I'd signed up for Portland-based photographer Intisar Abioto's community portraits event at Wa Na Wari, held outside the arts space as a way of capturing the faces of Seattle's Black community members. Abioto guided my awkward body, gently suggesting positions and offering words of encouragement when I hit a pose that worked.
As we snapped away the rest of our allotted time in the garden, she told me that she normally lets her subjects set the scene, more interested in following their instincts than imposing a mood onto them. The key is to bring out comfort and confidence, she said. Her work reflects that collaborative spirit, capturing naturalistic, candid portraits of African diasporic people.
And now, Seattleites have the opportunity to view her portraits out in public. Last month, Wa Na Wari and Seattle Art Museum installed Abioto and Hank Willis Thomas's Intertwined. The public art installation is composed of nine banners placed along 23rd Avenue, Jackson Street, Union Street, and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, which will stay up over the next year. The banners balance Abioto's portraits with Thomas's text from his I AM A MAN series.
Known for The Black Portlanders project, which documented Black history and people in Portland, Abioto was invited to go through Thomas's catalog for inspiration for the collaboration. She told me his I AM A MAN series immediately drew her in because it riffed off a photo from a 1968 Memphis sanitation strike by Ernest C. Withers, a legendary Civil Rights photographer who Abioto interned with.
In the photo, Black workers carry signs with the same message emblazoned on them in the same script—"I AM A MAN." Thomas reinterpreted that sign into twenty paintings that play with the original phrase and text. And in Abioto's final iteration, she pulled from her archive of Black portraits and coupled them with Thomas's text paintings, embodying the words in flesh. The series, translated into banners, hung around the Rose City for six months.
Abioto—who moved to Portland several years ago from Memphis—told me Elisheba Johnson, co-founder of Wa Na Wari, asked her if she'd be interested in bringing the project up north to Seattle. In a press release, Johnson attributes her interest in the series to the concept of the "I-5 connection," which sees Black artists across the Pacific Northwest facing "similar opportunities and constraints due to gentrification and affordability" while living in this abundant blue-green landscape.
Intertwined comes during a prime moment for Black beauty and history in Seattle. It's coupled with Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle's eye on the roles of Black people in American history and Barbara Earl Thomas's The Geography of Innocence's focus on Black childhood, which are both up at SAM.
The banners in the Seattle iteration of the project are smaller and arranged differently, but they're still similar to the originals in Portland. Abioto told me she was "appreciative" of the opportunity to come up to Seattle to see her project and take pictures of the Black community.
"It's just so wonderful to appreciate us through art and through the lens, to notice our beauty," she said. "It's very much a love story for me; it's continuously interesting."
The photos she took of me and the dozens of other Seattleites this past weekend will go into her archive and may pop up at a show later this year at Wa Na Wari. In the meantime, go on a walk and try to spot all nine of these banners around the city. It's a chance to reflect on the communities you move through.