Even as businesses close and the art world struggles, Seattle artist-gallerist Tariqa Waters is making some bold moves. Not only is she the curator for a vibrant new show opening Nov. 6 at the Bellevue Arts Museum, she is expanding her gallery, Martyr Sauce, in Pioneer Square.

Waters is known for a range of intrepid and humorous art practices that include eye-popping sculptures and photographs that play with sexuality, race, pop culture and consumerism. She crosses boundaries between art forms and between viewer and artist with her installations and in her gallery itself, which, in pre-COVID times, hosted music performances and audience-engagement events like a pop-up beauty salon. As Waters explains, she seeks “innovative ways to distort reality to the point where marginalization is impossible.”

In a recent interview, Waters talked about her plans for her new space, curating a major exhibition during a global pandemic and being a Black business owner in a time of racial reckoning. Ultimately, Waters says, it all fits together as “a weird incubator that invests in artists and in this city.”

Waters, who moved to Seattle in 2012, established Martyr Sauce that year as something much more than just a brick-and-mortar space. It’s more like a hub of activity and a multihued umbrella for Waters’ creative endeavors. In addition to supporting underrepresented artists by showing their work at the gallery and elsewhere, Martyr Sauce has driven projects like the RE:DEFINITION gallery, which features visual art highlighting issues of equity, at the Paramount Theatre (a project co-founded in 2016 with the late hip-hop artist Jonathan Moore).

Martyr Sauce gallery

Currently closed for expansion; open by appointment and viewable from the street in early December; 108 S. Jackson St., Seattle; martyrsauce.com

Since the onset of coronavirus restrictions, her underground gallery on Jackson Street has been mostly a working studio for herself and her husband, the highly regarded musician Ryan Waters. For them, as with many others, there’s been a desire to hunker down and try to get some work done. But when a space opened up on their block — the former storefront of Ebbets Field Flannels — Tariqa Waters jumped on it.

For months, ever since an armed burglary attempt at Martyr Sauce, Waters and her husband had been talking about improving the safety and visibility of the gallery. Additional conversations with local gallerists Greg Kucera and Linda Hodges convinced Waters that there is still deep interest in art.

Waters acknowledges that the risk of expanding an arts business during a pandemic is high, but says, “It gives us more options to activate the space. Even though I’m nervous, it’s also about being fearless. I have no intention of boarding up. I want the art to serve as a welcoming, to keep the vibrancy and the life in Pioneer Square.”

Eventually, the space will have music, art and cross-disciplinary events, but for now, the gallery will be open to the public by appointment only. Waters will also take advantage of the large windows to create artistic environments viewable from the street. Her initial plans are to have a visual tie-in to the show she’s curating at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) and to invite other artists to create displays.

This is all in keeping with Waters’ decision a while back to “change the scope of Martyr Sauce to look more like ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ than a white-box gallery, because it was just too much fun to do.”

Waters is known for approaching serious topics with humor and playfulness, a sensibility that permeates the exhibition she’s organized for BAM. Benedict Heywood, the museum’s director and chief curator, says he sought Waters out because “her curatorial voice is very different from mine, bringing a new and unique aesthetic sensibility to BAM’s third floor.”

The show is titled “Yellow No. 5,” after the artificial food coloring used in highly processed foods like candy, soda and sugary breakfast cereals. The museum says the exhibition “takes a critical and humorous look at culture, consumerism and how the two forces often work in tandem to conceal their connection.”

Ben Beres of the Seattle-based art collective SuttonBeresCuller works on part of the trio’s installation for Bellevue Arts Museum’s “Yellow No. 5,” curated by Tariqa Waters. (Emilie Smith)
Ben Beres of the Seattle-based art collective SuttonBeresCuller works on part of the trio’s installation for Bellevue Arts Museum’s “Yellow No. 5,” curated by Tariqa Waters. (Emilie Smith)

Like Martyr Sauce itself, the art promises to be gutsy and varied, but it’s not all from Waters. As part of her ongoing efforts to support artists, Waters insisted the museum commission new work, resulting in large-scale, multidisciplinary installations from 11 regional artists: Romson Bustillo, Monyee Chau, Ari Glass, Aramis O. Hamer, Christopher Paul Jordan, Clyde Petersen, Kenji Hamai Stoll, arts trio SuttonBeresCuller, and Waters herself.

Waters points out that sometimes cultural institutions act as if they’re offering a favor to artists and guest curators, which, for artists of color, can result in “tokenizing, as if they’re checking their equity boxes.” Waters asserts that it is a “benefit to have a Black woman curator, especially during these times. And institutions have a responsibility to support artists because art helps us through it. That’s usually what artists are called to do.”

Each artist was paid to create new work, filling their own space in the exhibition in their own way. Vivid colors and cultural, consumerist references abound. Waters likens it to visiting little shops in pregentrification neighborhoods. “It’s like each artist is welcoming you into their home, or bodega, and you get to be immersed in their little world.”

The artist trio SuttonBeresCuller has created an exuberant, site-specific installation with hundreds of yellow consumer goods they’ve been collecting for months, everything from rubber boots to Bisquick boxes. Hamer completed her space with large, brilliantly colored paintings with titles like “Sugar Pill,” “Star Burst” and “Chocolate Milk.”

Aramis O. Hamer completes paintings to be installed at the Bellevue Arts Museum’s “Yellow No. 5” exhibit.  (Emilie Smith)
Aramis O. Hamer completes paintings to be installed at the Bellevue Arts Museum’s “Yellow No. 5” exhibit. (Emilie Smith)

Chau arranged “Resiliency Posters,” paintings and found objects, along with an installation titled “Limited Space in the Emperor’s Kitchen Series.” As one of the younger artists in the exhibition, Chau says working with Waters has been transformative. “Tariqa has been such a guiding light and force, quite literally an antidote to every ounce of my impostor syndrome. The work I’m putting in the show is inspired by how she has taught me how to be unapologetically me.” 

Waters encouraged all the artists to highlight their styles and to explore new paths. Each artist has also chosen music to complement their work, resulting in a “Yellow No. 5 Soundtrack,” produced by Ryan Waters, who drew on his expertise and contacts in the music industry. Tariqa Waters hints that some “really heavy hitters” are contributing. The digital soundtrack and images will also be on the museum’s website for those who can’t visit in person.

Amidst this flurry of activity, Waters admits, “It’s been a roller coaster. I don’t even know how to articulate how terribly hard and difficult it is to curate a show during a global pandemic.”

The continuing urgency surrounding racial injustice also weighs on her. Waters says, “That’s always deeply traumatic to Black people. There’s nothing new under the sun in terms of the systemic racism that we exist in, but you feel it. As a Black business owner, I don’t get to separate out the work from the politics and from who I am as a whole person.”

As always, Waters turns to art as a tool for survival, for herself and for the community. “It’s exhausting because it’s very scary and real. But I’m still here, trying to bring the light and the joy.”

‘Yellow No. 5’

Nov. 6-April 18, 2021; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday; Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; pay what you can admission; timed entry reservation required; 425-519-0770; bellevuearts.org