Edwin T. Pratt moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1956 to work for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. In 1961, he became the organization's executive director. A champion for the black community here, Pratt was murdered in front of his home in Shoreline in 1969. His killers were never found.
This is the part of his story most media outlets are infatuated with—a noble and important black man's violent death—but his impact as an ardent supporter of desegregation and access to equitable housing and education for people of color in the city is largely skipped over. Most don't even know that he is the namesake of the Pratt Fine Arts Center, nestled in the Central District on the edge of Pratt Park, which is also named after him.
His photo greets visitors when they enter Pratt Fine Arts Center's main office—he's slightly hunched over some papers and his eyes are looking away, as if he's eternally working toward a brighter future. Founded in 1976, the center provides visual arts education to people of all backgrounds and skill levels.
This year, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pratt's assassination, the center is paying tribute to the civil rights icon, combining forces with the Northwest African American Museum to create Edwin T. Pratt: A Living Legacy, which is up at NAAM through August 28. The show consists of art contributed by artists who have received the Pratt Scholarship over the past four years. It also includes items of historical interest, like Pratt's own typed and handwritten notes, which now belong to the Black Heritage Society. The overall effect is terrifically didactic, with many walls dedicated to illuminating Pratt's contributions to Seattle's history.
While A Living Legacy does not have a central through line of an aesthetic or problem—like hair, or love, or war—each artist interprets Pratt's legacy in some way. The resulting show is an interesting and thoughtful mixture of photography, painting, and conceptual work.
One standout is longtime Pratt artist Jite Agbro's Blue Shades of Blue. Agbro grew up in the Central District and randomly wandered into the center one day when she was 9. The CD was much blacker then, she told me, and most people who were taking classes there were white, which made her hesitant about entering the space as a young girl.
"There was a black woman working at the front desk, and she was really friendly," Agbro recalled. "She told me that [the Pratt Center] was named after a civil rights activist. It made me feel more entitled to be there." She started taking classes.
Agbro's work generally deals with clothing, printmaking, and large-scale multimedia works. For Blue Shades of Blue, Agbro worked with kozo, a type of strong, fibrous Japanese paper. When sewn together, kozo behaves much more like fabric. She stitched together long, wide strips of this paper, dyed various shades of blue and decorated with floral patterns, and hung them from rods high up on the wall. The strips of paper are graced with shadows of a man and a woman.
"That's a silhouette of Edwin Pratt that I cut out of a magazine and blew up," Agbro said. "I also wanted to inject the narrative of his wife and his daughter, and show how those struggles are important and significant as well." At the time of his death, Pratt left behind his wife, Bettye—who was just as involved in the civil rights movement—and a young daughter, Miriam.
The blue in her work is in reference to Miles Davis's album Kind of Blue. Specifically "All Blues," which Agbro's sister used to sing along to all the time. "I have a special relationship with that song, and I thought that idea of it being all blue would reference how when you're fighting for civil rights, there's not really a triumph—there's just perseverance. And that's really all you can do."
The material Agbro works with is so delicate and sensitive that it flutters whenever a body moves past it. It's not hidden behind glass or tacked down; instead, in a way, it interacts with all moving things in the space.
"I just wanted to pay homage to the fact that he struggled, that he was threatened throughout his life, and that he died for it. Like many who died for it between 1965 and 1969," Agbro said. "We are here because of them, but we don't get to know about them."
Agbro also told me that it's satisfying to have art up in her old neighborhood. "You think of yourself as a little kid walking around that area and seeing people's art on the walls—you don't assume that that's going to be your life." I think the same could probably be said for Pratt.
Another affecting and dynamic piece in the show is by Tara Tamaribuchi. A recipient of the 2018 Pratt Scholarship, Tamaribuchi began shifting her artistic practice from painting to conceptual art, specifically public art. This shift began after the convergence of Donald Trump's election and the Muslim ban with the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which mandated Japanese internment during World War II.
Connecting the current political climate with her own family's history, Tamaribuchi makes works that seek to address the continual failure of our society to center people who fall outside a certain identity. Her Camouflage Net Project, a series of camouflage nets woven with strips of kimono and yukata fabric, was inspired by images created by legendary photographer Dorothea Lange of Japanese American prisoners making camouflage nets by hand.
"I was used to thinking about the labor as being people who were working in the mess hall or working on a farm," she said recently. "I didn't really think of people doing things [like this] with their hands, so that intrigued me."
The piece's iteration at NAAM finds the net covering a giant metallic house-like structure, creating a kind of tent that's meant to replicate a typical internment camp barrack. But it also has vibrant reds and oranges, juxtaposed against softer, more neutral colors.
The tent itself is large enough for six to eight people to stand inside. A wooden bench is wedged into a corner, with headsets playing a loop of testimonies of formerly interned Japanese Americans. During my visit, I listened to a man recount how he made camouflage for a private company while imprisoned in a labor camp.
Tamaribuchi had been researching internment since learning of the redress movement of the 1960s and '70s, during which Japanese American activists forced the government to reexamine the experience of their parents and grandparents during World War II. Tamaribuchi's own family was interned at the Tule Lake center in California.
"The generation of my grandparents didn't have a lot of resources. And then their children, after seeing the civil rights movement happen, felt like they needed to stand up for their parents," Tamaribuchi said, relating her work to the legacy of Pratt. "The inspiration from black history in the 1960s and seeing people take a stand and having rights—that's why Japanese Americans are able to revisit this history."