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Black Is Beautiful at Seattle Art Museum's 'Figuring History'

Paintings offer a window into the rich culture and history of black people in America


Published on: March 01, 2018

Marshall School of Beauty by Kerry James Marshall
"School of Beauty, School of Culture" by Kerry James Marshall/courtesy Seattle Art Museum

February was Black History Month, but any time is an opportune time to give your kids a deeper understanding of black history and people in America. Seattle Art Museum's new exhibit "Figuring History" is an excellent avenue for doing just that.

Fortunately, American black history and culture is incredibly rich and complex and there are many different ways to explore the subject. Unfortunately, you’d never know it by stepping foot in most American classrooms.

As a mom with four kids, three of whom have attended school in both the Seattle and Northshore Districts, I have found depictions of black life and culture painfully lacking. In my experience, black history in the classroom focuses primarily on American slavery and stops there. And that's a shame. While the conversation around slavery is an important one, stories that make slavery the primary narrative of black history fail to tell a complete story of what it means to be black in America.

Which is why I love "Figuring History," on view at SAM through May 13. The exhibit showcases the works of three prominent modern African American painters: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas, and the message is undeniable: Black is beautiful — in art, in history and in this country.

The bottom line

The paintings displayed in "Figuring History" will captivate all ages of art lovers, even the youngest. To me, the art is pure eye candy. The paintings are arrestingly colorful, larger-than-life and (quite literally) sparkling. Many of the paintings in the exhibit take up entire walls of the museum, a feature not captured in pictures or prints of the exhibit online. I found the paintings enchanting, whimsical and ethereal; and yet deeply raw, rooted and real at the same time. Though several paintings offer pointed political statements, you’ll be inspired even if you know nothing about the art or history of the work — but that background is worth investigating.

Le Dejenuer by Mickalene Thomas
Credit: "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les trois femmes noires" by Mickalene Thomas

The artists, their subjects and even the materials they each use are all celebrations of black culture, black heritage and black people — in particular, black women. As a biracial woman, I recognized scenes from my childhood depicted in many of the paintings on display. Brightly colored and vintage-print patterned armchairs, Bohemian sundresses, sun-lit afros, piles of "Jet" magazines neatly arranged in baskets near the sofa. For people of color in my generation, this exhibit is an homage to childhood and the often uncelebrated people who were our foundation: black mothers and grandmothers. For everyone else, this exhibit is a window into a world you may not otherwise experience.

To tell you that these paintings made my heart sing would be an understatement. I found it truly uplifting to see Seattle Art Museum center black people — especially black women — and their stories with art that includes, but isn't limited to, slavery, black suffering and black oppression.

About each artist and their work

In the first room of the exhibit the rich, brightly painted, oil-on-canvas works of Robert Colescott offer a harsh critique to the canon of art history — a canon that most art students and lovers have been taught to revere. Many of the paintings reference "classic" works of art but add a twist, challenging viewers to ask tough questions about how art shapes our concepts of beauty, race, class and history.

Robert Colescott Les Demoiselles
Credit: "Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas" by Robert Colescott
© 2017 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS)


For younger viewers who may not get these references, the paintings are still worth checking out. Colescott’s use of texture and color can jumpstart fun, developmentally appropriate and engaging conversations with kids about how to use paint to evoke feeling and tell a story.

The next display area features the off-beat, bedazzled multimedia canvases of Kerry James Marshall. Marshall’s work is unconventional (even for a modern art museum) in many ways. He uses huge flag-like canvasses bolted directly to the walls for his work. He makes use of glitter, stamps, cut-outs and lettering on each canvas. And he references modern art history, beauty icons, pop culture and political heroes. For younger kids, the use of glitter, stamps and font types will be fun to notice. For older kids, themes in his work are especially thought provoking in the current political climate. A conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement might be appropriate when viewing his “In Memory Of” series, in particular.

And, my favorite work of the show is Mickalene Thomas’, which can be found at the very back of the exhibit. Her paintings are rich with layers of paint, glass, jewels and glitter. The different textures of paint and other media layered along the panels creates a depth and dimensionality to the paintings that I found stunning. Almost every painting on display features a strong woman of color in a seductive (but not reductive) pose. This area features a family-friendly lounge area with cushions where kids can sit and just admire all the color, texture and beauty surrounding them.

Plus, bonus: Reach out to Thomas on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. There’s a chance she’ll share your budding artist’s work! She has stated publicly that she loves to view and share young people’s work (particularly young girls inspired by her work) and often interacts with kids on social media, encouraging them to keep making art and giving fun, friendly critiques to those who send her snapshots of their art.

If you go...

When:Figuring History” is on view at Seattle Art Museum now through May 13, 2018. The museum is open Wednesday and Friday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Thursdays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.

Where: Find SAM in downtown Seattle at 1300 First Ave., Seattle

Cost: Admission to "Figuring History" requires paying a premium on top of regular admission. The cost for this special exhibit along with entry to regular galleries is $24.95/adult; $22.95/senior (age 65+) or military (with I.D.); $14.95/student (with I.D.) and $14.95/youth ages 13–19; children ages 12 and under and museum members are free.

Discount: On the first Thursday of the month when admission to regular galleries is free, admission to "Figuring History" is offered at half-price. Dates for this exhibit are April 5 and May 3.

Getting there: Transit is the easiest way to get downtown. Street and garage parking is available surrounding the Seattle Art Museum. Pro tip: Download the Pay by Phone app to pay for street parking through the city and get a handy reminder alert on your phone when it’s time to add time to your meter or head for home.

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