Years ago, there was an underground dance hall in Pioneer Square that catered to lesbian mothers, gay servicemen, drag queens, and achnucek—or "Two-Spirits," Native Americans whose identities exist outside the gender binary. At the time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and a crime punishable by imprisonment.
"The Casino was the name but it was about as far from Monte Carlo as you cd ever get," recalls Storme Webber in a poem titled "I Cover the Waterfront" (the idiosyncratic spelling is hers). "Cuban heel boots and sneakers, stilettos and cheap thongs, and watch how you walk down—cause those steps are steeply angled."
Webber's vivid recollections of the Casino were formed as a child during the 1960s, when her mother would take her there, along with other working-class establishments in the neighborhood. "I think of being in these spaces as a child was somewhat like a child artist's residency," the artist said recently on KUOW. "I learned about how people made community when they were considered outsiders."
Casino: A Palimpsest, the first museum exhibition from Storme Webber, includes a photograph of her as a young child in the 1960s, dressed as if to go out, cigarette dangling from her mouth. There is another photo of Webber as an adult, in a hat and men's necktie, holding another cigarette. Webber is a Two-Spirit artist, curator, writer, and performer who creates socially engaged texts and images at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, memory, and spirit.
On her mother's side, she is descended from Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) women from Alaska, and on her father's side, Black and Choctaw women from Louisiana and Texas. Through family photos illuminated by Webber's poetry, we meet these ancestors as individuals: her bisexual father in his naval uniform and again in drag; her lesbian mother and "butch stepfather"; the grandmother who raised her, a "blonde Indian" who loved Ray Charles and Billie Holiday and who taught her how to sing. Several of the photos were taken in photo booths—the selfies of yesteryear—and show these subjects enjoying themselves in moments of freedom and levity, candidly documenting themselves away from a colonizing, heteropatriarchal gaze.
The physical heart of the exhibition (or "dimensional story") is a traditional kayak covered with a handmade blanket, an altar to her family, harking back to a time when the only life on this waterfront was brought in by the fishing boats of the Duwamish. Its intangible heart is a darkened room with small speakers playing audio recordings of Webber reciting the poems that appear elsewhere as wall texts, her slick drawl bearing traces of her family's Southern side.
I sat in this room until each poem had played all the way through, savoring every image and subtle turn of phrase.
When I exited the room, the artist happened to be standing outside. I went to introduce myself and suddenly the tears that had been welling up began to flow freely. She hugged me, and she continued to hug me for far longer than strangers usually hug other strangers.
By the end of it, I hardly felt like we were strangers anymore.