Giant handmade reproductions of a vintage lunchbox and thermos from the groundbreaking late '60s TV show Julia—with Seattle artist, gallerist, and curator Tariqa Waters' face replacing that of actress Diahann Carroll's—slowly swivel in the room. A curated and energetic playlist of mostly hip-hop and R&B blankets the objects. And in the back, a long light-rimmed mirror leads you along a small back hallway to another similarly bright space buttressing the first. It's a showroom of Black pop art that marks an exciting moment for a brick neighborhood that needs a big dollop of color.
The Waters-run arts space is dubbed the Martyr Sauce Pop Art Museum (or MS PAM, if you will) and is a street-level companion to the subterranean, nearly decade-old art gallery called Martyr Sauce, which is located just down the block. When vintage athletic clothing company Ebbets Field Flannels moved out of the space around a year ago, the 2020 Neddy Award winner and Stranger cover star jumped at the opportunity to expand her playful, Black, and DIY gallery above ground and make it more accessible.
Conceived as a museum/gallery/beauty supply/merch store/music venue/Pee-wee's-Playhouse-but-Black/showroom, MS PAM is intended to mirror Martyr Sauce's original location. You can jam out to music downstairs and spread out with art upstairs. While the space had a soft opening earlier in June, this Thursday, July 1 marks MS PAM's grand opening celebration during Pioneer Square Art Walk.
Waters and Ryan would do tasks for each other and jokingly say "Thank you, Pam!" back and forth when Waters realized "Pam" could also work in an art context, riffing off the many -AMs (art museums) in the Puget Sound area: SAM, TAM, BAM, NAAM, SAAM, etc. She slapped Martyr Sauce in front, and thus, an art museum was born.
MS PAM debuts after the Waters-curated group exhibition at Bellevue Arts Museum, Yellow No. 5, earlier this year received a lot of attention when an open letter—signed by Waters, the exhibiting artists, and others in solidarity—called out the racism of the museum's executive director and board for treating Waters with "much harm and disrespect" as the first Black woman to curate a show at BAM.
Waters is keen to leave that experience behind her and foment an arts space in the city that rebukes white approval but instead centers Black artists and all the cool shit they want to do. Black influence—especially within pop art—is often not acknowledged by the culture at large. MS PAM is a middle finger to all that. A reclamation of time and space that never should have been taken away in the first place.
“We know our reality and how we spread across the world and our power and influence. We are fully aware of that—so then why are we just blatantly left out of these global conversations in terms of influence?” said Waters. “We have to claw our way back to the front.”
Emphasizing her objective to make sure everyone gets paid, Waters said she's "throwing the whole gallery model out the window." She plans on collaborating with and commissioning artists to use and transform the space however they please. Her focus remains on working with Black artists both locally and nationally but is eager to work with anyone with a big vision for MS PAM.
"At this point, [it's about] who's down to do something crazy and cool, and how I can help fund it," she said.
Currently, the side room is home to an expansive and colorful mural by Tacoma-based artist Kenji Stoll. Stoll's graphic and bright designs begin on the ceiling and spill down the walls of the space. He even painted a false wall constructed by Waters that swings over the street-level windows like a shutter. The result is a trippy, immersive mural that feels like you're bathing in pure color and line.
And beneath Stoll's work and on top of a carpet of fake grass is Seattle-based artist Clyde Petersen's "TIMBER!," an enormous tree trunk made of cardboard that leans against a gallery wall. Toward the back of the space is a platform where Waters says she wants to host DJs and project music videos from musicians like DoNormaal.
In an alcove near the back mirrors, a collection of pop culture artifacts from the 20th century are positioned to be played around with by visitors. Now, it mostly contains memorabilia from Julia, the first weekly TV show to feature a Black female character in a role other than a maid or servant. For three seasons, Diahann Carroll played the eponymous widowed single mother, taking care of her young son and working as a nurse.
The Emmy-nominated show launched Carroll into stardom, and in an attempt to capitalize on its popularity, tons of Julia-themed products came to market. Toy viewfinders, dress-up kits, hospital games, lunchboxes and thermoses (with Carroll's face and not Waters)—all of which you can see at MS PAM.
Waters' fascination with these pop-culture objects comes partly out of her nostalgia, but also from how they represent conversations the Black community has been having for decades about representation, visibility, desire, and respectability. She's also interested in the Black faces that appear on quotidian and castaway objects like toilet paper wrapping and their function as anchors in other people's stories about themselves.
"What's not precious is only precious to me," Waters told me. "I like a little nuance, those little magic gems you forget about. It's like finding $20 in your pocket that you forgot you put in there."
For the grand opening on Thursday, Waters plans to have some merch for sale, like hoodies with a MS PAM logo emblazoned across the front and a sweatshirt version of her NO tote bag, available to purchase. The space will still do timed entry, with priority to people who book the $10 tickets in advance. There will also be limited tickets available at the door. Go and spin around the best pop art showroom Seattle has to offer.
If you can't make it to the grand opening, you can reserve tickets for $15 to get access to both MS PAM and its sister space, Martyr Sauce, downstairs.