Monday, April 28, 2008

Black Panthers and the White Art World

Never have I felt more acutely the separations in Seattle between white art and the real world than this weekend in Seattle. On Thursday night we had a moment of intersection (of sorts) thanks to Aperture Foundation and their publication of the amazing photographs by Stephen Shames of the Black Panthers. Stephen Shames, who is white, was friends with Bobby Seale in Berkeley and Oakland in 1966 from the time of the founding of the Black Panthers. He created a series of intimate photographs of the Panthers all over the country which have never been published before. They are on display at Odegaard and the book was sold at the Henry Art GalleryAuditorium in conjunction with a program.

We heard from Aaron Dixon and Larry Gossett about the founding of the Black Student Union at the University of Washington with only 12 students. Soon after they also founded the Black Panther Party in Seattle (although one comment on my blog suggested they were different groups) and it was the first Panther Party outside of Oakland. The picture shows some of the Black Panthers on the steps of the State Capitol, You can see Elmer Dixon right out in front. We also heard from Janet Jones who is responsible for an excellent online project about the history of the Black Panthers in Seattle. We are currently celebrating the 40th Anniversary of that historic moment. Unfortunately, UW is still dominantly white. Although there is an ethnic studies program, apparently faculty have blocked a 5 credit ethnic studies requirement for graduation. Obviously integration varies from program to program, also. Jacob Lawrence was hired in 1970 as a result of the Black Student Union pressures, and the diplomatic skills of then President Odegaard. But when I taught a course there in art history in 1997, there was no complete set of slides of Jacob Lawrence's work !

Stephen Shames photographs are on display in Odegaard Undergraduate Library at the University of Washington. So here came the Black Panther discussion into the Henry. Good for the Henry Art Gallery for hosting the discussion.

But then Friday I decided I needed to at least open myself to see a white art show so I went to Western Bridge where there was a generous buffet and several current artists, including Alfredo Jaar ( who is Chilean). Jaar was the reason I went, and his small work did not disappoint, it was three captions about the Rwanda massacre, without the photographs, part of his larger Rwanda project. The unspeakable aftermath of the Rwanda massacre that he witnessed has been the subject of many works by the artist. But the entire rest of the white art exhibition was playful, a room full of balloons, air in the eye through a hole, a text message piece that sends little cartoon images of a bear and other games. The idea was to "activate the passive viewer".

I went to hear Andreas Zybach on Saturday talk about his work. Inspired by a 19th century machine that produced energy from water in a clandestine way, Zybach's work involved a large construction through which we walked that generated 6.5 horsepower energy, enough to send ink through tubes and out on the floor of the gallery. It was not, however, about environmental crisis, energy issues or anything real (except perhaps in a closet way) . It was about taking the idea of a machine that generates energy and making it playful. The entire exhibition was called "You Complete Me," a theme suggesting interactivity, but when the ink on the floor started being used to spell "iraq" the artist decided this didn't complete him and rubbed it out. There lies a long essay perhaps on "what is art". Western Bridge according to director Eric Fredericksen, is about post painterly abstraction, so therefore Iraq has no place there.

It was going from Western Bridge to the Black Panthers anniversary that led to my despair. The event included speakers like hip hop artist Laura Peace(Piece) Kelly and Bobby Seale himself . People talked about both the present world of violence ( the police who killed Sean Bell had just been let off) and the tactics and strategies that the Panthers used to get gangs to work together, feed children, provide health care, educate black people politically, etc. The tactics used to break them up, infiltration by the FBI and getting them back to the business of killing each other, are exactly the tactics being used in Iraq today.

The myth of Black Panthers as simply carrying guns and threatening whites is a long way from reality, which brings us back to the photographs of the Black Panthers by Shames as well as the art work by Emory Douglas, ( this is not a link to Amazon, although it took some effort), now available in a book. Emory Douglas is the Black Panther Minister of Culture and his section of the Black Panther website is an amazing resource on all sorts of histories and references to both Black Panthers and current injustice. His posters and drawings document the strength of political art when it is done by a really good artist for a deeply felt cause in which he is engaged. ( Example below)

So back to segregation. I was sick at the isolation and narcissism of the white art world. The irrelevant playfulness of the art ( except for Jaar), at this time in our nation's history is so sad.

I wish the intersection at the Henry Art Gallery had been deeper, longer, and more committed ( like having a partner show in the gallery). But at least it was a start. According to Jen Graves in the Stranger, the Henry has been sneaking in politics all year. I am ready for them to be less stealthy, but again, at least it is better than little bears on my cell phones. How about an exhibition of the work of Emory Douglas?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Metamorphosis : Marita Dingus's Trash

Marita Dingus
At a presentation in Edmonds, about one half hour north of Seattle, Marita Dingus revealed some of the secrets of her approach to materials in her extraordinary art made entirely of recycled materials. Recycled we already knew, but there is a lot more to it than just reclaiming materials.

She explained in a compelling demonstration that she chose materials that were "worthless", if they have any value at all she takes them to the thrift shop she said, holding a metal ring from a lampshade as an example. Her choice of materials is based on durability as well as the fact that they are completely useless in our society. For example, she uses the shiny plastic wrap from Bertoli products, or the spirals from spiral notebooks, or the wire from Boeing airplane construction. Her criteria also includes that ( she was making flowers out of Bertoli shiny wrap and wire as she talked), the wire needs to be easy to bend.

Her own wardrobe is entirely made of recycled clothes and materials, "things get cut up many many times" she said. When she spent several years in Texas, she packed up all of her belongings in large bags made from recycled fabric, and her purse is based on a clorox bottle covered in fabric. She uses "hot sticky glue" and she said, "people say this is not art material why shouldn't it be?"

Marita is truly living close to the earth as well, she raises chickens, and eats their eggs at her home that she shares with her mother ( who also helps with her art) on five acres of old growth woods in Auburn. Her family moved there in the fifties. It is next to the cemetery, at that time the only place that African Americans could live. This is one of her bags below.

All of the talk about our carbon footprints, ecology, global warming, living green. Marita has it all figured out.
We don't have Marita's artistic ability to reclaim only the useless into art, but we can think about every single thing we throw away every day and try to cut it in half, re use it, not use it, or give it to a thrift store. Giving up take outs, plastic bags, and packaged food, even re using paper napkins as toilet paper, every little bit helps. I've tried to save some useless items, like the plastic tops of coffee cups and let them accumulate, waiting for art to emerge. I had the idea of hanging them on my Christmas tree. It didn't quite happen(family objections), but I looked at the plastic tops and lived with them for a long time, as they piled up, confronting my own waste, instead of flinging it out of sight. Of course the theme for Marita is more profound, as an African American she is reclaiming what is considered useless in our society and giving it value as an aesthetic expression.
Here are two of Marita's Water Babies as an inspiration.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A unique partnership Daniel Minter and the James Washington House residency

Daniel Minter Artist in Residence, James Washington House, Seattle Wa
Daniel Minter is seen here working in the studio of James W. Washington, Jr. . Mr Washington died in the year 2000, and it was his dream that his home and studio could be a facility for creative collaborations. Daniel Minter was the first artist to take part in a residency at the house ( which includes a place to live for the artist). He collaborated with Washington by using stones left behind that Washington had selected for sculpture but never used, creating an assemblage with Washington's used chisels, and re using a hollow tree trunk that Washington had chiseled out, but never developed. Minter's work includes references to the African American life in America on many different levels,
Minter grew up in South Georgia in a small town, but he always knew he wanted to be an artist. As a child he drew in in the dirt. Later he went to art school. His work is an homage to the extraordinary people, spirituality, histories, and experiences that he experienced both growing up and since then.

His most recent series currently on view at the Northwest African American Museum, Seattle, is a series of evocative portraits of the people of Malaga Island off the coast of Maine. In the early twentieth century this diverse community was forces to leave the island, many of them were sent to an insane asylum in order to make way for development. Minter found descriptions in the papers of the time of the people as a "subhuman eye sore".
The works he created in the residency at the James Washington House are also an homage to Washington himself, who, according to Minter, "represents everything that I am attempting to do and he did it alone. There were a lot of James Washington Jrs. who were not able to do that, there was no path open for them. He made his own way through stone. I am very honored with Washington's gift of his opening the way for me. " ( lecture Seattle March 25, 2008)
Here are some of the pieces that he created in collaboration with the spirit of James Washington.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Artemesia RIP

I have lost a member of my family.
Someone told me they liked personal information in my blog, of which I have very little. Today though is different. I must write in honor of my dear cat, Artemesia, whom we found dead yesterday under our front steps, after six days of wondering what happened to her. She was almost 20 years old and had a good life, and clearly had gone cat like to find a dark place to die, but that doesn't make my devastation any less.

I can't help but think about the thousands of family pets in Iraq who have been lost to the war, as well as the thousands of animals of all sorts who have been traumatized and killed. We never hear about animals in Iraq at all, only our troops, and "the enemy". Imagine how many families must have lost their pets and livestock to death and loss in the last five years. I did find a blog entry about cats in Baghdad, strays of course, who are heading for Americans who have the food and warmth. How many Baghdad strays were once family pets? Here is another blog by an Iraqi girl. She is a cat lover, but she left all her pets behind when she went to Syria and knows nothing of them. Probably they have joined the strays described in the first blog.

Losing my own pet makes me grieve for all of them as well. We never hear about the ruin of the natural world in Iraq either, we bombed orchards, date palms, we are destroying the lush fruit production in Iraq, poisoning the land with depleted uranium, poisoning the future as well as the past. In a book I read about the first Gulf War a garden destroyed by the war was described in loving detail.

Back to my cat. She was a wonderful pet, very loving, always there when I came home, always there to climb into my lap and be stroked as she purred loudly. That is what she lived for love and affection, caring, and more love. It is the way the world is meant to be. How far we seem to get from that simple fact.

Dear Artemesia Rest in Peace.