Shamim Momin is kind of a big deal in the world of contemporary art.
Not only was she one of the youngest curators of a Whitney Biennial — the influential New York exhibition of new American art (she co-organized the 2004 and 2008 versions) — Momin has launched some really innovative programs, including LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division), which generates site-specific installations in public spaces. When the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle hired Momin as senior curator in 2018, after an extensive international search, arts news outlets buzzed.
Now, Momin’s first large-scale exhibition for the Henry is on view. “In Plain Sight,” which runs through April 26, is a museum-wide show of conceptually and visually rich work by 14 artists who reveal stories about, among other things, immigration, the environment and power imbalances that are often repressed or invisible. The show bears hallmarks of Momin’s inclusive, expansive curatorial approach and offers insight into what her priorities at the Henry — Washington state’s oldest museum focusing on contemporary art — might be.
In a recent conversation, Momin talked about her continuing commitment to collaboration, supporting the creation of new work, and her long-standing interest in storytelling.
“I’ve always been really interested in narrative within artwork and how we’ve been taught certain histories that come from particular agendas and voices,” she said. “What does it mean to dig beyond that, to tell different stories in a different way — by whom and for whom? All of that is very present in the work that I do.”
So, while “In Plain Sight” can be experienced like a typical — but dynamic — museum exhibition, it’s really like an interconnected web of multidimensional projects by 14 artists who uncover personal, political or community histories.
Sadie Barnette, for example, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain an FBI file on her father, Rodney Barnette, who founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and opened the first Black gay bar in San Francisco. In her glorious pink-walled and wallpapered art installation, Barnette manipulates FBI documents that reveal aggressively intrusive surveillance. Using iridescent and glittering silver materials, Barnette redacts names on documents and creates an assertively joyful and personal family room.
Most of the stories in the exhibition touch on activism in some way. Andrea Bowers’ iconic photographs are created in collaboration with the trans-women activists portrayed in the images. The gloriously jumbled installation by A.L. Steiner is an archive of sorts, gathering different biographies, communities and identities of queer artist-activists.
Oscar Tuazon’s ongoing “Water School” project reveals how environmental activism intersects with education, politics and power. Visitors can walk up onto Tuazon’s DIY platform, which pieces together allusions to vulnerable ecologies, water defense, indigenous storytelling and the flow of water systems, including those of Tuazon’s birthplace, the Pacific Northwest.
Momin’s curatorial approach often involves work that crosses boundaries of artistic disciplines and conventions of where and how art should be experienced. “I’m really interested in artists who work in multiple arenas, and I don’t mean just multimedia, but practices of different dimensions, like being in a band or running a bookstore.”
Ebony Patterson’s installation, “Invisible Presence: Bling Memories,” for example, is an exuberant gathering of bedazzled and tasseled fabric coffins, each one commemorating the life of a child who died by violent means. The Jamaican-born artist draws on funerary rituals and visual traditions, creating works that are both eye-opening sculptures in a museum and ceremonial objects that have been paraded down the street in various locations (including Trinidad and Jamaica) as performances of remembrance and protest.
Momin, the team at the Henry and the artists themselves have organized talks, performances and other events that will accompany the exhibition and “activate” the works, Momin said. For Alison O’Daniel’s film project, “The Tuba Thieves,” for example, there will be a performance with trumpeters moving through the entire building. These ephemeral auditory encounters connect with the artist’s experiences of hearing loss and transitioning between spaces of sound and silence.
Momin is known for her collaborative approach and encouragement of artists’ ideas. For this exhibition, Momin worked with all of the artists to develop interdisciplinary programming, reenvision installations of existing work or support the creation of entirely new work. The ability to work in a fluid way is one of the reasons Momin was attracted to the job at the Henry.
“I’ve always loved the Henry and its wonderful history,” Momin states. “It’s the perfect size, big enough to have such a great impact, but small enough to be nimble and responsive.”
This relationship of scale is felt throughout the current exhibition, with highly personal, distinct installations coming together to shed light on vast topics.
“This was a guiding factor,” Momin says, “How these individual stories and unique perspectives are so important by themselves, and then they build into a larger conversation about what those stories mean. They resonate with issues like agency and power and history and how we find ourselves in the world.”
“In Plain Sight.” Through April 26; Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 15th Ave. N.E. & N.E. 41st St., Seattle; $10 general public, $6 seniors, free for UW faculty and staff, all students and children, free on Sundays; 206-543-2280, henryart.org