Artist/writer Storme Webber tells an intimate story of marginalized Seattle in Frye exhibition.
Many locals know the underground history of Seattle’s Pioneer Square. After all, there’s a popular tour that literally takes people under the streets, telling stories of foolhardy gold rushers, boisterous lumbermen and seedy characters on Skid Row.
Less often told are the stories of how certain places — saloons, bars, diners — provided safe havens for marginalized people: Native Americans, gay folks and the city’s working class.
For Storme Webber, a Seattle-based interdisciplinary artist and poet, these histories are personal, familial and sources of strength and pride. Members of her family found refuge and community in establishments located near the corner of South Washington Street and Second Avenue South: the Doubleheader, the Busy Bee Café, and the Casino, one of the oldest gay bars on the West Coast.
‘Storme Webber | Casino: A Palimpsest’
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays, through Oct 29. Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or www.fryemuseum.org).
For her powerful exhibition at the Frye Art Museum, Webber invites us to consider how the history of the Casino intersects with her family’s history, and, more broadly, with this region’s Native heritage.
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On one hand, it is a spare exhibition of family photographs, archival documents and her own poetry. On the other, it engages in complicated ideas about which histories are told and whose voices are involved in the telling.
As a Two-Spirit (an individual embodying both genders), Sugpiaq/Black/Choctaw cultural producer, Webber is committed to witnessing and voicing marginalized histories. For her first solo museum show, she wanted to “indigenize the gallery.”
We are greeted by a mural-sized 1891 photograph of native boats at a now long-gone Seattle dock and a 2017 audio recording in the Lushootseed language of several Salish tribes. We hear the story of Kaúxuma Núpika, a 19th-century Kootenai Salish medicine person and prophet who was also Two-Spirit.
Moving to the “family” gallery, we’re greeted by an “altar,” a gift-laden kayak surrounded by greenery, an homage to the journey from Alaska undertaken by Webber’s grandmother and great-aunt when they were little girls in 1929.
Elsewhere, a large grouping of family photographs functions as a “gathering,” in Webber’s words. Individually, the photographs give us glimpses of personalities and dynamics. Two women in patterned dresses sit at an upright piano; the artist’s handsome father is shown in his sailor’s uniform and then, in another photograph, in drag.
Just as individuals are complex, with intersecting identities, the exhibition is conceptually layered. In fact,“ palimpsest” denotes a form that is layered with writing or images, something that bears traces of earlier inscriptions.
Here, the layers are not necessarily visual. It isn’t a large exhibition, nor is it spilling over with ephemera. What is there matters. Webber’s poems are given ample wall space and photographs are given pride of place so viewers can connect with the strong, graceful individuals of Webber’s family, particularly her mother and grandmother.
Some of the most striking images are simple photo-booth pictures, beautifully enlarged. Curator Miranda Belarde-Lewis describes them as “self-portraits,” taken as acts of self-representation important to people of color.
The presence or absence of representation is reflected in the spare quality of the exhibition; the lack of records or images of certain people and places reveals systemic biases.
The Casino is a case in point. There’s very little documentation about the Casino — who frequented the nightclub or what it looked like inside. To visually tell this history, Webber and Belarde-Lewis relied on land-use surveys whose language conferred the status of “Poor Class” on the rundown building.
Visitors should pay attention to Webber’s titles, remembering that Webber is a writer and artist and that the Frye is not a history museum. The word choices, visuals and overall poetic care are important here.
I’m fascinated by art that conflates archival work, personal biography and social commentary, but it can be tricky to pull off. A stridently subjective framing might invite us into a personal story at the risk of minimizing larger, continuing issues about prejudice and community. An overly neutral stance could render the ephemera into merely a collection on display for our intellectual consumption.
But Webber crafts a unique “both/and” position — communicating ideas that are both intimate and sociological. She also actively counters consumerist culture by requesting that visitors not take photographs of her family photographs.
She invites us “to practice mindfulness in this sacred space.”