Tariqa Waters puts her story and family on display at the Northwest African American Museum, whether people get it or not
A tattooed hand with long pink nails holds a matching Bible and a cigarette in Tariqa Waters’ mixed-media digital print titled “…Beer in the Other.” The sacred and the sin are alongside each other, coexisting, equally important to her narrative.
“My mom’s side is more conservative,” Waters said. “Even with a lot of pain and suffering and craziness that happens, they have this different way of carrying themselves than my father’s side of the family that’s more raw, real, colorful and vibrant. And just curse you out, go to church right after. Then come back and curse you out some more and have a beer and Bible. It’s just the way it is.”
Waters’ artwork is much like her personality — straightforward, fun and bold. In her latest exhibition, “100% Kanekalon: The Untold Story of the Marginalized Matriarch” at the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), Waters is inviting viewers into her world: the everyday life of a Black woman, a mother and an artist. It’s a life filled with joys and struggles in the midst of a society where Black women are often marginalized.
“I just wanted to put this other perspective on the day to day of being Black,” Waters said. “We are still looked at to carry it all and carry that weight all the time. A lot of our desires and dreams get put on the back burner. There’s this hustle time approach that I had to take on with becoming an artist.”
Waters runs a gallery in Pioneer Square called Martyr Sauce, a name derived from the creativity of both her son and daughter when they were young. Her son, named 9, would say “tartar sauce” when he was upset. One night during dinner, her daughter Kaelau suggested he say “martyr sauce” instead. Initially Waters and her husband Ryan thought it would make a cool band name but later it became the name of her art gallery.
Waters is an art teacher at Cornish College of the Arts and recently made the transition from painting to photography. She grew up in the D.C.-area surrounded by the arts and comes from a family of strong women who have had a profound influence in her life.
“The matriarchs on both sides of my family are just holding down all the crazy all the time,” she said, followed by an infectious laugh. “It was always this work ethic that got you out of hard times.”
It’s Waters’ rawness and honesty that makes her exhibition currently on display at naam unique. The collection of mixed media transports viewers into her reality.
“The Kitchen Table” opens the exhibit, a round table cut in half and pushed against the wall, covered in clutter. It’s painted gold with more than two dozen items on top of it including pictures, an issue of Ebony magazine and a pack of Newport cigarettes, or “ports” as Waters often calls them. The kitchen table is inspired by a visit to her grandmother’s house in Richmond, Virginia. As in many families when relatives come to visit, cleaning up the house isn’t necessarily a priority. After all, there’s no need to impress one another.
“The kitchen table was messy. You had the salt. Just a bunch of random stuff on the table, but I just added a bit more to that in the exhibit,” Waters said.
To her family’s chagrin, she included court papers on the table.
“My mom was always in and out of court trying to take my father for child support that he never was paying for,” Waters said. “I was dealing with that with my ex with the kids quite recently ’cause he was completely out of their life then showed up out of the blue. So that was the whole protection order thing and all the forms I had to get from King County court.”
The kitchen table is accompanied by the audio recording “Banana Pudding,” which plays a recording of voices including her beloved Uncle Rodney. His voice is deep and distinctive as he tells her to “shake it up real good.” He’s explaining how to make a proper banana pudding as classic R&B music plays in the background. His directions are hard to follow, but that’s beside the point. The kitchen table is the centerpiece. It’s where they share laughter and pain.
“I’m pretty much an open book if you come sit down at my table,” Waters said. “I’ll tell you anything. It’s kind of how I grew up.”
In the middle of the exhibition are four hats — “Nanny’s Church Hats” to be exact. Encased in glass boxes, they are regal, bright and sequined. The church hat is much more than a simple covering for one’s head. It’s a statement. It’s the completion of a perfectly coifed church outfit (because church clothes are in an entirely different category in the Black community).
Waters expressed excitement when she talked about procuring them.
“I was pleading and begging because I was taking her spring and summer hats, her favorite spring and summer hats that she did not want to part with at all,” Waters said. Her nanny spared them and it’s just one example of how much her family supports each other.
Jumbo packs of green, blue, pink, and purple Kanekalon-brand synthetic hair also hang on the wall. The idea was inspired by an interaction with a sales associate at a local beauty supply store. She also showcases DNA results from her grandmother — a 100 percent match to the Yoruba and Fulani people of Nigeria.
Because Waters exhibition is her personal narrative, everyone who stops by may not understand all of it.
“It was purely if you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t. And it ain’t for you to get if you don’t. And I don’t need to explain it to you. Cause everything ain’t for you,” Waters said. “It’s good when I see people go in there into the exhibit and they warm up and they know exactly what’s what. And I like it when people go in there and they don’t understand a damn thing because that’s the point too. I think there’s something to be respected with not knowing something.”
“100% Kanekalon” runs until October 16.
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