In the summer of 2019, at the behest of my girlfriend Elisheba, I applied for the Cornish College of the Arts Neddy Award for the second time. As fortune would have it, I was selected as a finalist and ultimately as a grand prize winner. An exhibit of the six finalists and two award winners accompanies the annual award program. This year’s exhibit is called ‘Inherent Visions’ and was curated by Juan Franco Ricardo. This post is about one of my contributions to the exhibit, ‘DELUGE:Liberation Ecology’.
The premise for this work started with a question that I asked myself one day, ‘what if I took my journaling practice and expanded it’s scale and material possibilities?’ It emerged one evening nearly a year ago while I was browsing some of my old journals from the past 30 years. The question was a response to the limitations and freedoms of notebook journaling. The limitations being what you can actually put on a bound page, the freedoms being the boundless stream of consciousness form. Or in other words, the complete freedom to ignore all formal aesthetic, logical, linear and narrative considerations when exploring ideas with text and images. Something that is common in my journaling. I realized I wanted to find a freer platform for this activity that has been critical to the formation of specific ideas that have crystalized in specific public works that I have prestened over the years. I tried journaling on the computer using various graphic and writing applications as a way of breaking out of some limitations, but my brain and spirit work differently when I am touch things. Pens, pencils, pages, prints. Journaling is a decidedly analog activity for me.
So this truly is a journaling activity for me and not about the production of a specific visual work. It is about the nonlinear exploration of ideas and how the activity of collage inherently expands the possibilities materiality to tell stories and peel back layers of our collective existence.
I have been experimenting a lot with various forms of storytelling over the past 10 years. ‘An Elegant Utility’ (NAAM 2017), ‘This Is Who We Are’ (The Frye Art Museum 2016) and Turning The Earth(permanent installation at the Liberty Bank Apartments 2019) are all examples of my intentional exploration of the narrative and philosophical possibilities of form, genre and materiality in specific works. All of these works emerged out of journaling and meditation practice and also represent my willingness to experiment publicly.
A few people close to me know that ten years ago I sort of ‘laid down my cameras’, metaphorically speaking, and took a hiatus from being a photographer. This didn’t mean I stopped producing images entirely, just that I intentionally stepped away from my identity as a photographer as a defining aspect of my creative life. There were several reasons for this:
My goal in making this break was to clear my creative pallette and get enough distance from that body of work in an attempt to see it more clearly. Leading up to this break I had already been trying to wrap my head around the meaning of my photographic catalog for about three for four years. In 2007 I curated and exhibited a show called ‘RECKONING: Evolution’ at the Electric Tea Garden (formerly at 14th and Madison, RIP). As a straight ahead photographic exhibit of diptychs, it was an early attempt at uncovering the embedded and untapped thematic and narrative implications of specific photographs in my catalog. It was my first step in this ongoing process of public self-inquiry about what and who I may be as an image maker and visual artist (a moniker I have only recently felt comfortable embodying). This current work is this same process expanded, exploded, deconstructed, freed up a bit.
So taking all of this into account, when ‘Inherent Visions’ curator Juan Franco and I began discussing what I would include in the show accompanying this year’s awards program I was eager to pitch a more process oriented contribution. This work, ‘Deluge:Liberation Ecology’ is the result of his faith in me to engage the exhibition space as an active artist’s studio. I am grateful for his trust and the resources of the Neddy Award that have afforded me the time and materials to continue to engage this process in new ways.
By way of formal introductions to the work here is the official press release issued by Cornish last week announcing this aspect of the exhibition:
The Neddy at Cornish announces open hours for a special work-in-progress residency for the 2019 Neddy at Cornish Exhibition Inherent Visions happening in the Cornish Playhouse. Please feel free to stop by to visit artist and this year’s Open Medium grand prize winner Inye Wokoma as he works on an open process piece. Sourced from an accumulation of over 25 years of work, Wokoma explores ideas around, embedded in and informing his approach to photography. A quarter century into to his photographic practice he is interested in unlocking meaning in the catalog in an active, intuitive process. As such the residency functions as a wall sized journal entry through which ‘de-archiving’ and ‘un-exhibitioning’ processes eschew conventions of cataloging and presenting photographic media.
The work also integrates his lifelong writing practice and introduces his growing interest in textiles as an emerging element in his mixed media collage work. Intentionally using these elements in layers is meant to evoke the complex, and in many ways unresolved, nature of Black cultural, political, social, familial and spiritual life in America. The work is intended to be interactive. He invites viewers to touch the piece and explore its layers as a way of joining him in the act of asking unanswerable questions.
Wokoma’s goal for this residency is to explore the possibilities of working with familiar and new elements in an intuitive way. He hopes this process will be instructive as he adds new techniques to his existing practice.
Stop by during these special hours to meet the artist and see the exhibition:
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Before ‘An Elegant Utility’ opened I was unsure about how the show would be received. This show is unlike any single body of work I have ever created and presented. It is an amalgam of every discipline I have worked in during my professional life and my life as an artist. Although the project began as a photographic meditation on the objects at the center of the show. None of those photos are in the final exhibit. So the irony of this show is that I have spent most of my career working in one form of photography or another and there are none of my original photographic images in the show. This show has more writing than I have ever formally presented, in any form. I also employ graphic design, illustration, filmmaking and my background as a journalist and researcher. The final format for me is an exploration of the boundaries of how I work.
Reflecting on all of this, I am both relieved and pleased by the overwhelmingly positive response to the work. Both the community and members of the Seattle art establishment have expressed how strongly the work resonates. I am encouraged to continue to exploring the boundaries of how I tell stories and grapple with ideas.
Here are some articles and reviews published about this show.
Screenshots of the articles:
ConstructingSilence a video installation at BOOM: Changing Seattle Exhibit. http://cfadseattle.org/general/boom-changing-seattle/
I created this video as a small wall installation in the BOOM: Changing Seattle Exhibit at the Center for Architectural Design. Although I didn’t create this piece for ‘An Elegant Utility’, it fits squarely inside the philosophical body of thought driving that work.
This is a short meditation on the personal consequences of the systematically dismantling communities to make for “economic growth”. Without an ethical or visionary core that is rooted in humanity, capitalism only values the ecosystems in accordance to their ability to create profit. Communities are human social ecosystems that have inherent value that cannot the measured within capitalism’s narrow ideological framework. This piece subtly posits that this should be a central ethical tenet of our society.
Over the years I struggled with how I could best support Vern. Based on our familial connections I knew that he had relatives that were in charge of caring for his home. I never had the closest relationship with him. Some of my older cousins had the first hand knowledge and relationships with his direct relatives. As they grew older and moved out of the Central District those connections frayed. Obviously they stopped seeing Vern and may have lost contact with his direct relatives. When Vern lost his home, nobody knew how to contact is closest family, most of whom live in another state. I think the one or two relative who lived in Seattle either grew to old to manage his affairs or possibly died. All of these things together led to the progressive deterioration of Vern’s living conditions. In my own daily efforts to manage our own extensive family affairs in a changing neighborhood, it became harder for me to keep regualar track of Vern and give my cousins accurate updates on what was going on
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UPDATE 1 – January, 2017: Vern (Vernon Gray) was a regular feature in the Central District and Capital Hill. As our family and members of the black community moved out of the neighborhood the new residents would come to know him as well. Though there was no familial connection that gave him the kind of emotional, mental and social support that our family offered, the new Central District residents did what they could to see that he was cared for. The following is a gallery of screen captures from a Nextdoor – Garfield North conversation thread. It illustrates my point that the social ecology that forms the basis of community is central to our collective well-being. What this also illustrates is that in where one communal network offer a kind of all encompassing support of all Vern’s needs, a fractured, virtual or newly evolving communal network can only provide periodic material support.
UPDATE 3 – June 2017: I had been watching the conversation thread about Vernon on the Nextdoor – Garfield North conversation thread. I recently made a post to update the neighbors who showed concern for Vernon. Here screen capture of my post:Read more →
In 1947 my grandparents purchased 913 24th Ave, the first of four homes my grandparents would own in Seattle’s Central District. Over the course of 49 year they would give this home away. In 2005 I became the owner of this home. The story of ownership between two family members could not be more different
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. From restrictive housing covenants and redlining to predatory lending and sub-prime loans this story, ‘A Tale of Two Ledgers’, is a very personal story in which is reflected the larger forces that shaped black home ownership of the past 75 years.
This is an image of my show ‘An Elegant Utility’ at The Northwest African American Museum. Here are some thoughts about this image and why I it appeals to me.
I took this image to document the installation. Mainly because a literary journal is publishing some text excerpts from the show and wanted a photo as accompaniment. I was moving through the gallery taking photos and literally stumbled upon this composition. I took a few frames and my instincts as a photographer kicked in
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. Patience. I stayed in this spot feeling that at some point the perfect combination of elements would emerge. When all of the elements seen in this photo fell into place I knew this was the image I wanted. Here is how I interpret this image.
This is an exhibit of oral history narratives triggered by and paired with physical objects. Central in this image is a plumber’s vise, a tool saved from my grandfather’s workshop. Although I ascribed no narrative to this object it is the metaphorical heart of the show. In using family narratives to explore what it meant to build Seattle’s black community in the 20th century, I meditated continually on the cultural values around family and community cohesion, borne of our West African origins, surviving slavery and amplified by intense American white supremacy and institutional racism post emancipation, as i experienced them personally. Specifically I was interested in how our evolution as a people relied on our ability to maintain a sense of collective identity despite radically divergent social, political, cultural and political points of view and the attendant conflicts that emerge within our families and communities. In my family I experienced this first hand as intense conflicts formed around these very fault lines. Some of them led to very real and volatile fallouts that lasted for years. Eventually, even as the sources of some of the conflicts were never resolved, the alliance of blood held us together.
The vise is positioned in the very center of the gallery space, which as I stated previously, reflects its role as the thematic core of the show. I have ideas in my project notebook about text that may accompany this object in future iterations of the show. Here however I let it stand without overt commentary. I thought a lot about this treatment and decided that, with all of the presentation options in this space, offering it as a ‘silent metaphor’ was the strongest choice. In fact all of the objects in the vitrines function in this way. They are metaphors for all the things that typify how philosophical, social and cultural diversity in our communities lead to conflicts and divergent ways of being; all aspects of our existence that are held together, improbably, by a central notion and experience of ‘blackness’. In this show political nature of blackness is translated through the lens of our sense of family identity. Most people visiting the show won’t tap into this. In fact I am certain nobody would without my statement of intent. For me, this positioning represents on opportunity for the show to have a kind of esoteric quality that I endeavor to bring to all of my work. It is a personal point of meditation for me every time I enter the gallery. As such I have afforded myself a kind of ongoing ritual experience with this show.
In the background the show’s video projection cycles through two distinct presentations. One is an oral history segment that, in broad strokes, charts the chronological evolution of our family in Seattle’s Central District. The other is an evolution of one of the video projections that I originally created for my show ‘This is Who We Are’ at the Frye Art Museum. This second video is a libation/invocation to and of family ancestors. It is purely meditative. In this frame the video bears the image of our familial ancestors in two family portraits taken in rural Arkansas sometime in the 1920s. The video image is simultaneously seen in the background through the vitrine holding the plumber’s vise, and becomes a part of the case itself as its light reflects off of the transparent panels. Thus the plumber’s vise, as a silent metaphor for communal cohesion, merges with the video image that embodies our familial origin story. The esoteric qualities of two of the shows elements around communal identity and cohesion come together as one artifact in this image.
Finally the word Yoruba word ‘Ase’, meaning ‘so be it/may it be so’ is featured dead center. ‘Ase’ as a term of declaration and/or punctuation at the end of prayers, evokes the power to make things happen or to create change. In libation it is a part of the invocation of ancestors, calling them into our ceremonial/ritual space as active participants in our Earthly endeavors. In the video the word ‘Ase’ follows a series of names of family ancestors and so functions in the media the same as the libations we perform when we gather in community.
And so with all of these things coming together in one serendipitously captured image, I am honored to have and share this photo.
Over the course of my life I have worked as an artist, journalist, photographer, writer, filmmaker, and community organizer. In all of these disciplines I am always driven by the need to hear people’s stories, to know something deeper about the world through this act of witnessing. In this witnessing I am compelled by the feeling that I am a part of humanity growing, transforming, evolving.
My entire life I have been infatuated with the past. In me there has always been the palpable sensation of existence as moving energy, as if I could feel everything that came before this present moment moving through me, fractured by the consciousness and free will of the present, and exploding into branches of possibility as the future. And so ‘history’ has always been a living thing for me, a sentient, spiritual essence, an amalgamation of every voice, human, animal, plant, mineral and energetic, as ordered and complex and chaotic as nature, always beckoning for commune.
As humans we access the past first through our memories. These are our personal stories. We also access the past through written and oral histories. These are the personal stories of others and the stories of the collective. But history, as a linear retelling events, as an academic pursuit of dates and facts and consequences always felt incomplete, lacking the complexity, chaos and nuance that we experience in our daily lives. Human history is indistinguishable from natural history. This is to say that humans and the things we do are indistinguishable from nature and the things it does
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. Every discovery about nature, its principles and systems, leads us into a deeper appreciation for the ways order and chaos, simplicity and complexity harmoniously create the universe we inhabit. There is no one way of knowing nature, yet there is the innately human drive to reach a single unified understanding of the principles that drive it. And so, as science reveals more through disciplined inquiry, it inevitably leads us back poetry and spirituality as the ultimate way of expressing its revelations. My experience and pursuit of history is much like this; existentially and spiritually inspired, pursued through intellectual rigor and discipline, rewarded with only a glimpse of its complexity, revealed as highly spiritual, and perhaps only ever best expressed through poetry.
So in my work moving forward I have chosen to merge all of my studied disciplines into one practice. The inspired inquiry of the artist, the disciplined inquiry of the journalist, the dedicated witnessing of the photographer, the detailed reflection of the writer, the commitment to service of the community organizer, the vulnerable resignation of the poet. My two most recent projects, ‘This Is Who We Are’ and ‘An Elegant Utility’ emerge out of this intent. At their heart is a poem, a vulnerable questioning of the essential nature of our existence. They are a part of a larger body of work, focused on family history as the point of refraction where, in one direction, I can dive inward, seeking a singular truth of my individual existence, and in the other direction explore the infinite branches of our collective history and existence. This process is multi-faceted, complex and unpredictable. Each project installment is approached and presented on its own terms. So while they are a part of one process of inquiry and creation, they are likely to look and feel radically different. I have no specific road map. I am feeling my way through it.
‘An Elegant Utility’ is a poem wrapped in history. It is a statement of philosophy wrapped in person narratives. I am inspired by the life of my grandfather to explore the ways love shows up in the world through one person and shapes many lives. In his case through hammers and nails, roofs, doorways and massive timeworn black hands that helped build shelter for many to congregate under. It showed up in stern gazes that turned to quick smiles and back again and in a generosity whose only requirement in return was integrity and commitment to family. It showed in an open acknowledgement that he was only and strong, as good, and loving, as loved and those around him. This is the poetry. ‘An Elegant Utility’ is also a statement of philosophy about how the institution of family, expressed in this particular way, can be a centering force, allowing us to transform oppression into community building. It is a statement about how community allows us to know who we are and imagine who we can be. In this moment, after the systematic dismantling of my community, I am collecting these stories as a way of gathering up what is most useful to rebuild.
The stories in ‘An Elegant Utility’ are rooted in a specific historical context. They are about being Black. The philosophy undergirding the project is about being human. The mediation driving the project is about co-creating in the universe. Being unapologetically Black and unapologetically human is not a contradiction, though the philosophy western hegemony would have you believe so. As Black people we are berated to absolve ourselves of our blackness in favor of simply being human. This is a philosophical sleight of hand, a con in a world where European thought seeks to eclipse every other way of understanding and being human. By default, this positions the progenitors of this culture as inherently superior. It is a fantasy, and so recognizing we can relax an embrace the blackness of these stories as opening multiple windows into the human condition and offering unique points of view. This is certainly an on-going revolutionary act for black people in American. But more importantly, it is a revolutionary act more White people MUST embrace. Let it be black, let it be human, let be universal. This is the way nature speaks to us, in fractals, the whole represented in each and every part.
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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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