ARTE NOIR EDITORIAL

REIMAGINING WHAT CONSTITUTES "AMERICAN" ART

In 2019 the Metropolitan Museum of Art began a new series of contemporary commissions for installations that would fill the empty alcoves at the museum entrance. The first installation was by Kenyan- American artist Wangechi Mutu entitled, The NewOnes, will free Us. The commissions are intended to establish a dialogue between the artist’s work, the collection, the space, and the audience. One of the sculptures installed at The Met, The Seated IV, continues this dialogue after having been purchased by and is now permanently seated on the University of Washington Seattle campus.


This is just one example of the ways in which museums and other institutions of art and culture are seeking to redefine long-held concepts of what constitutes American art and create new forms of dialogue with audiences, while also creating new forms of inclusion that is more representative of the realities of what and who should be represented. Such is the case at the Seattle Art Museum where the new exhibit American Art: The Stories We Carry, is currently on view.

A statement describing the exhibit on the museum website reads, “In the past, the galleries presented a historical overview of American art history that did not fully consider the many histories and perspectives that have driven cultural production in North America from the 17th century to World War II, particularly those of artists active in the Pacific Northwest region’s diverse communities.”


This new exhibit takes one giant next step after recognition of the omissions and embarks upon a possibility for more inclusive and broader perspectives on what and who gets to be a part of the American art story.


One of the exhibit advisors, who is also an exhibit curator and featured artist, Inye Wokoma, shared his responses to 3 questions we posed about his involvement. Inye curated the Reimagining Regionalism gallery. Here’s what he had to say:


What do you want people to better understand when they experience Reimagining Regionalism?

It was an interesting prospect approaching SAM’s American Art Collection with the idea that I would find meaningful points of personal connection. The collection is dominated by works by predominantly white artists from the 19th and early 20th century, objects that underscore European expansionism, and a smaller fraction by non-white artists of mainly the mid-20th century. My personal and creative lens is obviously shaped by being a Black American man and more specifically a man of dual heritage via my father’s Nigerian origins. So my relationship to many of these works is shaped by the roles I know my ancestors played in the histories they depict and represent. I think that is the first thing I want people to be aware of, that there is a very specific vision and voice that informs the gallery. It is not neutral in its gaze.


Even with that, I went into the process with an open mind willing to approach each piece I considered on its aesthetic merits first, then thinking about what else there was for me to discover. So there is room for folks to simply enjoy the art. An experience that should never be undermined by more complicated ambitions.


I was impressed by the number of local artists in the collection. In the end, I selected works by mainly Northwest artists, as I saw an opportunity to interrogate stories about our region. Works by artists from other parts of the country connected to this theme either by representation (Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast), by the political economies of colonial expansionism (Sullivan’s Elevator Screen from the Chicago Stock Exchange), or by the truth we all must grapple with about living on Indigenous land (Watt’s Blanket Stories).


There are layers of meaning in the gallery’s placements and the art labels. If folks are willing to slow down in the space, I hope some of these encoded elements will begin to reveal themselves. The centrality of Marie Watt’s sculpture is intentional for instance. Its placement is a statement about the inescapability of our collective responsibility to the Coast Salish nations. Another example, entering the gallery from the front, the visitor is forced to view Bierstadt’s rendition of the Puget Sound through the lattice of Sullivan’s Elevator Screen. This forced perspective is a statement about the ways art functioned as a power vector for Manifest Destiny. I want people to see the gallery as an interrogation of the complexities of our personal and political relationships. Contemporary relationships that are often born of brutal histories.


What were your first thoughts when you explored the available works for the exhibit? Like stated before, I was surprised by the number of local artists in the collection. In the very…extremely…absolutely brief (lol) time I spent in the previous iteration of the American Art Gallery it seemed to be preoccupied by a narrow view of American art, classical landscapes, portraits of the powerful, fetishized representations of Indigenous people, objects of conquest. I was pleased to find works by many local artists, some of which were artists of color. This gave me a chance to have a nuanced and varied curatorial experience.


I was afraid the project would leave me with a flattened sense of once again railing against European colonial adventures, oppressive systems, and so on. There was some of that, history disallows avoidance of those truths, but there was also room for me to explore other points of view. Shimomura’s Minidoka Series #2: Exodus, and Tokita’s pieces Drugstore and Backyard gave me a chance to think about my childhood growing up in the Central District and how my experience was shaped by the WWII internment of Japanese Americans. I wasn’t expecting to have that kind of rich opportunity until I discovered the full extent of the collection.

Prior to this assignment, what was your relationship with SAM?

Over the years I have gone to SAM for their African Art collection, their contemporary art collection and exhibits, and for the occasional public engagement event. Going back I spent a lot of time at Volunteer Park and the museum when its main location was there. Some of my earliest memories are of going to see vintage cinema there on Sunday nights with my mother and sister. For years I was infatuated with a memory of seeing The Man In The White Suit. I was probably six or seven when I saw it at SAM at Volunteer Park, which would mean 1975 or '76. As an adult, in the 2010s, I still thought about that film and was able to find it online. As a critique of capitalist oligarchies, it was even better seeing it as an adult than I remembered it as a child.


Even more peripherally, my mother is a committed collector of traditional African art and artifacts. Over her life, she has amassed an impressive collection for a working-class Black woman. For a time we lived in Mt. Baker near Katherine White, another major collector of African art. My mother would speak of her often and I think visited her home. Major portions of the White collection are now a part of SAM’s African Art Collection.


So I guess you could say I have a lifelong relationship with SAM in many unexpected ways.


Over the past few years, I have been invited by SAM to participate in the community advisory process for visiting exhibitions. Most recently I was a part of the current Dawoud Bey/Carrie Mae Weems community engagement community advisory group. Previous to that I was a part of the Jacob Lawrence American Struggle exhibition community advisory group.


Middle aged Black Man in a tweed cap, stylish black glasses and a button up shirt smiles to the left of the camera
Artist and Curator, Inye Wakoma by James Harnois

Learn more about Inye Wakoma here, and his work as a curator for SAM's exhbit, American Art, The Stories We Carry here

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