A&E Pick of the Week

In the marbled rotunda of the Henry Art Gallery, where you might expect to see busts of Roman scholars, there are colorful lamps donning wigs in Black hair styles. Where you might expect to see marble statues in romantic Greek poses, there are black wire mannequins donning intricately cut paper dresses.

For the next seven months, these works by Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas and New York artist Derrick Adams will welcome visitors to the “Packaged Black” exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery. 

Opening the exhibit with the contrast of Black aesthetics in a traditionally European context is no accident. 

Both known for their colorful works that highlight Black joy and Black resistance, Thomas and Adams joined forces for this special exhibition to take on ideas like the ways that Blackness is “packaged” in and by society, and how Black folk “package” themselves for the world through fashion, hair, music and even the communities they build around themselves. 

A lamp created by Derrick Adams is one of the works that greets visitors at the entrance to the exhibit. (Andy Romer)

The vision:

“Packaged Black” isn’t simply art on the walls and sculptures in the halls. It’s a conversation, an experience and a transformation (no, really, there’s literally a room called “The Transformation Room”). 

The exhibit takes you on the brief but colorful journey we all take as we get ourselves ready to be seen by the world everyday or as we prepare ourselves for our nights out. 

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“Packaged Black” reminds us that this journey starts not just with the clothes we pull from our closets, but with the people and passions we choose to make up our communities and whisper in our ears, with the barrage of marketing that seeps into our minds and influences our purchases, and in the ways that art, music and story fashion the dreams and hopes that we dress up to try to live out everyday. 

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but “Packaged Black” tells a story that will make you feel transformed when you emerge. 

The finer details: 

To walk through the exhibit and simply admire the brightness and color of Adams’ work and the moving contrasts of Thomas’ cut prints would certainly be a joy. But every fashionista knows the power of a well-placed lapel pin or a little splash of color in an earring. 

This exhibit calls for the same appreciation. Look out for the little hummingbirds in each of Thomas’ portraits. Their long, thin beaks point at the ears and heads of the people Thomas calls her “royal court,” as if ready to extract the nectar of genius from their minds. 

Barbara Earl Thomas calls the portraits in “Packaged Black” her “royal court.” (Spike Mafford)

Notice, too, the smiles of the people in each of Thomas’ portraits. This is not the backstabbing royal court of European kings. If these are the people with whom Thomas has chosen to dress her life, her community, they are there with genuine joy and good wishes. 

Adams’ “Beauty World” is a celebration of Black women’s hair as a canvas of endless possibility and ingenuity, and it is a perfect combination with the larger-than-life Cinderella-inspired ballroom gown that literally shines at you from the center of the gallery. As you explore the room and the gown, notice how perfectly each of the wig-stand heads of “Beauty World” could fit as the regal crown atop that glowing gown. 

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As the title of the exhibit suggests, there is a whole package to be unboxed with this show. Its themes are not subtle. The show wears its meanings on its fashionable sleeves. This is not the exhibit where you reverently whisper about the genius of bygone masters; it’s a space of self-expression and joy. 

Tips: 

Don’t forget to go through the curtain at what looks like the end of the exhibit. Consider experiencing the exhibit while wearing your own Friday best for a more personal experience. Bring a few members of your own “royal court” along with you.

And definitely, definitely dance when you’re called to. 

‘Packaged Black: Derrick Adams and Barbara Earl Thomas’

Through May 1, 2022; Thursday 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Henry Art Gallery, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, Seattle; $0-$20 suggested donation; masks and social distancing required, proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required for those 12 ; 206-543-2280, henryart.org

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