Figuring History at #WeAreUPrep! A Conversation with Raj Bhat and Mandira Virmani

We are so excited to have the opportunity to see the critically acclaimed exhibit, Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mikalene Thomas, at the Seattle Art Museum during the upcoming #WeAreUPrep event! This show is the first time these three African American artists have been displayed together and all three address the histories of people of color told through large-scale, powerful works.

Katharine Durkee, Advancement Events and Communications Officer

We are so excited to have the opportunity to see the critically acclaimed exhibit, Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mikalene Thomas, at the Seattle Art Museum during the upcoming #WeAreUPrep event! This show is the first time these three African American artists have been displayed together and all three address the histories of people of color told through large-scale, powerful works.

As a special offering for all guests of #WeAreUPrep, two of our community members will be leading a special tour of this exhibit. Mandira Virmani is a UPrep parent and Seattle Art Museum trustee who has been acting as a docent since 2008. Her interest in art grew during her childhood in Delhi and her interest in bringing contemporary Indian art to Seattle led her to the Seattle Art Museum. Like the museum’s mantra, her goal is to bring art to life for patrons and help people analyze how we look at the world.

Raj Bhat, a UPrep history teacher, has an undergraduate degree in Fine Art from Parsons and a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Washington. It was through volunteering with high school students that his passion for teaching was born, and instead of pursuing a PhD in Art History, he went on to receive a master’s in secondary education. He frequently brings art into his classroom and sees art as an opportunity for students to embrace visual literacy.

I was able to sit down with Mandira and Raj to ask them why Figuring History is an important exhibit and what they’re most excited about sharing during their upcoming tours at #WeAreUPrep.

Katharine Durkee: Why should people be sure to see Figuring History?

Raj Bhat: There are so many reasons this is a great exhibit for people to experience. This is absolutely an exhibit that art lovers can really geek out over. There are so many references to the history of art throughout the works. All three of these artists are reclaiming a tradition of art making for people who have long been marginalized by the people traditionally using these mediums. In this way, they’re akin to a lot of the early Modernist painters who first depicted real people. They’re representing people who did not typically have representation in art and elevating them. And they’re just beautiful works!

Mandira Virmani: This is the first time these three artists – Colscott, Marshall, and Thomas –  have been shown together and it makes their art so powerful to see them play off one another. New works have been created specifically for this show and the curation by Catharina Manchanda is wonderful. These works represent narratives of Black America that are so central to our country. They give a voice and a rich perspective on Black culture and representation and have such a great understanding of the past and present.

Souvenir I, 1997, Kerry James Marshall, acrylic, collage, and glitter on unstretched canvas, 108 x 157 in., Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund, 1997.73, © MCA Chicago

KD: What makes this a great exhibit for the UPrep community in particular?

RB: One of the cornerstones of our History department is that we recognize the danger of a single story. We want to provide our students with a multiplicity of perspectives. The recent exhibitions at SAM clearly have a similar mission and that’s an exciting new identity for the institution. They are showing a multitude of voices within the art community and this exhibit really highlights that. Middle and Upper School students at UPrep have been going to this show with various classes and clubs over the last month and I promise it will spark some really great conversations.

MV: This exhibit connects with so many conversations that are happening right now. It’s so relevant for families. These works really give a fresh perspective on Black culture past and present, as well as race and gender. It gives us a chance to think about who is figured in Western art and who is missing. These are such important things to be thinking about and discussing with our students.

KD: This exhibit celebrates three artists – what interests you in particular about how their works play off of one another?

RB: These artists are each having a conversation with and building on a history of image making. At the same time, they’re having a conversation with one another. They represent different generations. It’s a conversation on history and image making on both a macro and micro level.

MV: Colescott and Marshall both address the lack of black figures in Western art. They are working to bring black figures into art history, but Colescott wants to charge history for not being responsible for something it should have documented, whereas Marshall doesn’t want to fault history, he wants to expand it. He sees himself as a depictor of things that people wouldn’t see if he didn’t show them. There’s such an interesting interplay between the works. Thomas, the youngest and the only female artist of the three, explores the notions of black beauty and style. She really turns the idea of the male gaze around; these powerful Black women are looking at us.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires, 2010, Mickalene Thomas, rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 120 x 288 x 2 in., The Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann Collection, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, © Mickalene Thomas

KD: What should viewers be sure to notice or do while visiting Figuring History?

MV: These artists are showing such a range of beauty! There’s so much joy emanating through many of  these paintings. They capture people living their lives. It’s also important to see that there are so many skin tones throughout the works. Artist Kerry James Marshall has said that he uses seven different shades of black, but that all of his subjects are unapologetically black. There’s a lot of exploration of the notion of black beauty here.

RB: I would advise people to approach and look slowly. Take the time to let the image wash over you. Take the time to let your eyes move across the entire image. These paintings have so many layers of complexity. Give them the time and you will be able to peel back layer after layer. There is so much content. Things will reveal themselves to you if you want to come away with the full experience.These images have insights that will reveal themselves to you if you invest the time it takes to go beyond the surface and engage with them.

MV: People are going to be surprised by the large scale of the paintings. It’s an immersive experience. There are lounge spaces within the galleries so you can enjoy and take in the works fully.

For more insight into Figuring History, be sure to attend #WeAreUPrep on Friday, March 9 and join Mandira and Raj for their tour at 9:00 p.m.!



More from PrepTalk