Just to be sharing. In a sharing mood.
A special thanks to Rezina Habtemariam, curator and collaborator for this exhibition.
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Origin Stories & The Green Galaxy
This graphic started with a request from Serenity Wise-Thurman for a family tree as a part of my show ‘An Elegant Utility’, on display at the Northwest African American Museum from January 28 – May 28, 2017. Somewhere in the process of putting the show together the vision of circles came to me as essential to the form. So instead of creating a ‘tree’, or some other linear branching form, this image emerged.
For me looking at the completed graphic is a kind of revelation. Seeing my maternal great grandparents, Samuel and Mariah Green, in the center of this constellation clarified something that I had simply taken for granted for most of my life; that their lives represent a kind of genesis story, a cosmic point of origin for how I understand and experience my family. From my arm down in the lower quadrant I can locate relatives on another family arm in an opposing quadrant and testify to relationships that are just as powerful and essential as those I have with my immediate brothers and sisters. As such this graphic is a cipher, essential to accessing a deeper understanding of who I am in this world.
As powerful as this graphic is, it is incomplete. It shows my family in terms of my blood relations. However, there is a deeper reality that is too complex for this two dimensional rendition. There are those in our family who are not blood descendants of Samuel and Mariah but are no less family than those represented in this graphic. What binds us together is love, consent, commitment, responsibility to one another, and shared lives. These bonds are unbreakable and in some ways represent an evolution of the bonds of blood. These bonds of consent, entered into voluntarily and shared collectively, are regarded as lifelong commitments. They are a higher expression of our humanity.
This is where I reference my Wokoma family history across the ocean in Nigeria. In it every story of family lineage is laced with narratives of people who were adopted, married, purchased (yes, purchased) or in other ways migrated into the family and so there remained, permanent and irremovable by any force such as divorce, deceit or conflict. In any re-telling of family history these people are indistinguishable from blood relatives. There is synergy between the ways the Green and Wokoma families evolved, continents apart. It is rooted in a very ‘African’ way of being. What is taken for granted as a natural way of being in family in Kalabari land in Southern Nigeria, stands out in 20th Century America. And so I cannot help but meditate on the things centuries of enslavement, complete cultural dislocation and unrelenting political and bodily oppression failed to strip us of; this way of creating family as the most essential social institution. It has been and continues to be the key to our survival and the source of our genius. From where I stand Birdie, Neader, Frank, Betty, James, Detroia, Stella and Zrelda, the eight children of Samuel and Mariah, embodied this perfectly and effortlessly.
So coming back to the idea of circles and origin stories, I have chosen to refer to this graphic as the ‘Green Galaxy’. Something about the idea of a living, breathing, growing cosmic entity, made up of interdependent bodies moving together, revolving around a central core, creating new bodies in orbit around themselves, extending the range of diversity and possibility, this appeals to me. We are in orbit together, revolving around a central core and my sense of place and possibility in the world is affirmed. There is an inherent sense of continuity in this.
If I can share one essential perspective around which my children can build their identities over the course of their lives, it would be this.
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I have been tinkering with various modes of storytelling around my family and communal history in the Central District. This story is long and complex, spanning six generations of my extended family. Because of this I often struggle with where to start or how to best tell it. I have chosen to work my way through as many layers of our story as I can in themed vignettes. ‘This Is Who We Are,’ presented at the Frye Art Museum in the summer of 2016 was the first installment. ‘An Elegant Utility’, opening at the Northwest African American Museum on 1/28/2017 is the second installment. In this chapter of the project I am focusing on my grandfather, Franklin Joseph Green. This is only one of many starting points for the larger story.
This project has its genesis 12 years ago in 2005 shortly after my wife and I both purchased and inherited 913/915 24th Ave, my grandfather’s first house, purchased in 1947. One of my first tasks was to begin cleaning out my grandfather’s storage and workshop in the garage behind the house. Packed to the rafters with tools, building supplies, household items, personal effects and other miscellany, my instinct was to take time a carefully sort through everything, keeping what was useful and discarding the rest. The house was in need of much repair so many of the tools and building supplies were of obvious value. I also discovered that many of the items were triggering personal memories, emotional impressions and reflections of shared family stories. Since this was my grandfather’s workspace, all of them were connected to him and the particular way he lived his life. He built things because that’s what he loved to do. He built things for his family because that is how he expressed the depth of this love. As a deacon he helped build community through the institution of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He did so with a deliberate conviction and without fanfare.
I set aside the items that made the strongest impressions. I mused about how common it was in the early 1900s for manufacturers to imbue even the most functional tools and items with beautiful design flourishes. I found this visually seductive. I began creating a photographic catalog. At first this was a purely personal pursuit. Creating beautiful portraits of seemingly mundane objects was meditative. It was a way of appreciating the objects while focusing the impressions and scattered recollections swirling around the edges of my consciousness. For the first four years that’s all it was. This first object I photographed was and old paint can and paintbrush stuck in dried paint.
It wasn’t until later that this collection of memories began to emerge as something larger and more revealing, I began to recognize a coherent narrative about my family’s history. Before long I began thinking about this family narrative relative to the history of Seattle’s black community in the Central District. That is where I began to think of this as an actual project rather than a personal pastime.
Living black in the Central District in the early 2000’s, in a home that I only took ownership of to keep it from being sold out of the family, has everything to do with this evolving process. The act of taking responsibility for the home was purely utilitarian, a way of preserving the biggest and most important symbol of our identity as a family. It wasn’t my decision alone. It came about through much debate, deliberation, conflict and negotiation across at least four generations of family. We all agreed on the need to preserve the home, agreeing on how to do it took to some real work. In the end it was decided that Kristi and I would take on the responsibility of ownership as the best resolution.
As personal as this motivation was for our family, there was the larger awareness that gentrification threatened to erase all material evidence of our community in this neighborhood. So keeping the home was an inherently political act of resistance and cultural act of preservation. In the end the title ‘An Elegant Utility’ emerged out of the confluence of revelations that came to me throughout this experience. It is all about the defining beauty in even the most utilitarian act or object. In this story, for me, it speaks to how we built community as an expression of our shared history, commitment to and love for one another as family and as black people.
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