At the age of 10, Hiawatha D. realized he was different in a way that wasn’t celebrated. It was this first jolting awareness of race — “finding out you’re black,” he calls it — that would set him on a path of art-making and expression centering the many shades of brown and reflecting the black diaspora.

This Seattle artist, whose work has been shown at MoPOP, Nordstrom, the University of Washington and in several juried shows, now brings his exhibit “Iconic Black Women: Ain’t I a Woman” to Northwest African American Museum through March 15, 2020.

Artist Hiawatha D.  (Eyemagination Imaging)
Artist Hiawatha D. (Eyemagination Imaging)

The collection features more than 30 paintings of black women spanning 200 years — from abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, born enslaved in 1797, to gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles, born in 1997.

“When you walk in and see the beautiful painting of Sojourner Truth, you exhale, and straighten your back,” says Keisha Scarlett, head of equity at Seattle Public Schools, recalling opening night this fall. “You know you’re about to have an experience with liberation.”

We talked with Hiawatha D. about his inspiration for this project, its championing of black women and his greatest hope for the exhibit. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

What was the impetus for this project and how is it set apart from your other work?

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It’s conversations with Veronica [Very Davis, who is now Hiawatha D.’s wife]. I had been in the valley after a lot of devastating loss. When we met in 2016, I was on the comeback. I started talking to her about work I’d done, and she asked, “Well, what are you doing now?” … She told me she knew I could do this.

“Iconic Black Women” is specifically and strictly about the image and success of black women. This is about women, who really are the foundation of our society.

Hiawatha D.’s painting of Whoopi Goldberg is part of his “Iconic Black Women: Ain’t I a Woman” exhibit at Northwest African American Museum, through March 15, 2020.  (Veronica Very Davis)
Hiawatha D.’s painting of Whoopi Goldberg is part of his “Iconic Black Women: Ain’t I a Woman” exhibit at Northwest African American Museum, through March 15, 2020. (Veronica Very Davis)

At the age of 10, you were jolted into the reality of racial difference by the father of a white school friend when he referred to you with a racial slur — a traumatizing word meant to assign shame. Not many years later, you had a similar encounter, more subtle yet defining. Tell me about that.

I went to the Burnley School of Professional Art, which at the time was one of the best art schools in the area. I graduated in 1980. They later [became] the Art Institute of Seattle, now closed.

In a graduation project, we were to paint a family portrait. Everyone in my family is black, of course. This white girl, another student, came up to me, asking why everybody in my painting was black.

They all laughed, but I didn’t think it was funny. I’ll never forget that moment. I was 17, the youngest person in the school. That’s when I decided that I would only draw or paint black people.

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Scarlett called the collection a “wondrous lesson in the history of black women who built this country with our hands, nurtured everyone’s children with our hands, and continue to hold up this country with those very hands,” but noted that “[adult] learners and students alike might pose questions about the absence of hands in the paintings.” What was your thought process around excluding hands and feet in most of the portraits, and what message are you sending through that absence?

Rather than ascribing value to the more superficial aspects of our human form, I use cubism, [abstraction] and surrealism, which helps viewers to see themselves in the artwork. If the composition is perspectively correct, leaving off something as individual and personal as hands or feet might encourage our relationship with themes and moods of the work, while the colors and clean lines help tell a story of our people.

In “Iconic Black Women,” we see ourselves transcend intersections of black skin, ethnic identity, feminine gender and wage inequity. This collection reminds us that we’ve always lived above the circumstances, not under them. How were you able to relay all of this on canvas?

I used a combination of vantage point and distorted perspective to tell these stories, but through a few basic elements of design — vibrant colors, placement of shadows, and bold lines — we see both the simplicity and complexity of these black women. There are multiple dimensions in the work and in the women.

Hiawatha D.’s painting of Rosa Parks, part of his “Iconic Black Women: Ain’t I a Woman” exhibit. (Veronica Very Davis)
Hiawatha D.’s painting of Rosa Parks, part of his “Iconic Black Women: Ain’t I a Woman” exhibit. (Veronica Very Davis)

In this collection, Rosa Parks bears numbers across her chest, Maxine Waters is reclaiming her time, “me first” is translated in the countenance of Tarana Burke, and we’re face-to-face with many more, often looking squarely at us, their shadows looming behind. What is being asked of us in this collection?

We’re being asked to remember, recognize and celebrate the power, progress and promise of black women! Rosa was willing to remain sitting even if it meant being arrested, Maxine refuses to allow anyone to steal her power, and Tarana boldly stands in her truth, demanding not only to be heard but respected. We’re being called upon to fight for what is right, not just for ourselves, but as a people, as a nation. We should remember that we have that same power, that same promise. Our little girls need to see this.

What has been the greatest surprise of “Iconic Black Women” so far, and what is your greatest hope for the exhibit?

My greatest surprise is that people are inspired, excited and connecting to the work. I hope the exhibit will travel and become a national and even international experience.

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“Iconic Black Women: Ain’t I a Woman” by Hiawatha D. Through March 15, 2020; Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle; $7 for ages 13-54, $5 ages 4-12, $5 students and seniors, members and 3 and under free; 206-518-6000, naamnw.org