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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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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