It couldn’t be better timed. While “30 Americans” turns the tables on big museum art through the eyes of African-American artists, a smaller local show at the new Spaceworks gallery points out that there are other racial and ethnic groups.
In “High Blood,” curated by new artist duo Culture Shock Collective, 18 local artists of color turn anger, frustration, sorrow and pointed questioning into paint, paper, photography, video and sculpture — and an empty office into a vital voice.
You can’t miss the gallery if you’re heading along Commerce Street near the downtown bus zones. Across three windows is a giant image of American flags, eagle-topped — and among them a woman clad head-to-toe in a sparkly red chador. You can almost hear the thoughts of the passersby in the photo — and on the actual street.
Inside the gallery, the exhibit begins with this artwork in full: a video installation showing artist Anida Yoeu Ali — who recently moved from Bothell to Tacoma with her husband, videographer Masahiro Sugano — wearing the chador for two days near the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building over Memorial Day weekend. Surrounded by American flags and 99 white flags printed with “Salaam” (”peace” in Arabic), Ali silently challenges clichés of patriotism and religion.
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The video’s split screen also shows the coincidental passing of a veterans’ motorbike rally, full of Confederate flags. It’s a brilliant piece of performance art, and in Spaceworks’ dim video gallery with the actual flags lining the walls, it immerses you in that moment of challenge.
Sadly, the sound continues through the rest of the gallery, and if it works for some pieces (Nahaan’s “Chilkat Rebel,” with an aqua-and-gold Coast Salish orca fin emblazoned with a protest poem), it’s not so good for others. Julz Palad Soriano Ignacio’s “Biag ti Danom (Water is Life),” a delicate grid of cedar blocks glued with cowrie seashells and intercepted by red and yellow hibiscus, flows with the internal grace of a freshwater spring — but is surrounded by growling motorcycle noise.
“High Blood” is named after those emotions and issues that raise passion, but not all the art is angry.
Mónica Mendoza-Castrejón explores her identity in acrylics such as a self-portrait surrounded by fiery phoenix wings, heart-shaped, and a glowing goddess with central eye and dark, lonely memories.
Viviann Le Nguyen presents a nuanced triptych of black-and-white photographs of Vietnamese scenes (a crepe chef balancing woks, three men at a café, a city horizon) with a poignant poem about the endless pain that comes with being a “child of diaspora,” never quite belonging anywhere, never feeling quite enough of either race.
Cathy Nguyen, Tacoma’s poet laureate, also has a poem in the show, a visually structured tirade against those who blame, fear and dominate women. With caps, spaced lines and other tactics, the poem holds visual attention (though it could stand a bigger font and more wall space). It plies with supple grace symbols for the menstrual blood and organs that are the catalyst — rubies, mahogany, cherries — and makes some telling points: “The best warriors shed/just as much blood as they take.” But there’s also a lot of repetition, and phrases that are sonically grand without much meaning.
There are some attention-grabbers in the show, protest pieces that are just as important as they are obvious.
Alex Schelhammer’s “They Can’t Kill Us All,” with its black mannequin torso with gray hoodie, painted with a white target and carrying a voter ballot in its pocket sits deliberately by the window. “Chow ‘Fun,’ ” a big spray-paint mural by Kenji Stoll and Saiyare Refaei, is fun in both senses of the word: a big bowl of egg-drop soup surrounded by a cafe table of cultural appropriation ironies: a McDonald’s menu of sushi burritos, a cellphone with pointed messages of Asian-American misunderstanding, a fortune cookie “made in America.”
But some of the best pieces in “High Blood” are the least obvious. Two beautiful miniatures by Yoona Lee accompany her sad charcoal self-portrait: “Survival Rate,” with its dipping line of black paint looking like scattered ashes, and “Elegy,” an eloquent, haunting body shape made of ripped black duct tape. Laura Iida creates wistful scenes with hand-cut paper on glass — a boy with a buffalo, a blue hammock swaying before fans.
And cascading down the wall like a waterfall is a translucent tapestry scroll of 6-inch rice noodles woven through fishing line, made by Satpreet Kahlon. It’s a testimony to the sheer beauty of that which is unnoticed, taken for granted.
Both Culture Shock Collective and Spaceworks are new on the Tacoma scene, but they’ve made a powerful entrance. This is nimble art on vital social issues and couldn’t come at a better time.