this year; events include a “South Asian Diaspora and Black Lives Matter” symposium on Oct. 29 and screening of films including Awaken (2019) on Oct. 31 about caring for an elder parent. Through Oct. 31. Free, and registration required. 

Wa Na Wari House Party Fundraiser. Support the Central District’s Black art house that has been curating nonstop thought-provoking and community-engaged exhibitions and events, even during the pandemic. The virtual event includings a cooking tutorial with Chef Tarik Abdullah, music by Pink Lotion, art with Perri Rhoden, curated films by Amir George, and DJ sets by Jusmoni and Larry Mizell. Wednesday, Oct. 28, 6:30-8 p.m. Free, and pre-registration required.

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: Art by Matika Wilbur, 2020 for the Facebook Art Department (Photo by: Wiseknave)