The power of art in race and social justice

On Thursday, March 10 at noon in the Seattle Presents Gallery, artist Barry Johnson and historian Zola Mumford will discuss the power of data, history and of communities of color owning their stories. The impetus for this conversation is ARTS’ yearlong series in Seattle Presents Gallery, Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Racial Injustice, featuring six artists who will use their art to make space for activism and dialogue.

Years ago I saw an interview with Kanye West where he was talking about his history and background as a visual artist. West was accepted into an art school for college but turned it down because he said he couldn’t turn the volume of his paintings up. I was infuriated when I heard this. As a visual artist I interpreted his words to mean that he needed to make music to reach a wide audience rather than stay in the visual realm. But, over the years I have grown to see some truth in this statement. A historical barrier to galleries and museums means the art world is not always accessible.

I think about this statement most when I think of how the art world can be present and engaged in social movements. The keynote at the 2015 Creative Time Summit in New York was Boots Riley, a hip hop artist and activist. He spoke to the attendees about how he wanted his music to inspire revolution and social change. This was the same thing Kanye West was saying. He felt his paintings wouldn’t reach the masses in the same way a mixtape would and that is an idea I want to challenge and change.

Throughout history visual art has catalyzed people to act against injustice, provided inspiration for movements and been at the forefront of protests. I am going to highlight a few of the many artists that inspire me personally in my practice.

Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620

Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian early Baroque artist, was one of the first artists to speak out against rape culture. She was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arti del Disegno in Florence and her paintings often have strong, suffering women from myth and the Bible – victims, suicides, warriors. A student of Caravaggio, her paintings had the signature churrascura effect, meaning shading from light to dark, resulting in rich and dramatic paintings. At this time in art history, paintings typically depicted royalty or biblical stories. In Gentileschi’s famous painting Judith Slaying Holofernes she superimposed her own likeness as Judith and her real-life rapist’s face as Holofernes. The painting is dramatic, powerful, and thought provoking. I have always been in awe of the sheer strength it must have taken her in 1612 to out her rapist in a painting.

Jacques-Louis David The Death of Marat, 1793

The next artwork that reminds me of the power art has to spark revolution is Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat. David’s works were artistic demands for political action. Jean-Paul Marat, a French revolutionary leader, was a radical journalist and politician. He was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a Girondist, while in his bath. David’s horrific depiction of Marat slain in the bathtub made him one of the martyrs of the French revolution. The painting was hung in the assembly hall of the National Convention of Deputies. An engraving was made from it and images were widely disseminated. Learning of this in art history I was always moved by the power of visual images in building a movement.


Adrian Piper My Calling (Card), 1986

Lastly I want to talk about My Calling (Card) by artist Adrian Piper. My Calling (Card) was an interactive work that Piper performed unannounced wherever she was from 1986 to 1990. My Calling (Card), consisted of business card size pieces of paper that she handed out to confront people who were making racist comments and assumptions in her presence. The resulting interactions ran the gamut including shame, defensiveness and remorse. This act, while performance art, was also an act of social justice and a reminder that the act of speaking up can be as powerful as a rally.

Please join me on Thursday, March 10 as we continue to move the conversation forward.

Elisheba Johnson, Public Art Program and Seattle Art Commission Liaison at the Office of Arts & Culture.

Celebrating Black History Month in Seattle

February marks the beginning of Black History Month, but residents of Seattle are able to celebrate and learn about the rich cultural history of Blacks and African-Americans all year long. In honor of Black History Month we have compiled a few events to mark on your calendar in February and throughout the year.

Northwest African American Museum
Black Quarterly – Gentrification
February 4, 6:30 – 8 p.m.
The Black Quarterly brings people together to break bread and delve deeper into a world of topics. February’s conversation topic: Changing Neighborhoods, Displacement, Personal & Cultural Ownership of Community.  Hosted by Inye Wokoma.

With the fluidity of a dinner table conversation, the Black Quarterly takes socially pertinent topics and creates a space for deeper and honest discussion about the dreams and challenges we face as a society. While the table is set for a limited number of guests, the goal is for the fruits of the conversation to ripple into the community as participants learn from each other’s diverse perspectives. The conversation, whenever possible, will also extend directly into the greater community through social media. 

Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Racial Injustice
Sign of the Times
Seattle Presents Gallery opening
Thursday, February 4, 4 – 5:30 p.m.
In Sign of The Times Johnson reveals statistics and data that counter the negative media representations of African-Americans. The exhibition will feature artistic representations of data that illustrate the increase of graduation rates of African-Americans from the 60’s; and the increase of marriage in straight and LGBTQ Black homes. Sign of the Times not only demonstrates the power of data and how it is shared but pairs with Black History Month by having a black artist actively re-write history.

Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Racial Injustice is a yearlong series of exhibitions that explore artists’ and curators’ interpretations of racial injustice and systemic racism impacting Black and African-American people throughout America. 

Museum of History and Industry
Black History Month Celebration
Saturday, February 13, 11 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Get immersed in Seattle Hip-Hop culture and history through special film screenings, performances, and photography. Participate in a community panel discussion continuing the Town Hall Seattle conversation on the role of Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement in Hip-Hop.

ARTS Presents: Lunch + Learn
Celebrating Black History Month
Friday, February 19, 12 – 1 p.m.

Please join us for a special Lunch + Learn, celebrating Black History Month. Artists Barbara Earl Thomas, Aramis Hamer and C. Davida Ingram will present their work and Ingram will moderate a conversation about how their artwork reflects their cultural heritage. Please bring your lunch; beverages and food for thought will be provided.

Northwest African American Museum
Complex Exchange – Tradition & Innovation
February 24, 7 – 9 p.m.
A Program Partnership with Seattle Art Museum
Complex Exchange pairs Seattle community members from varying disciplines in a series of conversations related to issues of race, power, and politics of representation.

Artists, technologists, activists, writers, and community builders tackle themes inspired by the exhibitions Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic—on view at the Seattle Art Museum, and The Harmon and Harriet Kelly Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper—on view at NAAM.

EMP Museum
Through the Eyes of Art
Sky Church at EMP Museum
Friday, February 26, 7 – 11 p.m.
$15 ($10 EMP members) All ages.
Presented by EMP Museum and Brandkings, Through the Eyes of Art is the city’s premier Black History Month celebration. Now in its third year, the event will take an artistic look at the topic of Black Love featuring live performances from Draze and others, presentation of the Servant of the People Award honoring gospel singer Pat Wright and Gregg Alex (Matt Talbot Center), and an art show from some of Seattle’s top painters and photographers. Visit Black History Month at EMP to learn about other events.

2016 Black Music Summit
Saturday, February 27, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
The 2016 Black Music Summit will bring together music stakeholders including musicians, artists, technologists, promoters, venues, media, educators, community organizers and others to discuss the music industry, innovation and future of Black music in the Central Area, Seattle and beyond.  The theme of the event will be innovation and explore the future of Black music at the intersection of art, technology and business. Tickets are available at

Celebrate Black culture anytime:

STG Presents: Re:definition Gallery, Curated by Jonathan Moore & Tariqa Waters, Featuring works by Ari Glass & Aramis Hamer
The Paramount Theatre
911 Pine Street
Seattle, WA 98101
Re:definition aims to redefine historic cultural space in the form of an art gallery for local visual artists, with rotating exhibits occurring throughout the year. Current exhibit on display through May 31, 2016.

As a society, we prescribe definitions to our spaces and faces, in an effort to put the world around us into context. Via participation with a significant number of arts managers in our area, Seattle Theatre Group has gained an increased sensitivity to how definitions can be limiting, outdated and in many cases, hurtful. To expand the conversation on the importance of space and how it can be illuminating, STG will be showcasing three visual art exhibits featuring Black artists and their work.

Spectrum Dance Theater
201516 Season #RACEish
An exploration of America’s 240 years of (failed) race relations. #RACEish is a series of productions that boldly disrupt the current conversation around race – a conversation that has become tinny, familiar, insular, limited, narrowed by political correctness, self-censored, afraid to offend and peopled by people that think alike.

Intiman Theater Summer Festival
July 2016
Award-winning director and University of Washington School of Drama professor Valerie Curtis-Newton will serve as co-curator of the 2016 Intiman Theatre Festival, which will be devoted to great American playwrights who are also inter-generational black female writers.