Warren Pope is hellbent on walloping the corneas of any Seattleite who believes this city is absolved from a racist past.
With “Warren Pope: Blood Lines, Time Lines, Red Lines,” an exhibition running through Sept. 8 at the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), the 72-year-old West Seattle artist says he yearns to expose how the residue of his city’s historically discriminatory housing policies leak into the present day.
“I understand how immune the public has become when it comes to racial injustice. It’s hard to turn anyone’s heart with words these days,” says Pope.
So he used metal wiring and canvas to construct three-dimensional images to represent tens of thousands of utterances and convey the home-loan restrictions of redlining, which segregated blacks, Jews, Asians and Hispanics into racially concentrated enclaves.
Giving a walking tour of the exhibit’s 71 pieces, Pope methodically presents each creation, some of which he began working on 20 years ago. There’s a translucent tube entitled “3.5” with 300 white plastic balls and 10.5 black balls highlighting the percentage of Washington state’s black population. A percentage repeatedly referenced in at least a third of his sculptures.
“I don’t understand how you vote affirmative action down in a state that’s supposed to be liberal when you have so few black people here. As if we’re gonna overrun your institutions,” Pope says, referring to the effort to continue to bar affirmative action in Washington state, headed to voters in November.
Last year, Pope explored his racial lineage in a show titled “Not Black Enough.” Born to a black father and white mother, Pope says that occasionally being pegged for fully white spared him the same degree of discrimination depicted in the exhibit.
He points to a piece called the “Weight of White” showing a black home being crushed by larger white cubes. Another, “Black Lives Lost,” with 600 holes the size of 38-caliber mm bullets represents Chicago’s black gun-violence victims in 2018. “Lashes of Redline,” where metal wires, painted and contorted to look like fiery red lashes, attack from their plastic base “to symbolize the whip of slavery.”
Though critics have classified Pope’s art as “minimalist” ever since he produced his first art show as a University of Puget Sound junior in the early 1970s, they’ve rarely called it subtle.
His latest exhibit, displayed in NAAM’s Northwest Gallery, is no exception.
Visitors will encounter a slim red line hanging just a few inches above the floor. Functioning as an artificial barrier, it restricts them from completely accessing the artwork on the walls.
The rope is an overt nod to the racist practices produced by restrictive housing covenants and redlining. The former barred white homeowners from selling their property to specified racial and ethnic groups.
The latter segregated racial and ethnic minorities into neighborhoods deemed “hazardous” by lending institutions, crippling access to capital investment that could improve housing and economic fortunes.
During the 1930s and 1940s, that meant a black, Asian, Latino or Jewish family in Seattle trying to buy a house in a predominantly white community could encounter this sort of language on housing covenants written by the South Seattle Land Company, a prominent developer at the time: “No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any person of the Ethiopian [Black], Malay, Hebrew [Jewish] or any Asiatic race.”
Neighborhoods in North, West and South Seattle, along with Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and Madison Park, armed themselves with such deeds to ensure an all-white residential homogeneity.
That restricted many in Seattle’s communities of color and Jewish population to the Chinatown -International District, Central District, and pockets of Rainier Valley.
Although housing covenants lost the force of law in the late 1940s, and 1968’s Fair Housing Act slapped down redlining, their ramifications live. Something NAAM was keen on highlighting, and a reason they featured Pope’s work.
“History is all about the present and Warren’s pieces really cultivate introspection. They generate deep, meaningful conversation and draw us closer to each other,” said LaNesha DeBardelaben, NAAM’s executive director.
Part of that conversation should re-imagine the atrocities of American history, so society can alter its current route, according to Hasaan Kirkland, NAAM’s curator.
“Warren does a great job of matching your living reality with his artwork,” he said.
Kirkland, who became aware of Pope’s work after the artist contacted him two years ago, references a piece called “Generational Lines,” depicting a massive tangle of red strands.
“It feels like the oppressive nature of hate, and the notion of trying to unravel this generational hate handed down and taught to children. If you could see what racism looks like, it would probably look like that,” Kirkland said.
But Pope’s exhibit is also about what’s failed to transfer due to redlining. Namely opportunities for wealth accumulation in the black community.
“Homeownership functioned as a generator of wealth for families, and when you artificially constricted blacks and other outgroups to certain areas you artificially constrict their ability to transfer wealth inter-generationally,” says University of Washington Professor Jennifer Romich, who studies poverty and public policy.
The average wealth of white households is seven times greater than that of black households, a chasm relatively unchanged since the introduction of housing covenants and redlining, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In manufacturing racially concentrated neighborhoods, redlining may have also cleared the runway for Seattle to join other rapidly growing cities in “gentrifying away segregation,” according to Igor Popov, chief economist for Apartment List.
“A rapidly growing economy with little space for new homes means that low-income residents may get pushed out, and unfortunately, majority-minority neighborhoods often feel the brunt of those effects,” Popov says of research showing that cities with great population growth over the past fifty years are relatively less racially segregated today.
Seattle bears out this correlation. It’s simultaneously the second least segregated major metro in the United States, and third most gentrified major city in the nation (since 2000), according to data from Apartment List and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, respectively.
And while that’s led to a dwindling black cultural presence in the city, particularly in areas African-American populations once thrived, the community’s resiliency is as strong as ever, asserts Pope.
Wrapping up the tour, he points to a colossal white structure supported from collapse by a tiny black wedge measuring 3.5 inches long and wide.
“You see how your eyes go down to what’s actually holding it all up? Even the tiniest bit of it can be overwhelmingly powerful.”
It’s titled “The Strength of Black.”
“Warren Pope: Blood Lines Time Lines Red Lines” will exhibit through Sept. 8 at the Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5.p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday.