For the past 12 years the Onyx Fine Arts Collective has been an organization committed to supporting artists to share art forged in blackness.
The group’s current show, through Feb. 4 at historic King Street Station, is a creative explosion of a variety of truths — some contemporary, some historical, but all filling the void of representation in Northwest art.
“You would think that were only two people in Seattle — two black people — who ever created art, Jacob Lawrence and James Washington,” said Lola Peters, a board member of Onyx. “We have this mythology that black artists can only do a certain style of art.”
Onyx’ 12th annual juried exhibit is called “Truth B Told.”
“The truth I want told is that there is an abundance and an enormous variety of art in the Northwest black community and that we have so much to give and contribute to the Northwest as artist. That’s the truth,” Peters said.
More than a decade ago, siblings Robert Horton and Annie Hudson-McKnight participated in Black arts exhibits in Sacramento and Baltimore. They returned to Seattle inspired to curate an exhibit featuring local black artists, said Onyx President Earnest D. Thomas.
From their first exhibits, Onyx Collective was born, supported by an eager community of artists.
Since then Onyx has curated shows in Portland, the Tri-Cities, Olympia, and Seattle.
King Street Station’s 17,000 square feet opens a wealth of possibilities. The current show is exceptional not only for its size and historic context of the venue, but also because of its breadth of artistry.
“The response has been amazing,” Thomas said. “Something like 44 artists submitted over 160 pieces and of those about 150 will be in the exhibit. Plus, for the first time we are able to do artists installations.”
“Truth B Told” is curated by Onyx’ board members Al Doggett, Ashby Reed, Earnest Thomas, and Robert Horton, with Elisheba Johnson as a guest curator. The show features artists such as Marita Dingus and Barbara Earl Thomas, a Stranger Genius Award Winner. The exhibit features a wide range of genres and dimensions created by local Pacific Northwest artists of African ancestry.
Peters first learned of Onyx 10 years ago when she was asked to write poetry for an exhibit.
“I just fell in love with not just the art, but the concept of Onyx,” said Peters. “In Seattle and in most of the Northwest when you go to an art gallery, when you go to an exhibit, there just isn’t a lot of representation of black culture, of black voices, of black points of view.”
Peters plans on contributing to the exhibit through a booklet and an installation of YouTube videos that grounds the art in the physical space of the railroad station. Peters realized the connection after a conversation with artist Storme Webber.
“We have a really long history as black people with the railroads. Not only did a large number of the initial black immigrants to Seattle come through rail travel, but we also have the history of the brotherhood of sleeping car porters and maids.”
Peters also worked with the Northwest African American Museum for more background. Participating in an art that was a bit outside of her comfort zone, Peters said that Onyx’ call for black expression is inclusive.
“We have artists who are emerging, who are just really beginning to explore and who really understand themselves to be artists,” she said. “And then we have folks who have been around a long time who have really highly developed art and who are also exploring what artistic expression means.”
Carletta Carrington Wilson has been an artist for more than 30 years. Wilson’s installation called “letter to a laundress” features large photographic images of African American women from the late-19th century to the mid-20th Century. The images are displayed as if they were laundry on a line.
“I was trying to write back into history,” explained Wilson. As both a literary and visual artist, each of her visual pieces is accompanied by or sourced from poetry. “My great-great grandmother was a washerwoman and I was trying to imagine so what exactly did that look like.”
Wilson’s other pieces in the show, “2 resist dying” and “the knotted line,” were also inspired by not only her family history, but by the common thread of clothing. Laundry connected communities and in some cases provided economic stability.
Through the art and writing Wilson had several unexpected revelations — as the laundry hanging line could share similarities with other ropes that hung from southern trees.
“After the Civil War and really up into the 20th century there was an uptick in lynching in the north and the south,” she said.
“And I was saying to myself that these women had to have known, been related to, been a friend of or have seen, washed the clothes of someone who was lynched and also highly possible also a lyncher,” said Wilson. “So it really is a memory piece, a memorial in a way because what these women did is that they continued in spite of all that.”
The opening reception was Sunday and there will be a series of artists talks throughout the month. For a detailed schedule of “Truth B Told,” check out Onyx’ website.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the show’s curators and incorrectly capitalized the names of the artworks by Carletta Carrington Wilson.