‘Black and Center’ — Collaboration, Color, and Care

by Jasmine J Mahmoud

Election anxiety marked my beginning of last month. Like many others, I grew fixated on the results trickling in state by state, county by county, block by block across the week. That first November week felt endless, for lack of sleep and newly emerging, quickly chronic, routines. At midnight, and 3 a.m., and 5 a.m., I refreshed electoral maps of Georgia and Pennsylvania. With daylight, I watched television news on mute, while working on my laptop. At all hours, the buzz of “breaking news” kept my body on alert. When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were finally confirmed on November 7, unfamiliar feelings of relief and elation emerged, nevertheless battling existing currents of anxiety and dread. Last week, I ate Thanksgiving dinner with my partner, thinking about the atrocities hidden by that holiday including stolen Indigenous land. 

It’s been a long month and a long year. Below is a longer column on art I engaged in the thick of November’s tides. As we ebb and flow, these artists remind me of the joys of color, collaboration, care, and co-existing.

Installation view at YBCA including works by Coven Intelligence Program (left) and Courtney Desiree Morris (right). (Photo: Thea Quiray Tagle)

A Black female figure sits in a field, leaning against a straw bale, her feet disappearing into lush green grass. An ethereal blue afro frames her attentive face; her light yellow maxi dress elegantly puddles into the field full of poppies. Behind her, a tagged cow with white and purple patches sits in front of gentle green hills. Above her, lemons hang among dark green leaves that frame the sky, radiating with an orange ombre sunset. 

In mid November, a day before Gov. Inslee announced renewed COVID-19 restrictions, I found my masked-self immersed in this large work on canvas, Chocolate Milk by Aramis O. Hamer, part of Yellow No. 5, a group exhibition at Bellevue Art Museum curated by Tariqa Waters with work by mostly Seattle-area BIPOC artists: Romson Regarde Bustillo, Monyee Chau, Ari Glass, Hamer, Christopher Paul Jordan, Clyde Peterson, Kenji Hamai Stoll, SuttonBeresCuller, and Waters. (At the time of this writing, BAM — and other art museums — are temporarily closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19). Exhibition highlights include Julia, Waters’s bright, oversized, and rotating midcentury lunch box; Jordan’s muted, chalky, and captivating street portraits; bursts of iridescent gold shimmer across Glass’s paintings, many cobbled full of blue, teal, and red patches; and Chau’s homage to Asian diasporic food, family, and neighborhoods. Taking up BAM’s entire third floor, the exhibition offers spaciousness to each artist’s work(s), imagination, playfulness, and inquiry into the question asked by Waters’s curatorial text: “Have we supported and represented one another merely through co-existing?”

Yellow No. 5 installation view of works by Aramis O. Hamer. (Photo credit: Bellevue Art Museum)

I wanted to co-exist in Hamer’s world to find reprieve from this one where I have been exhausted by misinformation and racism. It was nice to be still with the figure in Chocolate Milk, lost in her world of grass, flowers, a cow, and sun and wonder about her and how she is doing. A cosmic sliver of dark galaxy blue canvas dotted with stars cut through Chocolate Milk, and aesthetically iterated among Hamer’s other works including Worker Bees, a series of pyramid-shaped sculptures with shimmering color and objects suspended within, which I connected like a game, seeking cosmic elements. Calm, magnetic, expansive electricity filled this space allowing me to ask “How does color collaborate? How do we care for color? How are we cured by color?”

Another question emerged during my visit: “How are we judged by color?” Even though the Eastside has grown incredibly racially diverse in recent years, despite farmland stolen from Japanese-Americans during internment, I was nervous to venture into Bellevue. One security guard, who made my visit uncomfortable, confirmed these nerves. When I entered the museum, she chillingly (eye)scowled at me despite my attempts to convey warmth and thank her for directing me to the third floor. Later, despite ample time to explore, she sternly and without prompting told my partner, “The museum closes at 5 p.m.,” as if to say, “Leave right now!” When we finally exited, she again glared at us, amidst other friendly masked staff who thanked us for visiting. I hold this experience as art institutions claim to confront racism and center BIPOC artists, but what are they really doing? 

“We have to show more artists of color … The next step is making sure that your staff represents who you want to serve,” Monyee Chau tells me with prescience a day before my visit. Raised in Seattle at a restaurant on Fourth and Jackson, Chau positions herself artistically, “more as a community member, as a storyteller.” She continues: “My work is an understanding of what it means to be Asian American and telling that story for myself, because as People of Color [we are] made [to] feel like it wasn’t important enough for us to share them ourselves.”

Installation view of works by Monyee Chau. (Photo: Zack Elway)

A yellow painted wall, evoking the show’s theme, serves as a backdrop for Chau’s works, including My Forebearers in the Shape of a Taro Root, a tapestry woven with familial stories. “You walk in and you see the flag of the Republic of Formosa, which is what Taiwan used to be, and the stories that are on top of it are stories of my grandparents — their experience with Japanese soldiers,” Chau describes. “So the flag was this beautiful tiger, [but it was] only the flag for about six months as Taiwan was being shifted from under Japanese rule and then also Chinese rule.” The adjacent work, Paper Tigers in Theory, is assembled from paper cutouts of parts of a tiger’s face — yellow eyes, pink tongue, and white teeth. Chau says, “They look really scary, but they’re just made out of paper: all bark, no bite,” a metaphor affirming her work in “a white-dominant society.”

In this exhibition, Chau’s work is, “An acknowledgement of what it means to see yourself or see people who look like you in white cube spaces,” and “project[s] all of me and all of my histories into institutions that have historically not served people who look like me in America.” Another work, Limited Space in the Emperor’s Kitchen, a ceiling-tall installation with a vase, eating implements, and rug — objects that invoke Chau’s family history in restaurants — abuts an array of Chau’s Resiliency Posters. Chau explains, “My grandfather had been working in restaurants for his entire life, since he was 12.” The objects also reflect recent histories. After the Chinatown International District (CID) was assaulted with racist stickers this spring, Chau blanketed the neighborhood with those posters to confront white supremacy and remind residents of the long resilience of Asian diasporic people.

As the curator of Yellow No. 5, Waters gives each exhibition artist something so needed — capaciousness to play and question. And announced last month: her artistic work is being celebrated in our region. Waters is among eight finalists of the prestigious 2020 Neddy at Cornish Artist Award. Others include barry johnson, Hanako O’Leary, Marilyn Montufar, Kimisha Turner, Anthony White, Carol Rashawnna Williams, and Maya Milton. Their works animate our region. In June, Turner and johnson painted Black Lives Matter letters at Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). Last Fall, Williams had an immersive, climate justice exhibition at Vashon Gallery. Currently, Montufar’s photography, Ronnie and Cleveland (2006), is the Boren Banner Series exhibition at the Frye Museum. In September, I wrote about O’Leary’s exhibition at Method Gallery for this column. Even though only two artists will receive the prize, the announcement gives long-overdue attention to each artist, who will receive a studio visit in Winter by Virginia-based curator Amber Esseiva. I encourage everyone to explore their works online; I found myself mesmerized by South Seattle’s Milton, whose fantastical glitter and assemblage animate portraits of Black women. 

Yellow No. 5 installation view of works by Tariqa Waters. (Photo credit: Bellevue Art Museum)

How are BIPOC artists celebrated at the onset of their careers? I thought about this question as The Colorization Collective, a BIPOC youth-led initiative that supports teen artists of color, was celebrated at last month’s Teeny Awards. Teens Anya Shukla and Kathryn Lau co-founded The Colorization Collective (aka “The Collective”) in 2019 after completing Seattle Children’s Theater’s Young Actor Institute, “in response to the racial barriers we had faced” Lau told me. In collaboration with TeenTix, The Collective hosted a “mentorship opportunity,” Shukla described, “where we paired teen artists of color with adult artists of color and then had a showcase of their work at the end” featuring visual and performing arts. The showcase featured both visual and performing arts. The Collective also produces a web series and edits “blog reviews, articles about [arts] trends, interviews with adult artists of color, and features of teen artists of color.” 

I spoke with mentor Perri Rhoden, a Seattle native and abstract visual artist. She framed her mentorship through engaging questions: “Working with young people who are at this pivotal point in their life and trying to figure out, ‘How can I truly be myself? How can I express myself? What do I want? Where am I going? What are the pressures that I’m getting from family and society?’”  She continued, “I enjoyed mentoring them and helping them have a space to breathe, let out all of their frustrations and their thoughts, and dive into doing what they’re actually inspired to do — what they’re passionate about.” One of Rhoden’s mentees, Evelynn Li, applied for public art opportunities down on the pier and actually won. Rhoden says, “I’m super excited for where my mentees are headed and the fact that they’re applying themselves and going for it.” Anya Shukla added, “I think focusing on teen artists of color and helping them realize that the arts are a potential path for them if they choose to pursue it [is] solving that pipeline problem of teen artists of color dropping out of the arts, so that we can have more representation of adult artists of color.” Although mostly Seattle-based, the virtual mentorship allowed for youth engagement across the U.S. 

With Gov. Inslee’s necessary COVID-19 precautions instituted last month, I’ve amplified virtual art engagements. Online, I stare at a series of images: a pink neon pyramid-shaped figure that buzzes with energy by alejandro t. acierto; dreamlike lush landscapes of a Black woman in a red dress and gas mask, of the sky above a construction site, of exterior and interior views of churches by Courtney Desiree Morris. I view a video of a femme avatar in technicolor purple and aqua blues superimposed on a street scape, evoking devastating environmental change by micha cárdenas. I stand “virtually” on concrete, while taking a 3-D tour of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ (YBCA) exterior, moving me across this and other art. 

Earlier in November AFTER LIFE (we survive) opened as both a physical exhibition on YBCA’s exterior in San Francisco, California and a virtual one; both are curated by Thea Quiray Tagle, who left Seattle in June. The show brings together mostly queer and BIPOC artists who sit with themes of 2020: uncertainty, environmental damage, incarceration, survival, and joy. Quiray Tagle told me: “I was very interested in artists who have poetic and evocative visions for what the world can look like, both the world we live in now and the worlds that we want to see. Their work helps map these kinds of alternative imaginaries that are overtly or implicitly anti-capitalist; that, borrowing from Indigenous scholars, are in right relationship with others; and that I think perform a different way of living and working together.” Virtual engagement allows viewers in Seattle and elsewhere to sit with artist works through the 3-D tour, interactive artworks, and videos.

Installation view of Julia by Tariqa Waters. (Photo: Zack Elway)

In addition to acierto, cárdenas, and Morris, other artists in AFTER LIFE  who have ties to or have shown in the Pacific Northwest include Super Futures Haunt Qollective, Art 25 (a collective of Lisa Jarrett and Lehua M. Taitano with collaborator Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng), Rea Tajiri, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. “There’s a whole ethos around collaboration and kinship featured in the show, as many of these projects imagine different kinds of working relationships between humans with living beings like fungi or cats or fish or beavers,” Quiray Tagle told me. “Additionally, many of these artists work collaboratively to model different kinds of relationships between Indigenous, Black, and non-Black folks of color.”

Prior to leaving Seattle, Quiray Tagle was a co-curator at The Alice, the feminist art project space located in Georgetown that shuttered in 2019 to the dismay of many. There, Quiray Tagle curated the first iteration of AFTER LIFE in 2018. She told me this:

“Having AFTER LIFE (what remains) there was a really great jumping-off point because The Alice was a space run by an amazing curatorial collective and for the relationships I built in Seattle. micha cárdenas and I were both faculty at UW Bothell together; she built Sin Sol as a response to her experiencing wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, and that project was first shown at the Henry. That’s another kind of connection between fires in the Northwest with all the fires that are happening up and down California as well. I was introduced to Courtney Desiree Morris through Berette Macaulay when she curated MFON, a show featuring Black diasporic women photographers, at the Photographic Center Northwest in February. In terms of these larger webs of connection, like Black and Indigenous geographies of kinship, a lot of the show comes out of those experiences of us being together in Seattle.”

Yellow No. 5 installation view with works by ARI Glass, Christopher Paul Jordan, and SuttonBeresCuller. (Photo: Zack Elway)(Photo: Zack Elway)

This December, I am reminded of these artists, and of color, care, and collaboration or of ways to be together, however virtual or distant. Here are some more virtual events (including those for youth) this month. 

AFTER LIFE (we survive) — Detailed above. Through January 24 online and in person. 

Art as Activism Youth Workshops — For youth (anywhere) age 13–19! Part of TeenTix’s ongoing workshops, two upcoming events include Music at Antiracist Rebellion with Martin Douglas on Saturday, December 5, 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m. via Zoom and Film as Awareness with Vivian Hua (Northwest Film Forum’s Executive Director) on Saturday, December 12, 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m. FREE — register as soon as possible. 

Black Futures with Kimberly Drew & Jenna Wortham Presented by Seattle Arts & Lectures and the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, this event highlights the new book “which tells the story of the radical, imaginative, provocative, and gorgeous world that Black creators are bringing forth today” by the two Brooklyn-based writers. Wednesday, December 2 at 7:30 p.m., $10–$65, with most tickets including a copy of Black Futures. 

Black is the Light: Raise Your Voice Performance Project For BIPOC youth, this free virtual Seattle Rep workshop is led by teaching artists Dedra Woods, Allyson Lee Brown, and Alex Lee Reed, utilizing poetry, storytelling, and movement to create new work. Saturday, December 5 and Sunday, December 6, 2–4 p.m. 

Wa Na Wari — Free virtual events at the innovative Black art house include a Live Studio Stream with The Artist L. Haz on Saturday, December 5 at 3 p.m., an acoustic performance with Blumeadows on Friday, December 11 at 7 p.m., and an artist talk with Andrea Coleman (whose works are currently on view at the house) on Saturday, December 12 at 12 p.m.
The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience Browse virtual exhibitions, attend the “Bruce Lee: 80th Anniversary Celebration” Book-O-Rama event with daughter Shannon Lee on December 5 at 2 p.m., and participate in virtual tours including “A Dinner Date with History” on Friday, December 11 at 4:30 p.m.,  weaving food and stories from Chinatown-International District chefs and the Historic Hotel tour most Thursdays at 5 p.m.

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: Chocolate Milk by Aramis O. Hamer. (Photo credit: Bellevue Art Museum; image cropped to fit this space.)

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