Baso Fibonacci’s new work “So Far” is one of those pieces of art you can’t look away from. His most famous work — bright, colorful renditions of plants, animals and people composed of hundreds or even thousands of multicolored individual stripes — is also visually arresting, but in a very different way. Once you know what “So Far” is inspired by, it grips you like a vise.
The work is composed of 71 individual pieces of foil, each emblazoned with a grinning, bleached-white skull and set into simple wood and plexiglass frames. Each piece of foil represents one individual who has died from a fentanyl overdose in downtown Seattle this year.
The foils are on display at the RailSpur Building’s Forest for the Trees gallery, and, grouped in a tight cluster on a blank white wall, they provide a stark visual reminder of the human toll of the fentanyl crisis. That’s what Fibonacci was going for.
“I mean, part of it is I just want to quantify the deaths that are happening. You hear figures, like, ‘So many people died.’ You hear those figures; they don’t really hit your brain in the same way as seeing a quantifiable [thing], like, ‘Oh, this is how many people have died?’ You can kind of imagine them as people more,” he said over an espresso at Heard Coffee, just down the alley from the show.
While there are overt and obvious political aspects to this work, Fibonacci said it was important to remember that it’s also art.
“I find those foils just beautiful by themselves,” he said.
Indeed, the art that sticks with us the most is often visceral and very raw. “So Far” is both. The foils are all used, collected during Fibonacci’s wanderings through the city and from a few friends who are active users. He painted them using gouache, a type of opaque watercolor.
“I got these nicer gouaches, and I was trying to use those, and then I noticed it was just flaking off the foils,” he said. He eventually settled on a cheaper one that stuck a bit better.
One of his goals, besides producing something striking, was to help humanize the people affected by the fentanyl crisis. The fact that the foils are all real does that very effectively. The one you’re looking at may not have been employed before an overdose, but, at some point, a human being held it in their hand and used it to inhale the thing they needed more than anything else in that moment. In 71 cases, something they needed so badly it killed them.
“One thing I don’t think gets talked about closely enough is, like, what withdrawals are like and how much worse fentanyl is as far as withdrawals go, compared to even heroin,” Fibonacci said. Something he finds frustrating is when people expect opiate addicts to just up and stop using.
“You hear people all the time, like, ‘Why don’t they just stop? Why can’t they just get a job?’ Something like that. They don’t understand what it’s like to be in the throes of opiate addiction and [that] ... whatever caused that opiate addiction, lots of times, is some kind of serious trauma, and they’re trying to escape that.”
Fibonacci survived a serious accident as a young man in which he lost the use of his legs and had to have one arm amputated. For him, opiate addiction is not a theoretical issue.
“After I got in my accident, I was on morphine for years. When I was trying to get off of it, I was going through those withdrawals and … you can’t sleep, you can’t get comfortable. It’s just really unpleasant,” he said, noting that his withdrawals were relatively minor compared to what a fentanyl user might experience. His sympathy for the victims of the fentanyl crisis also stems from his late brother.
“I had a brother that died from a lifetime of heroin use. He used to live in the streets of Seattle back in the day. So that was like something that really kind of I was always aware of what opiates could do to someone,” he said. He credits his brother’s experience with helping him avoid a similar fate.
“I was in a real struggling state, and they were giving me a lot of pills. I could have easily gotten deeply addicted,” Fibonacci said.
At the end of the day, what does he hope to accomplish with the work? To start a conversation, first and foremost, but beyond that he’s not sure.
He supports whatever saves lives, he said, but cautioned that, “I definitely don’t have any answers. That’s not really my goal — to give answers or give solutions.”
Perhaps he doesn’t need to. Art moves you in a way that walking past a riotous protest or reading a shocking, deeply reported feature simply can’t. Art is, at its core, about emotion, and the most dangerous thing we can feel about the fentanyl crisis is nothing. We cannot become inured to it, although most of those who work in policy, advocacy or activism already have. Seeing “So Far” was, for this journalist, a much needed jolt.
So, yes, this show is for people who appreciate art for art’s sake. But it’s also for people who care, or should care. Fibonacci has sold a few individual pieces already, but has been contacted by someone who wants to buy the entire set. Here’s hoping they hang it up in City Hall.
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Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the May 17-23, 2023 issue.