Two photo shows — “The Jungle” at Platform Gallery and “Maroons” at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery — trace the architecture of homeless encampments and tools designed to keep slaves from running away.
When photographer Ross Sawyers was assembling “The Jungle,” he had no idea how topical it would be.
Platform Gallery director Stephen Lyons says it’s pure coincidence that Sawyer’s latest photographs — depicting makeshift shelters — have turned up in town at the same time that The Jungle, Seattle’s notorious homeless encampment, is making headlines in The Seattle Times and attracting attention from city and state lawmakers.
Instead, Sawyers’ “Jungle” is another step in his exploration of built structure and space. In some ways it picks up where his 2013 photography show, “This Is the Place,” left off. The latter spun variations on the cryptic “hobo signs” that helped Depression-era drifters tip one another off about what kind of reception they might expect in the locales they were passing through.
Ross Sawyers: ‘The Jungle’
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, through March 26 at Platform Gallery, 114 Third Ave. S., Seattle; free (206-323-2808 or platformgallery.com).
Fabrice Monteiro: ‘Maroons’
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays, through March 12 at Mariane Ibrahim Galley, 608 Second Ave., Seattle; free (206-467-4927 or marianeibrahim.com).
In the eight archival inkjet prints of “The Jungle,” Sawyers — who earned an MFA at the University of Washington and now teaches in the photography department at Columbia College in Chicago — switches his focus from room interiors to structural exteriors. The images are shot in such a way that it’s difficult to grasp the scale of the structures being photographed. (Lyons says they could easily fit on a tabletop.) The unifying elements of the series are rigorous, but there’s a lot of variety in shape and lighting from photograph to photograph.
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“Jungle I” is the most shadowy, with its dark, filing-cabinet shape floating in a black void. By contrast, “Jungle 4” shows the plainly lit, curved structure of a prefabricated steel Nissen hut, solidly boarded up at one end.
As you move from image to image, you realize that all these rudimentary structures have blocked entryways. You can’t see inside them any more than you could enter them, even if you were cat-sized.
Sometimes you can’t even tell if what you’re looking at is three-dimensional. The fort-like facades of “Jungle 2” and “Jungle 7” are shot in such a way that they could just be rough-hewed wooden walls standing alone.
“Jungle 3” plays the most intricate games with depth perception. It has a square indentation at its base, a sort of sheltering porch that leads to (yet another) boarded-up doorway. But the lintel above seems, improbably, to be on a diagonal to the main part of the structure. “Jungle 8” speaks vividly of tenuous footholds — its fire-charred dilapidation suggests a place you’d inhabit only as a last resort.
In all eight images, the makeshift nature of these models is obvious. What’s difficult is imagining your way inside them.
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
There’s a similar sense of exteriors being glimpsed and internal realities being unfathomable in Fabrice Monteiro’s “Maroons” at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, three blocks away. Monteiro is a Belgian-Beninois photographer living in Dakar, Senegal. His subject in “Maroons” is runaway slaves and the equipment — shackles, metal masks, bells — that slave-owners used to discourage those still in captivity from making any breaks for freedom. (One of Monteiro’s ancestors was sold into slavery in Brazil, but eventually returned to Benin as a free man.)
The brutal oppression depicted in these 10 black-and-white photographs (drawn from historical lithographs and other archival images, then shot in Benin) is met not with submission but mute defiance. The cruel collars, masks and chains may look unbreakable. But the stares of the people locked in them have a stoic defiance, even a scornful resilience, that makes their inner worlds seem inviolable. “You can capture me,” they seem to say, “but you’ll never have me.”