Public Art Project ‘Femme Noire’ Blossoms in the Central District
by Jas Keimig
If you’ve taken a walk around the Central District lately, perhaps you’ve noticed some things around the neighborhood that look a little different. On 23rd and East Spring Street, you might have spotted a banner with an image of a disembodied hand holding a brick of chicken bouillon billowing in the wind atop a tall lamp post. From the window of Arte Noir on East Union, maybe you’ve spied a cozy painting in banner form of two Black women and their dog gazing out at you.
All of these artworks are part of “Femme Noire,” a public art exhibition curated by curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, Chicago-based arts organization blackpuffin’s Modou Dieng Yacine, and Wa Na Wari’s Elisheba Johnson, with assistance from the Seattle Art Museum. “Femme Noire” debuted across the Central District on Aug. 21.
Featuring the work of local and international Black women artists, each art piece in this show is translated from its original medium into 30 inch by 60 inch banners hung on lampposts or outside businesses across the Central District. Ending on the same day as Wa Na Wari’s arts fest Walk the Block, the show blends in with the fabric of the neighborhood and brings Black art out of the gallery and into the streets.
The title “Femme Noire” came from a poem of the same name written by former Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor while he was imprisoned in Germany during World War II. In said poem, Senghor extolled the beauty and strength of Black women. “In your shadow I have grown up,” he wrote. “[T]he gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.”
Drawing on themes of community and empowerment, “Femme Noire”highlights the diversity of African and African diasporic art as well as the force of Black women. Initially, the idea was conceived by Ossei-Mensah and blackpuffin’s Dieng, who carried out a similar project of wheatpastes in Atlanta two years ago. Since Ossei-Mensah was in town putting together Amoako Boafo’s solo show at SAM and Dieng had graduate school roots in Portland, the pair wanted to make the project local to Seattle and was connected with Wa Na Wari to make that idea a reality.
“We thought that the Central District was perfect because if you’re highlighting the successes and the beauty and excellence of Black women, what better place than the CD, with all the rich history and revitalization that’s happening right now,” Wa Na Wari’s Johnson explained over the phone recently. The Black arts space is experienced with a public art show of this nature, having organized another banner-based exhibit of Portland photographer Intisar Abioto and multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas in 2021.
“Femme Noire” is composed of 21 artists, 16 of them international, including NYC-based painter Jordan Casteel, who creates contemplative portraits of community members, and Nairobi-based Thandiwe Muriu, who snaps vibrant, pattern-stuffed photographs. The show also features five artists from Seattle: conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram; painters Aramis O. Hamer, Kiki Turner, and Bonnie Hopper; and sculptor Marita Dingus.
“One of the things that was really exciting about partnering with this project for us is because a lot of these international artists are so big, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to display them in Wa Na Wari. They need large exhibition spaces,” said Johnson. “And so we’re able to not only bring them to Seattle, but also pair them with local artists, which has been really great. We did that intentionally to have an international conversation between some of these artists.”
Not only does “Femme Noire” provide an excellent walking map of the Central District, but the giant banners also serve as welcome interruptions to routines of daily life. Throughout the day, we’re constantly accosted by all sorts of visual stimuli — cars whooshing past on the street, ads on every conceivable visible space, the endless scroll of our social media feeds. These banners — thoughtfully placed near busy street corners, bus stops, and benches — offer a moment of contemplation and curiosity for the viewer on the street.
“We’re showcasing, through community partners and public activation, the power of seeing Black art,” said Johnson.
“Femme Noire” is on view at various sites throughout the Central District until Sept. 30. To see a map of the locations, check out “Femme Noire”’s website for more information.
Jas Keimig is a writer and critic based in Seattle. They previously worked on staff at The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music, and stickers. Their work has also appeared in Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, i-D, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-write Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and screening series highlighting films you can’t find on streaming services. They won a game show once.
📸 Featured Image: Works by C. Davida Ingram, Ebony G. Patterson, and Bonnie Hopper’s pieces outside Coyote Central on 23rd. (Photo: Alborz Kamalizad)
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