Black History Month is celebrated every February to uplift the achievements of Black people and their central role in U.S. history. A great way to celebrate locally is with a visit to the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM). After being shuttered for almost three years due to the pandemic, NAAM reopened this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it’s never looked better.
In addition to the permanent collection focusing on the history and impacts of Black folks in the Northwest, the museum added an exhibit on the story of the Colman School building where the museum is housed (more on that in a minute) and ramped up its focus on contemporary Black artists. There’s also a new Community Living Room space that offers a quiet, comfortable environment to reflect on the exhibits.
The largest of the new exhibits is The Colors of Life: African American Abstract Art and the Regathering of Community. Featuring the works of Northwest artists Vincent Keele, Shantell Jackson, Lo Mar Metoyer, and Yeggy Michael, the show offers “light to guide us in the sea of darkness … a space for calming, healing, and introspection,” according to the statement that accompanies the paintings.
The artists present a complimentary array of styles that feature bold colors and shapes, three-dimensional depth, and a powerful sense of connectedness.
Lo Mar (a.k.a. Lo Metoyer) is a Seattle-based artist who’s worked in behavioral health with folks experiencing homelessness and those diagnosed with mental illnesses. Her paintings offer phantasms of bright forms, often looping in rhythm, some highlighted with glitter. She conjures up the depth and turbulence of human emotion.
Vincent Keele calls his large format works “portals that create metaphysical realms where every thought and action is balanced by its counterpart,” according to his artist’s statement. His paintings feature complex backgrounds of intersecting color planes overlain by dramatic swirling webs of pale acrylic lines. These overlays are like ancient hieroglyphics or an avant-garde music score, at the same time harmonious and discordant. You could view each of his works for hours and not take it all in!
Shantell Jackson and Yeggy Michael, the other artists in the show, offer equally profound meditations on color, form, shifting depths, timeless patterns, and abstract signifiers.
Celebrating Black Resistance
Nationally, the theme of this year’s Black History Month is “Black Resistance.” Here in King County, it’s being celebrated with the premiere of A Long Walk to Hope: Exploring Seattle’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual March Through Photos. This brilliant new exhibition by Seattle photographer Susan Fried showcases the spirit, strength, and community commitment exemplified by the annual marches.
Resistance is also a theme presented through the permanent collection. Photos document the long history of community action against oppression, such as the 1947 protesters against a local grocery store that discriminated against Black patrons, and the time in 1968 when Black Panthers took over the steps of the Washington state capitol to protest persistent racism in state policies.
Also exploring resistance are the works of one-time Seattle artist Jacob Lawrence. He’s represented by prints from three of his monumental series, including Toussaint L’Ouverture, a 41-image series that celebrates L’Ouverture’s efforts to emancipate Haiti from European rule and establish the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere.
NAAM’s location in the Colman School building is also a result of active resistance by Seattle’s Black community in the form of a years-long occupation of the building (see November 24, 1985: The Colman School Occupation, by Jeff Stevens 24 November, 2013). That history is presented in another new exhibit – in the Hallway of Healing and Hope – which is a timeline documenting the history of the school and how it became NAAM. From the display text:
United, we are a rock. Divided, we are sand.
You are standing in the historic Colman School building that served students in the Central District of Seattle for nearly 80 years. After the school was closed in the 1980s, community activists Earl Debnam, Michael Greenwood, Charlie James, and Omari Tahir-Garrett occupied the abandoned building to claim and establish it as an African American museum and cultural center.
The group of activists resided in the building until the city agreed to support a museum in this place. They occupied the building for an additional five years. During and after this time, divergent and conflicting thoughts regarding the vision of the museum have kept tensions high. Our hope as a museum is for healing.
For more on this conflict, see Addressing the Colman School Encampment FAQs on NAAM’s website.
Jimi Hendrix Park
NAAM is located adjacent to Jimi Hendrix Park, which celebrates a groundbreaking native son who revolutionized the electric guitar as a tool of expression and resistance. Hendrix is featured in a small exhibit celebrating some of the profound cultural impacts local Black artists have made in the world. His life-size image accompanies this quote:
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, there will be peace.”
NAAM is producing a number of special events for Black History Month. Check out their Upcoming Events page for more details. Located at 2300 South Massachusetts Street, Seattle, WA 98144, the museum is open Wednesdays-Saturdays, 10am-5pm, and stays open until 7pm on first Thursdays of each month. Tickets range from $5-10, and there’s plenty of free parking onsite.