The question “Where are you from?” and its variations may seem benign on the surface. After all, it’s a seemingly innocent question brought on by curiosity. But for communities of color the inquiry is too often weighed down by preconceived notions, stereotypes and assumptions. Whether intentional or not, the question is rooted in the assumption that one does not belong. Lisa Myers Bulmash’s latest show tackles this issue in “You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?” at Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). The works are presented from the perspective of her personal experience, but anyone can relate.
“The show is about the universal experience of feeling that your right to be somewhere, your right to take up space, is being challenged by somebody just because you exist,” said Bulmash. “Everybody has walked into a room or walked into a situation or introduced themselves to a group where they felt that something that is essential to who they are was at best tolerated. And tolerance is not inclusion.”
The exhibition is a collection of collages, altered books and assemblages. Each of her works is layered with details that beckon a lingering stare. “Voluntary Exile” is a collage combining a photograph of Bulmash and her older brother as children with a moon photo from NASA. The mixed-media artist has an affinity for antique and vintage images, so combining the two was a natural fit. In the collage the pair appear to be frolicking on another planet. There’s no grass or swing set present. Instead it’s a rugged and cratered surface. In “What is Essential is Invisible to the Eye,” the pair are standing on top of a sand-toned moon. A similar motif is present in three other works in the show. Bulmash created them in the spirit of the cover from one of her favorite books, “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She also drew inspiration for the works from experiences of “othering” from both White people and from people of color when they found out where she lived. Bulmash grew up in a neighborhood in the northern part of Los Angeles. Specifically she recalled an encounter she had as a teenager with a younger White boy while babysitting. He asked where she lived and assumed she called South Central home.
“I was like, ‘No, I live a few blocks away from here. Why would I come all the way from South Central LA to babysit somebody?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know,’” Bulmash said. “He’s having a conversation with me, he sees my skin and his first assumption is that I couldn’t possibly live here because I’m Black, and Black people in Los Angeles live in South Central.”
One aspect of the encounter that struck a chord with Bulmash was his age. At around 11, his ideas of the types of communities where minorities lived were already formed. It also reinforced the importance of representation.
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Bulmash also highlights how national conversations about the Black experience typically center the Southern, Northern and Midwestern narrative with the PNW being nearly absent. Yet Black people have lived and thrived here for quite some time, though not in great numbers.
“It’s funny,” she said. “We’re everywhere, but somehow somebody always thinks we’re new.”
Through her work, Bulmash explores how race is tied to place. While the Black community of the Puget Sound is spread out, in part due to the elimination of redlining in Seattle in the 1970s, Bulmash has created artifacts that signify home. Her altered books are a combination of old Time Life books and childhood photos layered with images evocative of home. The home images include the exterior of a slave house, a historically Black university and a Black-owned hotel. The altered books are mounted on washer boards that act as a frame. The boards are also a nod to the role of washer women — a job performed by Black women.
“I have been thinking about how hard my parents, so many other parents of color have worked to provide that safe and welcoming space that we think of as home even if it isn’t a literal house,” Bulmash said.
In recognizing the importance of safe spaces, Bulmash asks visitors of the show to identify their safety zone. One comment in particular from a local student shows the exhibition is more than just a showcase of her artistic vision. It’s also a haven where people can open up and share their own experiences.
“They said the place where they feel most at home, most free to be who they really are, was in a particular counselor’s office of a particular private school because everything else was so White,” Bulmash said. “It surprised me with the specificity, and it also kind of warmed me that whoever wrote that comment has a safe space in a place where they feel like they’re one of the few or the only person of color.”
Bulmash said the underlying message of her work is questioning why it’s difficult for people to see the humanity in someone who doesn’t look like themselves or has different beliefs. As a mother of two sons it’s important that society doesn’t view her children as threats. She hopes that if they find themselves in a situation where they need help, others — not just people of color — will intervene, especially in non-emergency situations.
Bulmash has exhibited in numerous shows for the last several years and she continues to toil away in her studio, perfecting her skills. She looks up to the expression of the Black experience by artists Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Kehinde Wiley and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
“I really hope that my art will reach a level I think theirs does in presenting the individuality of various people of color. I think quite often as people of color, especially African-Americans, we’re often asked to speak for the group rather than ourselves,” Bulmash said. “I want my art to go in a more universal direction, in the way that I think that those artists I mentioned have done.”
Given the path of her creative expression, Bulmash is well on her way to firmly establishing the niche she seeks. “You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?” is a thought-provoking exhibition that also serves as a launching pad for discussions and broadening one’s perspective of those who on the face of it are different.
WHAT: “You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?”
WHEN: Runs until April 8.
WHERE: Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), 2300 S. Massachusetts St., 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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