by Tyler Mangrum
- The Capitol Hill Times -
It has been said that art, as a medium, is meant to provoke and engage. While a painting or a photograph can be a reflection of beauty, other artists look to their craft as a means of initiating a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. They can be messages of hope, sadness, anger, lust, or all of the above. Yet, despite the breadth of questions that art can evoke, the artistic community as a whole remains uniform in America, and Seattle in particular – middle- to upper-class white men dominate almost every school of gallery art, leaving many people of color out of the dialogue.
“Question Bridge: Black Males” and “Seen: an Exploration of the Inside and the Out, the Then and the Now, By the (Still) Invisible Men” are meant to address that issue. Given the large, thriving population of people with African diasporal descent living in the Pacific Northwest, the conversation that art is meant to create is one particularly suited for a community that gets less exposure in the artistic community than deserved. The exhibitions allows males of African diasporal descent who wished to participate to share an image that says something of importance to them, as a way to contribute to a larger dialogue.
To initiate that conversation, the exhibition, currently running at Photo Center NW, is both an art show and a forum for discussion. A video project in which four artists traveled across the country facilitating the process and collecting questions and answers exclusively from males is displayed on a wall near the entrance; it asks questions like, “Do you want to improve the situation that you’re in?” and “What is the reluctance for taking responsibility for improving our communities?”
The questions are probing and thought-provoking, but the centerpiece of the exhibit is the way that the photographs push the viewer to reflect. While some photographs are meant to simply capture a particular idea or moment, such as a 1968 portrait of Seattle Black Panther Party co-founder Aaron Dixon, others reflect the mission statement of the exhibition by presenting an issue or an ideal in visual form.
One photograph taken by Jacky Gotin shows a black gay man standing in front of a pile of books, which Gotin says is meant to challenge the generally negative perception towards feminine black males within the community as well as literacy. Another, taken by the four year-old son of Yadesa Bojia, is a picture of Yadesa while at an art exhibit.
One of the most interesting photographs of the exhibit comes from Yegizaw Michael, a first-generation African immigrant whose photograph of a group of Africans standing closely together. It’s one that Michael never meant to be a statement while he was shot it, but on closer examination, he found that the photograph threw into stark contrast the cultural difference between his former home and his new one.
“Normally, a photograph for me is documenting stories and life,” said Michael. “When I was choosing one for this show, this one was striking for me because it shows how close all these men are, with one actually hugging two of the others. It raises the question of the challenge that I have here with American culture where men are so afraid to touch each other. For me it comes naturally to hug other men, but you get a reaction from people that makes you behave differently, but I still know it’s normal where I’m from. So it wasn’t just that I find it aesthetically pleasing, I wanted to bring a conversation about the difference between here and there.”
While the conversations that these photographs create are fascinating, to Bojia, the ability to use art to showcase these stereotype-breaking images goes beyond the exhibition’s mission statement by also shining a light on a demographic that is neglected by the artistic community as a whole and showing how varied the art that they produce is.
Bojia explained his frustration with art history when he was in higher learning, how art historians classify art styles and then bundle all black artists as “African American Art”. “Look at the photographs featured here,” he said. “Some are candid, some are photo journalism and some portraits. They all represent different style and genre. The importance of shows like this is that it shades light in the richness and diversity of black artists.”
Article updated on January 23, 2014, at 5:25 p.m. after receiving clarification from Photo Center NW and artist Yadesa Bojia.