Samina Islam’s installation, “Ancestral Clues,” is a series of mixed-media works. Black and white photographs highlight milestones in her family history from her parents’ wedding to her grandparents’ house in the Netherlands where she first arrived after migrating from Pakistan. They are all connected by red thread, which symbolizes blood. Islam said the installation was inspired by a detective board.
“Where connections are made and we look for clues. The same way I have been in search of my identity through family pictures and these pictures will be passed on to my children.”
Islam is one of nine artists whose creative vision converges in the show “Bloodlines.” The exhibition seeks to answer the question of how cultural heritage and ancestral identity work in your daily life. Fiber artist Islam explores her Pakistani and Dutch heritage. Sculpter Steve Jensen pays tribute to his Norwegian ancestry with Viking-inspired boats. Raychelle Duazo’s comic book-esque graphic works reflect her journey in embracing her Filipino roots. All of their distinct points of view blend effortlessly within the space.
The works chosen for the show came in part through an open call. Rather than say specifically what they were looking for, staff at ArtXchange let the artists share their interpretation of the question without placing any restrictions. After surveying the submissions, an overarching theme stood out.
“It was very much about specific people in their history. Very specific grandmother or mother, and that those people are very real and present in their life,” Assistant Director Lauren Davis said. “Then there’s a few artists like Barry [Johnson] who, as a counterpoint, it’s really the lack of information and the lack of ancestor or being disconnected that is very present in their life. So we thought that was really interesting, the presence or the non-presence.”
Islam fuses embroidery and beading into her work. Jade and crimson French knots add texture to a skirt. Several faces of her loved ones are covered with vibrant thread. Some are perfect ovals while a cascade of roses conceals another. In “Clue Desi Honeymoon I,” Islam stitched a sunflower over the face of a woman donning a sari.
“When we look at a photograph we mostly look at the face first. We identify with the face so I thought what if I obscure the face, do we still see the person? Do we still identify what is in front of us?” Islam wrote in an email from Pakistan. “For me art needs to provoke in a certain way, make the viewer think, confuse or revolt. I don’t want to produce a pretty picture. I want my work to be thought-provoking.”
Jensen’s “Voyager” series is deeply personal and draws upon his Scandinavian lineage. “Coins for the Oarsman” is comprised of found beach steel and coins. Its oblong shape mimics a Viking ship. Born and raised in Ballard, Jensen’s father and grandfather were fishermen. His maternal grandfather was a boat builder. Jensen created his first boat in 1998 at the request of his best friend Sylvain, who was living out the remainder of his days at Bailey-Boushay, a center providing care to people with terminal diseases. Sylvain died from aids, and that first boat served as a funeral vessel for his ashes. Within six years Jensen lost more loved ones — his father, mother and his partner of 24 years. Jensen made a boat for each of them to encase their ashes, attached a rope, then dropped it into the sea.
“The deaths were horrible. You know, we had aids, you know, suicide, mental illness basically and alcoholism. You know, they were horrible,” Jensen said. “I’m trying to take something that was really painful and really disturbing in my life and turn it into something beautiful. That’s what the work is all about.”
Out of tragedy Jensen began embracing his family history. His first name is actually Sven but by the time he entered high school he was known as Steve. His parents also valued assimilation.
“My father had a very strong Scandinavian accent,” Jensen said. “There was a period of time where they didn’t want to be Scandinavian. They wanted to be American.”
“Railroad Vessel with Fishing Floats” is made up of found steel and antique Japanese fishing floats. The mixture of the rustic with glass structures is a nod to his childhood memories.
“If I got all my chores done on my grandfather’s boat, a treat for me would be that he would put me in the rowboat and I could go ashore and look for those, the Japanese fishing floats,” he said.
Like Jensen, Duazo didn’t always embrace her heritage. The Filipina-American queer, femme strives for balance between the two cultures but often finds it to be elusive.
“As your life is changing, you keep changing. That idea of connection to culture changes too,” Duazo said. “What I think about my own culture is really different from what I thought at age 14 or something, for example. When I was younger I really didn’t take a lot of pride in being Filipino, which was hard for me to admit it at first. I think because of that not being able to find that balance when I was younger, it makes it all the more fulfilling that I’m finding it now.”
A trip to the Philippines four years ago swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. Her time there had a significant impact on her.
“I didn’t know I needed this but I really did,” she said. “It almost felt like I had opened a different part of myself. It was really interesting.”
Duazo’s work showcases caramel-toned women against rich blues, greens and reds. “‘KAPANGYARIHAN’ (Power)” shows a woman holding a bolo knife. The curved blade is significant to Filipino women because it was used by Gabrielle Silang, the first Filipino woman to lead a revolt against Spanish colonizers. The phrase across the blade means “the power is mine.”
Duazo’s “Malayong Mga Kapatid, Hindi Ka Namin Makakalimutan” shows two faces representing the land and the ocean. She was inspired by an installation a few blocks away in Pioneer Square by Native American artist Edgar Heap of Birds. Titled “Day/Night,” the porcelain-enameled steel panels next to a bust of Chief Seattle (Sealth) features quotations in both English and Lushootseed, his native language. One panel reads, “Far away brothers and sisters we still remember you.”
“It kind of made me think of the relationship between children of diaspora and their country of origin,” Duazo said. “In a way to me that almost feels like the relationship between earth and water. It’s almost, like, symbiotic, and they need each other to survive.”
Duazo went on to say being the child of an immigrant, it’s important to connect with the Philippines because it’s a reflection of her.
“Bloodlines” is a chorus of diverse voices playing off one another in perfect harmony.
The artists are exploring familial ties, whether there’s an abundance of material to draw from or a scarcity. Each presents a relatable viewpoint and all are equally essential.
WHEN: Runs until Nov. 25; First Thursday reception Nov. 2, 5 – 8 p.m.
WHERE: ArtXchange gallery, 512 First Avenue S., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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