Art without performative pain | 20-26 December 2023

Thursday, December 7 was a typical rainy evening in Seattle, thanks to an atmospheric river and an early sunset. And like most typical Seattleites, I was more than ready after a long day at work to come home, dry off and dive under some blankets and hope that Friday would come quickly. Instead, I went to the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), located right next to Jimi Hendrix Park, for the reception of Positive Frequencies by the artists.

However, when I slipped into the space and shook the raindrops from my afro, my mood completely changed. Instead of the hushed murmur of visitors expected in many museums, a playlist of great artists blared over the speakers: Aretha Franklin turned to James Brown, moving on to Ray Charles. People mingled as the finishing touches were applied. There were tables of merchandise sold by local artists, an open bar with beer and wine, and more than a generous charcuterie board. Most museums I’ve been to didn’t even like water bottles entering their sacred spaces.

The music was a fitting accompaniment to the Positive Frequencies exhibit, which focuses on works by C. Bennett and local artists Samuel Blackwell, Myron Curry and Eric D. Salisbury that focus on the transformative power of music. Making my way through the exhibit, I was immediately drawn to Bennett’s use of mixed media. Bright colors and patterns combine to provide a larger image. Checkerboard, diamond and paisley tile patterns are spray painted on a wood-like, yellow-brown background, with plenty of negative space left.

On one piece, MUSIC HEALS, written in mossy green material emerging from the canvas. The “Please do not touch” sign was a good reminder as I wanted to reach out and touch it with my fingers. The way the material came out reminded me a lot of my afro textured hair.

A dynamic, color-changing neon sign flows into portraits of music greats including Prince, Louis Armstrong and James Brown.

The rich texture and playful splashes of color on Bennett’s canvases encourage you to get as close as possible and peer into the small details and see what you might otherwise miss, like a map of Los Angeles or an homage to beauty salons lovingly mixed in the back plan.

Another part of the exhibit was a wall of brilliant portraits of black female musicians by Myron Curry, a Seattle-born and raised artist. The pieces on display are mostly created with acrylics on materials such as old glass windows. Shades of green stand out on Sade Adu’s face, which Currie paints looking out at the viewer. Nina Simone is shown in a lush, deep purple; the thick brush strokes match the dark intensity of her voice.

“Emotion Overload” by Curry is a captivating portrait of Etta James in pink, yellow, green and blue. The bright colors make the piercing gaze of her dark eyes stand out even more. The ornate gilt frame that encases “Emotional Overload,” Currie shared with me, could only be Etta’s—he knew it when he saw it.

An ongoing line of art focusing on black women in music shows Curry’s reverence for them. His faithful display of the traits and characters of all women speaks of a deep appreciation based on respect.

I ended up talking to other black women as we approached Currie’s works, talking about how beautiful all the paintings were and seeing my own features in them. Notably, Currie chose to show only pieces featuring black women in music at an all-black male art exhibit. The influence and solidarity of black women was demonstrated through Curry’s works, a fact that did not go unnoticed by me.

Where Currie used bright colors, many of Eric D. Salisbury’s works in the exhibition are done in monochrome hues, especially black and white. The stark contrast adds to the drama of the featured artists, and the occasional burst of color especially caught my eye.

His pieces that use color, such as “Feeling the Groove,” still incorporate elements of the black-and-white contrast, this time in the hair of jazz performers, while the background relies heavily on shades of brown and primary colors. “Feeling the Groove” seems like a spiritual successor to the famous “The Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes, a work of art presented in the homes of many of our black elders next to plastic-covered sofas. “Feeling the Groove,” like “The Sugar Shack,” feels cozy and alive, and the exuberance of Salisbury-drawn artists is infectious.

I also met Samuel Blackwell on my saunter through the exhibition. Blackwell brings us back to the Cotton Club with his portrait of Nat King Cole. The eponymous singer sits still at a table, broad brushstrokes blurring his surroundings and focusing on the man at rest, head in hand and cigarette dangling from his fingers. He is still wearing his performance tail. As the viewer, you are left to put the pieces together. Is he tired? Is he disappointed with his last performance? Why is he in the club so late after all the other chairs are put away on top of the tables? It makes more sense to think through the scenarios instead of getting the answers.

I went through the entire exhibit several times, reviewing my favorite pieces. NAAM encourages viewers to spend more than the average 27 seconds viewing each canvas, in part by providing ample seating. The gallery also leaves plenty of room for navigation regardless of mobility and assistive devices. You never feel like you’re blocking the way or taking up too much space, something all too common as a black patron. I perched on one of several benches during the artist’s talk.

No matter which of the four performers took the microphone to speak, the overwhelming energy of the room was black joy. It was obvious to me that this exhibition was a big deal not only for the artists, but also for the museum and the community. The space was festive and uplifting. When Curry spoke about his strong ties to Seattle and his current fundraising efforts to preserve his grandfather’s house, the audience took the microphone to talk about Curry.

When Kibibi Monier, a community activist and motivational speaker with deep roots, shared about the murals Curry has done in Seattle’s black neighborhoods and throughout the city, it felt more like a testimony. The love he had flowed in abundance.

In the same way that Bennett’s piece says “MUSIC HEALS” in capital letters, the Positive Frequencies exhibition has become a healing art space. All four artists focused on black magic, black traits, and black resilience in a way that was independent of our collective trauma.

Salisbury provided his own perspective on black magic, saying, “I challenge artists to be more positive and more progressive.”

The downpour was still going when I left NAAM, but I felt lighter than when I entered. Although parts of Washington and Seattle were originally de facto sunset territories—where it was effectively illegal to be black Americans after sunset—we had all gathered at a museum dedicated to the black community of the Pacific Northwest. Blackness is celebrated in its glory as it is freed from the shackles of generational pain brought together with our wet shoes and shades of brown, sharing in the joy of finding community.

Seattle’s black community is a half-hidden gem. The Emerald City may be better known for its technological might and giant corporations, along with liberal politics, but we exist here too. The descendants of black people who moved during the Great Migration and settled in South Seattle carved out a beautiful space for themselves. Despite the gentrification, predatory lending and rampant red tape, we are still here and still have so much to celebrate. And we truly celebrate in spaces like NAAM created where Blackness is actively valued and loved.

Ultimately, Positive Frequencies encourages introspection on the effect that music by black artists has on our own lives. I thought about all the times as a kid I’d go to the library after school to burn CDs on my laptop, and the passion in my father’s voice when he talked about the importance of blues music. I may not go to church on Sundays to sing gospel like my grandparents did, but I have a playlist ranging from Aretha Franklin to Tyler the Creator on my weekend cleaning list. Being black in America is about the shared experiences and cultures of a growing diaspora, and music continues to be an important link.

For a unique and welcoming exhibition that encourages you to stop by, sit back and enjoy the gallery, come visit NAAM.

It’s Leinani Lucas Native American and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas

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