Homespun beauty and historical nightmare fuse into one in “book of the bound,” an exhibit of mixed-media collages by Seattle artist-poet Carletta Carrington Wilson.
The show, at the Northwest African American Museum, zeros in on the missing voices of the slave era: those of the slaves themselves, especially the female captives.
Wilson’s blank “canvases” are antiquarian books — usually dictionaries or encyclopedia volumes — enshrouded in fabrics, beads, doilies, shells, small bones and other materials. On those materials, snippets of text appear.
Displayed alongside her artworks are Wilson’s poems, from which those snippets are taken. (In several instances, nearby headphones let you hear Wilson recite the poems.)
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The effects of this mixture of words and painstaking handicraft are dense, contradictory, beguiling and unsettling.
Take Wilson’s piece, “caravanes.” It consists of old oversized restaurant menus embroidered in marine-blue colors and festooned with glittering cloth leaves, flowers and golden comets. Displayed under glass (like almost all the other pieces in the show), it’s both complex and gorgeous, luring the eye instantly with its lavishly decorated surfaces opened up in accordion fashion.
Look more closely, though, and you’ll see source material that’s problematic. The menus sport oddly jaunty and sentimentalized illustrations of slave-era scenes, one of them captioned: “Kaffres carrying goods from a vessel at Port Elizabeth, Algoa Bay, South Africa.”
The poem that goes with the display, also titled “caravanes,” is Wilson at her distilled best:
Run away from my plantation
speaks the Fulla language
Run away Carolina born
run away three weeks ago
speaks good English, French and Dutch
Run away from my plantation
a Calabar negro
speaks little or no English
Run away the 14th
could speak no English
Gambia negro fellow
this country born
can speak English Chickasaw
The newspaper-ad shorthand cuts to the essence of the runaway slaves: their means of expressing themselves. And the lavishly opulent handiwork Wilson brings to her refashioned cafe menus suggests the richness of inner lives we can never know.
Some of Wilson’s other writing is more wild and woolly. But her varied invention in repurposing old books and making arresting artifacts from them never flags.
The title piece, “book of the bound,” wraps a hefty tome in ropes and chains as well as binding, lacy fabrics. The striking “abduction” strips an encyclopedia volume of its cover and ties dozens of small bones to its pages, again with fine lace.
Wilson finds a stinging beauty in the most unlikely sources: “Seaflower, Maremaid, Dolphin, Nymph…” A lovely string of images and sounds — but they’re the names of slave ships.
The ship names survive. The names of their human cargo rarely do.
“The narrative of an individual captured into slavery,” Wilson writes in her artist’s statement, “is cut out, torn off, written over and, summarily, silenced.”
Her show cannily tilts your eye and ear toward those vanished lives and voices.
Note: If you’re at the Northwest African American Museum, don’t miss “Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey.” This exhibit of photographs of the great African-American author — taken by his friend, Istanbul photographer Sedat Pakay — shows a relaxed and often smiling Baldwin finding some sanctuary from the pressure-cooker of American racial politics in the 1960s.
The mostly black-and-white shots are intimate, playful and full of fondness for their subject. In one, Baldwin tries smoking a hookah (“The experience,” Pakay writes, “was not a success”). In another, he clowns around with a guard in front of Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace.
He also naps, cooks for friends, gets a shoeshine, then hops off-balance as he takes his shoes off before entering the Blue Mosque.
A short film by Pakay accompanies the photographs. In it, Baldwin talks candidly about loving both men and women. Love comes in “very strange packages,” he says, and it’s important to accept the love that comes to you.
A handsome catalog with a foreword by Charles Johnson and introduction by the show’s curator, Brian J. Carter, is distributed by University of Washington Press (64 pp., $19.95).
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org