It’s instructive to see Everyday Black, a new two-person photography show at Northwest African American Museum, in the light of two other recent Seattle exhibits. One is the Black Imagination: States of Black Matter; the other is Truth Be Told. The former ran during January at the Core Gallery, and counted Natasha Marin as one of its curators. The latter are paintings by Yadesa Bojia that were exhibited at A/NT Gallery in December. All three are about the state of blackness in the 21st century, but each examines blackness from a different perspective or position.
The blackness represented in Truth Be Told looked outward. It addressed the break between how the mainstream sees blackness (a thug, a junkie, hustler) and what blackness normally is (a father or mother making ends meet). Black Imagination: States of Black Matter represented a kind of black ontology: black as being black in the world, blackness as what the 17th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant described as the “thing-in-itself.” When you entered this show, you were blindfolded and led through a maze of sounds. You could only hear blackness, not see it. Everyday Black—which C. Davida Ingram and Leilani Lewis curated, and features images by local photographers Jessica Rycheal and Zorn B. Taylor (both black)—can be described as hovering somewhere between Truth Be Told and Black Imagination. It captures the point at which blackness turns inward. It is the gate to a spiritual hortus conclusus.
Though most of the subjects in the show’s prints are looking directly at the camera, many have their eyes closed— for example, the portrait Elisheba, and the masterpiece of the show, (not your Michelangelo’s) David (both are by Zorn B. Taylor). And it is the latter portraits that define the exhibit’s mood, which is calm and not making demands for recognition. Bojia’s painters, on the other hand, looked at you directly and demand to be seen and respected. In this way, they are a part of the tradition in black arts that we can call Fanonian. This attitude, which is Hegelian (the master and the slave dialectic that many believe was inspired by the Haitian revolution), still has currency in our world. Even after experiencing a black president, blacks in America must still demand to be recognized as human beings. The Black Lives Matter movement has this struggle for recognition as its motive power.
The attitude of Everyday Black is very different—nor is it the same as the sonic noumenonality of Black Imagination. The black men and women in these portraits, many of whom live in the Seattle area, some of whom are artists, are leading you with open and closed eyes to a place within. And this inward zone is not troubled or stressed by everyday racial drama and insults. This is the hortus conclusus of blackness. A place that's carefully cultivated over the years and not so much as a retreat from the bad things, the deadly cops, the crooked courts, the displacement, the poverty that's out there, but as a kind of preparation for the day when what is done within can be done externally. This is paradise as a revolution.