Leave your restrained sensibilities at the door when you enter Bellevue Art Museum’s newest exhibit, “Yellow No. 5.” Curated by Seattle artist Tariqa Waters, who also owns the Martyr Sauce gallery in Pioneer Square, the exhibit features artists who create spaces that embrace you with a mix of whimsy and layered reflection. Each artist grapples with grave issues — representation, colonized spaces, the drudgery of capitalism — but also celebrates connection, culture and togetherness.
“The way my mind works in terms of redefining spaces and changing how people approach spaces, especially in terms of the arts and museums — I just have a childlike mind in terms of the awe and the wonder of walking into spaces,” Waters said. Her favorite memories as a child were going to the children’s art museum in Virginia, where she grew up. Indeed, walking into the exhibit will conjure similar memories.
Each artist creates a space you can inhabit — a play house you can weave in and out of to really experience and feel the artist’s vision. As its title suggests, “Yellow No. 5” is full of vibrant color and patterns. Pop art gone wild — you are Alice walking into a wonderland. While Waters says she and BAM are creating video walk-throughs in case of another shut down, this show is made to be experienced in person, integrating how our bodies respond to and interact with place.
Waters has always enjoyed messing with ingredient lists; in fact, this is integral to her artistic style. She makes up playful ingredient lists to go along with her humor-laden sculpture, like toilet paper and Bubblicious bubble gum replicas. The exhibit title, “Yellow No. 5,” is a nod to the food dye used in everything from candy to hair products.
“We all eat or ingest ‘yellow number 5’ — I don’t care who you are or where you came from,” Waters said, laughing. Regardless of where you grew up and your cultural background, if you’ve lived on modern earth, chances are you’ve met the great yellow compound tartrazine.
“It’s something that kind of reaches across all of our backgrounds, all of our cultural upbringings and how we exchange with the world as artists,” Waters said of how the title unites all the artists and their unique styles brought together under one show.
The ingredient’s flexible nature is a callback for Waters to the act of connecting across cultures and spaces. Waters says that while her experience as a Black woman heavily defines how she interacts with art institutions and how she navigates a racist art world, her work is not at all Black specific; everything is a constant, shifting exchange.
“My thrill in life is to — no matter who I am talking to — we are going to talk like we’ve known each other for years. That is how I was raised. You come over to the house, there is food prepared, we talk. There is nothing that we aren’t going to understand of one another,” Waters said, pointing to the narrow margins for dialogue and open sharing that an era of social media has created.
“Even growing up — even my friends who weren’t Black, I went over to their houses — the décor was a little different or the food was a little different. You are almost teleported into another country, almost — but it was still home. You still had the same level of respect. We played in each other’s rooms and broke each other’s toys,” Waters said. “We existed respecting one another and having each other’s backs, but not having to over-explain each other.”
Waters wanted the exhibit’s artists, who come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, to have the freedom and boundlessness to do just that within the exhibit. The central quality of togetherness, sharing a space and a story regardless of cultural context, is woven throughout the exhibit.
Each space envelopes you, and there is engagement all around, probing ruminations on identity and questions like, “Who is this world made for?”
Waters wanted the space to mimic the feeling of an inside conversation. “You can kind of blend yourself into the narrative and you don’t feel like you are excluded out,” Waters said. “I wanted it to be warm and layered. There are some jokes, but there are some serious undertones. I didn’t want it to be sterile. I wanted it to be full of color.”
Installations allow for this space to become reflective, breaking the barrier between artist and audience. As you walk into Christopher Paul Jordan’s soundproof box, the air becomes quieter; it’s practically easier to hear your thoughts as you confront the acrylic paintings that seem to depict humans’ fraught relationship with “things” and objects — so much so that they obscure who we are.
Ari Glass’ paintings are vibrant, adorned in gold paint and represent the comingling cultures, cosmologies and mythologies that complicate our taken-for-granted scientific explanations in a post-enlightenment Western world. At first glance, it may seem as though Glass has traveled all around the world to bring these influences together on one canvas. Yet Glass’ inspiration is his South Seattle neighborhood and the way multicultural communities thread themselves together interdependently.
A large pop art wall painted by Kenji Hamai Stoll feels like walking through a block-print wonderland. It begs the question of what it would be like to live in a world where walls and surfaces are full of color, shape and texture rather than monotone gray concrete.
Monyee Chau’s “Limited Space in the Emperor’s Kitchen” series and resilience posters are a meditation on culture, resistance, family history and memory. It all seems to pulsate in a yellow room. The artist has set up an altar where chopsticks stand up straight in bowls of rice. Chau includes an audio piece called “ZAH”. Haunting and repetitive, it feels like a ghost — the conscience reminding us there is no ethics in capitalism as it currently stands.
Romson Regarde Bustillo’s space, titled “Gahapon, Karon, Ugma” or yesterday, today, tomorrow in his mother tongue, Bisaya, is a room of magenta walls patterned with motifs reminiscent of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. A bedframe in the middle of the room signifies how these imprints of memory, culture and spirit are dreamlike. Bustillo’s statement and work are a sort of reclamation and love letter to his Filipino heritage, to mother tongues and traditions that have been damaged in the name of colonialism and greed and the capitalism and consumerism that are their successors.
Waters and the artists she worked with for this installation were keen not to compromise their visions, especially in light of how arts institutions often use the work of artists of colors, womxn and queer people as a community engagement gimmick or a way to check off an “equity” box.
“The narrative has to switch,” Waters said. “My value, and my significance, is not what you deem it to be. [You have to] maintain your place so it doesn’t get taken and co-opted for the institution’s benefit.”
Waters then said of the show, “It’s a wild ride and everybody just killed it!”
“Yellow No. 5” had been in the works well before the COVID pandemic shut everything down. Even so, Waters says there were concerns that she and her artists would have to compromise on their vision while the museum negotiated their reopening strategy. Waters wanted to be certain that the artist’s vision of the exhibit would remain true — and she can say that it has.
Still, Waters says she and BAM are working together to provide alternative formats to view the exhibit, which will be open until April. Videos of the installations, including a 360-degree view, will be available on the BAM website, bellevuearts.org.
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at [email protected]. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more of the Nov. 11-17, 2020 issue.