In Inye Wokoma’s “Elegant Utility” at Northwest African American Museum, family artifacts are seemingly made impersonal in a museum setting — at first glance. The exhibit becomes, on a closer look, a broader narrative about a disappearing community.
Imagine walking into your grandmother’s bedroom or your grandfather’s garage and plucking out a few objects. What would you choose? Old family photographs? Tools from the workbench? Now consider what your choices would say about your family’s history or the history of the community or even larger social forces.
For his exhibition “Elegant Utility” at the Northwest African American Museum, artist Inye Wokoma selected family artifacts – yes, including tools and magazines and other mundane objects from his grandfather’s garage – and re-contextualized them in the museum setting.
The one-gallery art installation shines a spotlight on the lineage of Wokoma’s family, particularly his grandfather Frank Green who moved to Seattle’s Central District in 1946. By strategically using the markers of museum display, Wokoma asks us to consider broader stories of African-Americans in Seattle and how identity and history are forged through place, community, and systems of economy, religion and archiving.
‘An Elegant Utility: Inye Wokoma’
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays-Sundays; 11 a.m.- 7 p.m. Thursdays through July 28, Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle; $5-$7 (206-518-6000 or naamnw.org).
At first, the installation reads as a straightforward exhibition with its well-lit objects in plexiglass cases, cleanly mounted photographs on the wall, and explanatory texts galore. The typically dispassionate, third person writing explains the Green family migration and various Central District histories including racist real-estate and bank lending policies.
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Just when I found myself wanting more emotion, less impartiality, I discovered moments of Wokoma’s voice, written in the first person, interjecting his own memories and personal framings for his family’s histories.
Wokoma joins a long line of socially- and politically-minded conceptual artists who use museum exhibition techniques to critique the supposed objectivity of cultural institutions. In a kind of double reversal, Wokoma plays up the impersonal tone of an exhibition to ask us to pay attention to the larger significance of these very specific family objects.
But, again and again, he subtly undercuts institutional neutrality. A fluid, beautiful film isn’t easily viewed as a linear documentary. Its family photos and interviews and scenes from nature and neighborhood are interwoven with each other and interspersed with poetry and narration. Past and present are spliced together.
A photographer, filmmaker, and writer (among other creative and journalistic roles), Wokoma has written that he is “inspired by the life of my grandfather to explore the ways love shows up in the world through one person and shapes many lives. In his case through hammers and nails, roofs, doorways and massive timeworn black hands that helped build shelter for many to congregate under.”
The themes of construction and deconstruction support the installation. Wokoma alludes to the cobbling together of histories, the fight against the demolishing of community, a continuing topic for many in the Central District.
Wokoma writes that “Elegant Utility” is about how the institution of family “can be a centering force, allowing us to transform oppression into community building. It is a statement about how community allows us to know who we are and imagine who we can be. In this moment, after the systematic dismantling of my community, I am collecting these stories as a way of gathering up what is most useful to rebuild.”