A still from Inye Wokomas This Is Who We Are, a new two-channel video installation. In the piece, Wokoma is ritually buried in a shroud in his backyard in the Central District. The home has been in his family for more than half a century. But its on Duwamish land.
A still from Inye Wokoma's This Is Who We Are, a new two-channel video installation. In the piece, Wokoma is ritually buried in a shroud in his backyard in the Central District. The home has been in his family for more than half a century. But it's on Duwamish land. Courtesy of the artist

An African American man—mother's family descended from slaves, father's family still in the Niger Delta—is ritually buried in the backyard of his family's Central District home in 2016.

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The man goes to sleep in the earth. As he dreams, his ancestors awaken, to make a belated request.

They pay their respects to the Duwamish ancestors, the original inhabitants of the land where he sleeps. They entreat them humbly. Will you allow us to share this land? they ask, admitting they are late.

He awakens, hopes he will receive some sign of a yes.

Inye Wokoma is the man who underwent the ritual. He documented it to be shown at the Frye Art Museum, meaning that what we see in the two videos is an image of the work itself, which was the ritual.

An art space can only provide partial access to ritual, is Wokoma's point. Another type of partial access: You may or may not recognize the significance of the objects and people in the film, depending on your own personal cultural experiences.

But there is power in the partial transfer.

Wokomas daughter is Ama Ibi, right.
Wokoma's daughter is Ama Ibi, right. Courtesy of the artist

The words on the screen, overlaid on images of the watery Duwamish region, are in an indigenous language. They are the names of all the signers on the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, when the native people of the Puget Sound lost their land and were pushed to reservations.

Intoning their names, Wokoma recognizes their ongoing authority. He intercuts them with the names of his own family members going back through his maternal and paternal lineages.

All that makes the piece sound cool and cerebral, but the cinematography is visceral and jewel-toned. The slide show of family photographs and waterscapes is moving, not still. The piece washes over the room, envelops you. Continuing to watch means continuing to gain details, grounding, some sense of, if not participation, then appreciation.

The piece is born of "the global colonial reality we're all living in," Wokoma says.

He calls it This Is Who We Are.

It's one of three separate exhibitions opening this weekend at the Frye.

They're so different. But they are not actually so separate.

At first I thought the Frye might be pandering. Old European paintings for one crowd, a local artist for another, and the international star to round things out.

But walking through, my mind kept filling in the spaces between them with questions, ideas, links, even jokes.

Chronicles of Solitude: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershoi is, as its title suggests, an exercise in old, formal European seriousness.

In this 1902 painting of buildings in Copenhagen, Vilhelm Hammershoi waited until the fog completely obscured the water beyond the buildings. Thats the kind of painter he was.
In this 1902 painting of buildings in Copenhagen, Vilhelm Hammershoi waited until the fog completely obscured the water beyond the buildings. That's the kind of painter he was. Courtesy National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, ©SMK Photo

In Chronicles of Solitude, pale galleries are dotted with desolate paintings of stunned, claustrophobic rooms.

Hammershoi chose to paint a pretty waterfront, then waited until fog covered over the water, turning the vista into a void. That's the kind of painter he was.

He lived from 1864 to 1916 in Denmark, and would have us believe that this time and place was without color and noise.

That Scandinavian reserve ended up becoming part of Seattle's identity, as the Scandinavian immigration to this city peaked around 1910.

It was about 1910 that the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North really got going, sweeping Black families such as Wokoma's mother's to Seattle, where they rested on the Duwamish land that Wokoma knows as his backyard.

Another cultural force exerted itself on this land during those last years of the 19th century: the migration of workers from across Asia to the American West Coast, known as the "gold" coast for its supposed treasure.

Along with This Is Who We Are and Chronicles of Solitude—note the communal address of Wokoma's title, using "we," and the European's focus on the individualism that would come to dominate Euro-America in the 20th century—the Frye is presenting a movie trailer by Chinese artist Xu Bing, a global contemporary star.

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Xu is working on what he calls the first feature film in history without actors, actresses, or a camera crew.

All its footage will have been collected from public surveillance video.

What we see at the Frye is the trailer for this as-yet-unfinished film.

A video still from Xu Bings trailer for Dragonfly Eyes, made entirely using surveillance footage from cameras across China.
A video still from Xu Bing's trailer for Dragonfly Eyes, made entirely using surveillance footage from cameras across China. Courtesy of the artist

The trailer is a work of art in itself. Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker happened to come across it on view while she was on one of her many trips to China earlier this year, and she immediately asked to bring it to Seattle.

(Aside: Birnie Danzker is actual treasure.)

The format of the trailer is the ultimate flattening international form. It shouts and throws provocations at you to get your attention. It is not concerned with whether it actually represents the thing it says it does.

It just wants to get you to want more of it.

Though Xu has only surveillance footage to use, his trailer works like any other trailer.

To rushing beats, it accelerates from a banal, still beginning to a murder, a striptease, and even a car falling into a giant hole in the street, but intercut with scenes featuring the woman who is the supposed protagonist of the film.

Because the footage is surveillance footage, the woman is a different woman in every scene. Xu uses that problem to his advantage: The voiceover describes a plot based on an alleged news story about a man who is furious to discover, after his beautiful wife delivers their ugly child, that she'd had plastic surgery.

So she can look different in every scene. Who is she? She's someone always changing.

Today's rapidly growing and changing China would be unrecognizable to the workers who first came to Seattle to build railroads and cities, and who were attacked and forcibly expelled during Hammershoi's calm, introspective life.

Yet today's China represents a kind of global sameness—shot through with American multinational corporate logic—against which cultures revolt, regroup, reemerge. This is who we are, they say, resonating with Wokoma's title.

We are us, yet we are entangled. Sorry, Hammershoi, you will not get to hide out in your rooms alone. Denmark will relate to Nigeria, which will relate to Seattle and Arkansas, which will all relate to China.

This may simply be what curating within a "global colonial reality" looks like, what comes crashing together when the tides of 21st-century culture hit the shore of the American Northwest Coast in 2016.

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