When artists produce a painting, a mixed-media piece or an installation, their personal vision isn’t the only factor influencing the outcome. Whether or not it will be well received by a given audience and if someone will ultimately choose to buy it is up for consideration. When you’re an artist of color, add a layer of expectation correlating with your racial background, which can further complicate creativity.
What happens when you tell an artist to make whatever they want without fear of rejection? One example is the show “Quota” at SOIL gallery in Pioneer Square. The three curators reached out to artists of color and asked them to “subvert identity-based expectations that limit work and dictate the creation of their work.” They also chose artists who were already breaking away from expectations.
Asia Tail’s four oil-on-panel paintings incorporate motifs from the natural world. Anissa Amalia’s mixed media work “So, You Want To Be An American Citizen,” encompasses an American flag and a table with Department of Homeland Security papers on top. Amalia recently graduated from Cornish and is here from Indonesia on a visa. “Citizen” is a reflection of her life.
“My very own personal frustration with the immigration system in the U.S.,” Amalia said, “how even a lot of friends that I know don’t necessarily quite understand exactly what it is to be here, not being a citizen.”
Fourteen artists are in the show with no central theme stringing all the pieces together. Each work can stand on its own.
“It is the epitome that POC [People of Color] are not a monolith. We have artists who are working in really traditional mediums, like Asia Tail who’s working in oil paint, with these really beautiful motifs that really lend to her cultural identity,” co-curator Satpreet Kahlon said. “We have Sabella [D’Souza] who is working in new media and video and subverting this idea of YouTube and new technologies and exploring how racism is still really real in those new technologies.”
Kahlon said the show came about when she learned about SOIL’s lack of diversity in its membership history. “Quota” is a reversal of what you’d normally see in the space. Kahlon and fellow curators Mel Carter and Anisa Jackson took it a step further. On First Thursday they limited who could come into the gallery to view the work. For every five people of color who came in, one White person could enter the space.
“If I can make White people experience in a really small, minuscule, inconsequential way. If I can create situations in which they’re experiencing that same discomfort and unease and exclusion without really knowing, that suspicion of wait I think I know what’s happening here but no one is officially verifying that’s what’s happening. That’s the point,” Kahlon said. “I feel like empathy is bred from experience.”
Limiting the number of White eyes into the space is a way to remove a large amount of “White gaze.”
Pushing back on who could be let into the space led to a line of White people outside the gallery on opening night. If someone pressed to be let inside, Kahlon said they gave different reasons for making them wait. For instance, telling people they were using an algorithm to decide who could come in.
“Which sounds kind of like bullshit because it is bullshit but in the same way that White supremacy is super obvious but unspoken and therefore deniable, I wanted the quota to be super obvious,” Kahlon said. “I think as POC we start to question our reality and our ability to judge what’s happening around us because we’re being put in situations where we know something is happening but you’re always questioning yourself.”
Since the official opening, they’ve changed the ratio to one-to-one. Kahlon said if a White person has to wait for a long time to get in, it’s an opportunity to ponder why that is. For those in the art scene, it could be a catalyst to make art spaces more hospitable and welcoming to people of color.
Many people of color feel pressure to be the model minority and are keenly aware that you’re a representation of the entire group whether you want to be or not. In Seattle, POC artists deal with requests from mostly White-run institutions.
“I remember I had a professor who would always veer me towards making Indian art,” Kahlon said. “One of my other professors ultimately I think she was just getting — she was also a White woman — she was getting super upset and then said is your work about being Indian or is it about being human?”
Amalia can relate. She’s been asked why she isn’t creating more political art, and her work has also been interpreted as having a deeper meaning than the intention. While navigating around expectations can be challenging, the artists in the show are fine-tuning their artistic voice. Asia Tail is an “Urban Native” and puposely does not use beads or form lines in her work since that could box her in to White expectation of Native art.
“I certainly situate myself very purposefully in a subtle context because that interests me, too,” Tail said. “That subtlety is also actually really powerful, and it’s also a really important reflection of identity that isn’t as widely recognized right now.”
In addition to the opportunity to show her work, Amalia described “Quota” as a healing space, “When you can come in and you’re like, wow I actually feel normal. I actually feel like I belong somewhere looking at those pieces.”
WHEN: Runs until July 30
WHERE: SOIL gallery, 112 Third Ave. S., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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