Amy Sherald’s “Saint Woman” introduces Seattle Art Museum (SAM) audiences to “In This Imperfect Present Moment,” a show of diverse works across a wide array of mediums, each with a fine-tuned point of view. “Saint Woman” centers a Black woman wearing a flowing turquoise dress. She’s looking decidedly off to the side with one arm holding onto the other. Sherald has painted her skin gray — a signature for the artist.
“It’s like she’s thinking about something else. She’s in command of her own space. Her own time,” said Curator Pam McClusky. “Then she’s got this flame of yellow coming behind her.”
Sherald rose to prominence when she painted a portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery. At the unveiling earlier this year, Sherald’s regal depiction matched the historic moment.
This isn’t the first time her work has made its way to the Pacific Northwest. Visitors to last year’s “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today” at Tacoma Art Museum were able to view “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance).” The painting of a woman holding an oversized tea cup won top honors in the triennial competition held by The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. “Saint Woman” is just as exceptional. McClusky considers the work to be best viewed in person.
“You see it as an image on a screen but look at what happens with the background and the sense that the size is slightly larger than human,” said McClusky. “It takes you into another dimension.”
“In This Imperfect Present Moment” is divided into four subject matters: labor, leaders, faith and portraits. Work from artists living in the states and cities around the world are in the show. The works are all a part of the private collection of a couple who live on the Eastside.
The title of the show is also the title of one of the works on display by Toyin Ojih Odutola, a Nigerian-born artist who now lives in New York City. Rather than acrylic or watercolor, Odutola’s figurative works take shape with a ball point pen. A closer look at “You Are Welcome” shows the myriad of individual strokes it took to create. Odutola leaves sections unfilled, giving the works a shimmery effect. All three figures in the show look directly at the viewer. According to McClusky, she wants the skin to be commemorated as if it’s a landscape. Even with just a black ballpoint pen, the skin is expertly detailed.
Further, the online artist database artsy (dot) net states, “Odutola undermines notions of blackness in her drawings by exploring what it means to look or be perceived as black, as, while drawn in black ink, not all of her subjects are of African descent.”
Xaviera Simmons’ photograph “Roberta Flack” shows a woman standing near a body of water on a beautiful day. Her face is obscured by Roberta Flack’s “Chapter Two” album cover. The black-and-white cover is in stark contrast to the surroundings, especially against the woman’s copper-toned hair, which draws your attention to Flack’s face. Released in 1970, the album begins with Flack’s enchanting voice singing “Reverend Lee.” In the photograph, the woman is defined by the music she listens to and begs the question: If you had to select an album to represent oneself, what would you choose?
Geneveive Gaignard is straddling two worlds in “Trailblazer (A Dream Deferred).” Set in New Orleans, Gaignard photographed herself holding a portrait with John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. among a thicket.
Hasan and Husain Essop are identical twin brothers who photograph themselves in various environments to challenge stereotypes of Muslims. In “Fast Food,” the men praying on the beach is juxtaposed with eating McDonald’s. In “Last Supper in Havana,” the brothers hold hands in the dining room of a Cuban home heavily ensconced in Christian iconography. The pair live in South Africa.
“They photoshop themselves. They use no other models because in Islam orthodoxy the human figure shouldn’t be portrayed,” said McClusky. “So they’ve decided that they wanted to make themselves the only people they would ask to photograph and they do this over and over.”
Athi-Patra Ruga, also of South Africa, takes a mythical approach to faith. A mixed-media bust adorned with pearls, rhinestones and colorful flowers titled “The Ever Promised Erection” sits on a pedestal.
“He has invented an entire utopian world and has these avatars that come from that world,” said McClusky. “It’s called Azania and it’s based on a utopia in Africa that was mentioned by ancient Americans and so he decided to inhabit it and all of his art is showing you maps of it.”
Ruga also performs as one of the people from Azania, a place he described as a cross between a great soap opera and “Game of Thrones.”
Lawrence Lemaoana and Kiluanji Kia Henda both address the absurdity of former leaders, specifically Jacob Zuma and the late Mobutu Sésé Seko, Lemaoana through applique and Henda with photography. Zuma stepped down as president of South Africa in February of this year. During his decades- long career in politics he’s credited with establishing lasting peace, but his tenure was marred with corruption and rape charges. He was not convicted. Seko was the despotic leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for more than three decades before being ousted by a rebellion in 1997.
McClusky is supportive of their humorous take on leaders.
“Having young people feel they have a voice and they have a voice that is not obvious. It’s not on Twitter and it’s not on Facebook.” said McClusky. “It’s on walls and it’s using materials in an intriguing way and kind of getting you to think about the consequences of these leaders who are really out of order in our time.”
Moreover, she considers the best way to get to know the world is through young artists.
While not a large exhibition, “In This Imperfect Present Moment” is rich with arresting, thought-provoking and impressively executed content. It’s an opportunity to step into the vision of artists thousands of miles away and broaden our purview.
WHAT: “In This Imperfect Present Moment”
WHEN: Runs until June 16, 2019
WHERE: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 1st Ave, 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. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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