Thursday, Dec. 7 was a typical rainy Seattle evening, courtesy of an atmospheric river and an early sunset. And, like most typical Seattleites, I was more than ready after a long day of work to go home, dry off and dive under some blankets and hope that Friday came swiftly. Instead, I went to the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), located right by Jimi Hendrix Park, for the artists’ reception of “Positive Frequencies.”
However, when I slogged into the space and shook the raindrops from my afro, my mood completely transformed. Instead of the quiet murmuring of patrons expected at many museums, a playlist of great artists blared over the speakers: Aretha Franklin turned to James Brown, segueing to Ray Charles. People were mingling as finishing touches were being set up. There were tables with goods being sold by local artists, an open bar with beer and wine and a more than generous charcuterie board. Most museums I’ve been to didn’t even like water bottles entering their sacred spaces.
The music was an apt accompaniment to the “Positive Frequencies” exhibit, which focuses on works by C. Bennett and local artists Samuel Blackwell, Myron Curry and Eric D. Salisbury that are all centered on the transformative power of music. Making my way through the exhibit, I was drawn to Bennett’s mixed media usage immediately. The bright colors and patterns combine to provide a bigger image. Checkerboard, diamonds and paisley tile patterns have been spray-painted on a wood-like, yellow-brown background, with plenty of negative space left.
On one piece, “MUSIC HEALS” spelled out in mossy green material sprouts from the canvas. The “Please do not touch” sign was a good reminder, since I wanted to reach out and brush my fingers along it. The way the material sprung up reminded me a lot of my Afro-textured hair.
A dynamic, neon color-changing sign flowed into portraits of great musical artists, including Prince, Louis Armstrong and James Brown.
The rich texture and playful splashes of color on Bennett’s canvases encourage you to get as close as possible and peer at the little details and see what you might otherwise miss, such as a map of Los Angeles or a homage to beauty salons lovingly mixed into the background.
Another section of the exhibit was a wall of brilliant portraits of Black women musicians by Myron Curry, a born-and-raised Seattle artist. The pieces on display were primarily created with acrylic on materials like old glass windows. Shades of green stand out on Sade Adu’s face, who Curry painted staring back at the viewer. Nina Simone is shown in a lush, deep purple; thick brush strokes match the moody intensity of her voice.
“Emotions Overload” by Curry is a captivating portrait of Etta James in pink, yellow, green and blue. The bright colors make the piercing gaze of her dark eyes stand out even more. The ornate gilded frame that encases “Emotions Overload,” Curry shared with me, could only have been for Etta — he knew immediately when he saw it.
The uninterrupted line of art focused on Black women in music showed Curry’s reverence for them. His faithful showing of all the women’s features and personalities spoke of a deep appreciation based on respect.
I ended up chatting with other Black women as we approached Curry’s pieces, talking about how beautiful all the paintings were, and seeing our own features in them. Notably, Curry chose to showcase only pieces featuring Black women in music at an exhibit of art all by Black men. Black women’s influence and solidarity was being showcased through Curry’s works — a fact that did not go unnoticed by me.
Where Curry used bright colors, many of Eric D. Salisbury’s works in the exhibit are done in monochromatic shades, particularly black and white. The stark contrast adds to the drama of the featured artists, and the occasional burst of color specifically drew my eye.
His pieces that do use color, like “Feeling the Groove,” still include elements of the black and white contrast, this time in the hair of jazz players, while the background relies heavily on shades of brown and primary colors. “Feeling the Groove” feels like the spiritual successor to the famous “The Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes, a piece of art featured in many of our Black elders’ homes next to plastic-covered sofas. “Feeling the Groove,” like “The Sugar Shack,” feels cozy and lived in, and the exuberance of the performers Salisbury painted is contagious.
I also encountered Samuel Blackwell on my saunter through the exhibit. Blackwell takes us back to the Cotton Club with his portrait, “Nat King Cole.” The eponymous singer sits in repose at a table, broad brush strokes blurring his surroundings and focusing on the man in repose, head in his hand and cigarette dangling from his fingers. He’s still dressed in his performance coattails. As the viewer, you’re left to put together the pieces. Is he tired? Is he disappointed in his latest performance? Why is he at the club so late, after all the other chairs have been put away on top of the tables? It is more meaningful to think through the scenarios rather than have the answers handed over.
I took several passes through the entire exhibit, revisiting my favorite pieces. NAAM encourages viewers to spend more than the average 27 seconds viewing each canvas, in part by providing ample seating. The gallery also leaves plenty of room to navigate regardless of mobility and assistive devices. You never feel like you are blocking the pathway or taking up too much space, something all too common as a Black patron. I perched myself on one of the several benches during the artist talk.
No matter which of the four artists took the microphone to speak, the overwhelming energy of the room was Black joy. It was evident to me that this exhibit was a big deal for not only the artists but also the museum and community. The space was celebratory and uplifting. When Curry spoke about his strong ties to Seattle and his current fundraising efforts to keep his grandfather’s house, an audience member took the mic to talk about Curry.
When Kibibi Monié, a community activist and motivational speaker with deep roots, shared about the murals Curry has done for Seattle’s Black neighborhoods and all over the city, it felt more like a testimony. The love she had was flowing in abundance.
The same way Bennett’s piece says “MUSIC HEALS” in large letters, the “Positive Frequencies” exhibit became a healing space of art. All four artists centered Black art, Black features and Black resilience in a way that did not depend on our collective trauma.
Salisbury provided his own perspective on Black art, saying, “I challenge artists to be more positive and be more progressive.”
The downpour was still continuing when I left NAAM, but I felt lighter than when I entered. Despite parts of Washington and Seattle originally being de facto sundown territories — where it was effectively illegal for Black Americans to be after sundown — we had all gathered at a museum dedicated to the Pacific Northwest’s Black community. Blackness is being celebrated in its glory while free of the shackles of generational inherited pain, gathered with our wet shoes and shades of brown, partaking in the joy of finding community.
Seattle’s Black community is a semi-hidden gem. The emerald city might be more known for its technological prowess and giant corporations along with liberal politics, but we exist here too. The descendants of Black folks who relocated in the Great Migration and settled in South Seattle carved out a beautiful space for themselves. Despite gentrification, predatory lending and rampant redlining, we are still here and still have so much to celebrate. And we do celebrate in spaces like NAAM has created, where Blackness is actively appreciated and loved.
Ultimately, “Positive Frequencies” encourages introspection on the effect music by Black artists has on our own lives. I thought about all the times I went to the library as a kid after school to burn CDs onto my laptop, and the passion in my father’s voice when he talked about the significance of blues music. I may not go to church on Sundays to sing gospel like my grandparents did, but I have a playlist ranging from Aretha Franklin to Tyler, the Creator on my weekend cleaning playlist. Being Black in America is about the shared experiences and cultures of a sprawling diaspora, and music continues to be a significant connection.
For a unique and welcoming exhibit that encourages you to take a beat, sit down and enjoy the gallery, come visit the NAAM.
Read more of the Dec. 20–26, 2023 issue.