'Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water' Exhibition Opens at Seattle Art Museum

  • March 15, 2022 12:05

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[Beach Scene], ca. 1871-73, Albert Bierstadt, oil on paper mounted on fiber board, 19 1/4 x 24 1/4 in. Gift of Mrs. John McCone in memory of Ada E. Pigott, 69.107;
Seattle Art Museum
Mirage 24, 2018, Adrienne Elise Tarver, ink on paper, 5 ½ x 4 in., Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman © Adrienne Elise Tarver.

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) presents Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water (March 18–May 30, 2022), exploring the many ways artists around the world have engaged with the theme of water. The exhibition features works from SAM’s collection and three local lenders, with over 80 works of art from 16 countries and seven Native American tribes, including
video, sculpture, textiles, paintings, ceramics, and photographs. The works date from ancient to contemporary times, including work by 46 living artists and two contemporary works acquired specifically for the exhibition.

Our Blue Planet is a collaboration among three SAM curators: Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art; Natalia Di Pietrantonio, Assistant Curator of South Asian Art; and Pamela McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art. In the early months of the pandemic, museums and galleries around the world were impacted by exhibition schedule disruptions; SAM began to plan for a future special exhibition primarily relying on its wideranging, global collection that would respond to an urgent and relevant topic.

Water emerged as a rich theme for exploration, especially with the museum’s location in the Puget Sound region, which is literally shaped by water. The curators worked closely with many of the living artists on view to develop the themes and points of view in the exhibition; many of the artists’ thoughts will be represented with labels in the galleries. The artistic responses to water found in Our Blue Planet range from wonder and awe to anger and revelation, inviting viewers to learn, dream, and engage their empathy to create social and environmental change.

The Arrival of The Boat People, 2020, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper, 27 x 48 in., © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2022, Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York.

On behalf of the collaboration, McClusky says, “We sought to present diverse perspectives on water, with works from the museum’s collection—from Durer to Hiroshige to Bierstadt—placed alongside younger artists whose work has often not been shown in the Pacific Northwest before. Our Blue Planet offers reminders of the great pleasures water provides while also turning to artists who help us face the impact of our species on the planet. Indigenous artists in particular offer long-term visions of what is just and sustainable, as we all face increasing environmental emergencies.” 

Entering the exhibition, visitors are first greeted by a welcome in Lushootseed, the Salish language, given by Ken Workman, member of the Duwamish tribe and a descendant of Chief Seattle. Two works by Carolina Caycedo (Colombian, b. 1978) create an immersive introduction to the exhibition’s theme. Wanaawna Meets Salty Waters (2019) is a 52-foot-long silk banner, suspended from above and printed with a portrait of water. Adjacent, a single-channel video, A Gente Rio: We River (2016) plays, using satellite footage and interviews to unveil the impacts of the Itaipu Dam of Brazil on local communities.

This introductory gallery also features a space honoring local and international water protectors: activists and cultural workers aiming to protect water and water systems. This space grounds the exhibition as both an invitation to engage various ideas and a call to action.


The next large gallery space explores various forms of water: rivers, rains, seas, and pools. For rivers, visitors are first greeted by several ceremonial regalia for tribal canoe journeys created by Danielle Morsette (Suquamish, b. 1987); one of these is a new acquisition. On the reverse wall is the video Clearwater: People of the Salish Sea (2018) by Tracy Rector
(Choctaw/Seminole, b. 1972). These works foreground the importance of water and water journeys to the Native people of the region.

Awa Province, Naruto Whirlpools, 1855, Utagawa Hiroshige, Japanese, 1797–1858, woodblock print: ink and color on paper, Gift of Mary and Allan Kollar, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2017.23.20.
Seattle Art Museum

Highlights of the six works on view in this section include Reservoirs of Rain Water (2019) by John Grade (American, b. 1970), a video documenting the Seattle-based artist’s massive installation in the Arte Sella Sculpture Park in northern Italy, comprised of 5,000 heat-formed plastic droplets, molded in the shape of various cupped palms and held together in translucent nets. Raghubir Singh (Indian, b. 1947) pioneered color street photography; his Monsoon Rains, Monghyr, Bihar (1967) depicts four women huddled on the banks of the Ganges in a frieze-like composition.

A Gente Rio / We River, 2016, Carolina Caycedo, single-channel HD video (sound and color), 29:29 min., Commissioned by the 32 Bienal de São Paulo - Incerteza Viva, courtesy the artist.
Seattle Art Museum

This section features three works depicting oceans. In two, visitors see a comparison between two walks on beaches, taken 140 years apart: the painting [Beach Scene] (ca. 1871–73) by Albert Bierstadt (German, 1830–1902) and the photograph Untitled, from the series But Not Actually (2011) by Paulo Nazareth (Brazilian, b. 1977).

Mirage 24 (2018) by Adrienne Elise Tarver (American, b. 1985) is from the artist’s Mirage series of figurative watercolors on tarot-sized paper, depicting nude women swimming and lounging in tropical settings. These archetypal figures play with mythical and historical associations of the water nymph, inviting viewers to confront their role as voyeur. Kurtal (2005) by Ngilpirr Spider Snell (Australian Aboriginal, b. 1930) is a vivid painting of the snake spirit Kurtal, guarding a jila, or cool desert spring. Other artists on view in this expansive space are Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858), Ansel Adams (American, 1902–1984), Wayne Thiebaud (American b. 1920), Susan Point (Musqueam, b. 1952), Derrick Adams (American, b. 1970), and more.

A subsequent, intimate gallery features works of abstraction, revealing how artists have evoked the essence of water. Nooksack (2005) by Claude Zervas (American, b. 1963) is a sculpture of CCF (cold cathode fluorescent) lamps and high-flex wire; its sinuous form echoes that of the Nooksack River. Also on view in this gallery is the sculpture Circle Blue
(1970) by De Wain Valentine (American, b. 1936), a work on paper by Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991), lacquerware by Suzuki Masaya (Japanese, b. 1932-2013), and more.

Next, visitors encounter works that ask crucial questions about the future of water resources. The Boat People (2020) by Tuan Andrew Nguyen (Vietnamese, b. 1976) is a single-channel video projection shot at various Filipino landmarks,
including the Boat People Museum. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the film explores the adventures of five children traveling by sea and collecting objects from the lost world.

Also on view is a new acquisition, the photograph Distant Echoes of Dreams (Water Life Series) (2018) by Aida Muluneh (Ethiopian, b. 1947), a stylized portrait of two women carrying water through one of the driest landscapes on earth, highlighting the difficulties of access to fresh water. This gallery also has a video on the artist’s work by Adeyemi Michael.

Desecration #2, 2017, John Feodorov, acrylic, graphite, and conté on wool rug, 50 1/4 x 44 1/4 in., Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2020.2.2, © John Feodorov.
Seattle Art Museum

This large gallery space goes underwater, exploring below-the-surface scenes. In the center of the gallery are four Australian Aboriginal paintings of natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, including Buyku (2008) by Djirrirra Wunungmurra (Australian Aboriginal, b. 1968); on the wall behind are four Australian Aboriginal graphic works etched on aluminum or steel. The intricate patterns are derived from sacred water estates, offering a reminder of laws, policies, rituals, and visual patterns that guide life. 

Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz, wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mâché, 25 x 17 x 29 in., Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3, © Sherry Markovitz.
Seattle Art Museum

Three dimensional works of sea-related creatures abound, including Mask of Kumugwe’ (Chief of the Sea) (ca. 1880), depicting the ruler of water creatures in the Kwakwaka'wakw tradition, carved in red alder and cedar and vividly painted in red and dark blue. Sherry Markovitz’s (American, b. 1947) Sea Bear (1990) remakes the hunting trophy with this polar
bear bust created with wood, beads, and shells; nearby is the red cedar Sea Bear Crest hat (Tsa.an Xuu.ujee Dajangee) (ca. 1870), a favorite of SAM’s Northwest Coast collection.

Next, visitors turn a corner to travel a long, narrow gallery exploring the tragedies and transformations of journeys across water. Two mixed media works by Seattle-based Marita Dingus (American, b. 1965)—200 Women of African Descent and 400 Men of African Descent (both 1997)—are what the artist called, “a visual prayer,” processing the horrors of slavery after a journey to Elmina Castle in Ghana, where enslaved Africans were held before crossing the Atlantic.

Cosmic journeys are explored in 10 works, including The Garden of Earthly Delights V (ca. 2004) by Raqib Shaw (Indian, b. 1974), a densely surfaced mixed-media painting inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch depicting mythic underwater creatures. 

This final gallery, before visitors exit back through the first gallery to revisit the space dedicated to water protectors, features seven works portraying the destruction of water sources due to human activity. Desecration #2 (2017) by John Feodorov (Diné, b. 1960) is from the artist’s Desecration series, in which the artist commissions Diné wool rugs and draws on them with acrylic paint, graphite, and conté crayon. The sacred wool rug represents sovereign Diné lands, and the artist’s alteration, the continued environmental threats from governmental and private interests. This section also features four notable photographic representations of troubled landscapes around the world, all captured in a restrained, documentary style: Railroads and Shipping Containers on the Monongahela River (2013) by LaToya Ruby Frazier (American, b. 1982); Weyerhaeuser Sorting Yard Along the Chehalis River, Cosmopolis, Washington (from the series SawDust Mountain) (2007) by Seattle-based Eirik Johnson (American, b. 1974); Tautira, Tahiti (2010) by Guy Tillam (South African, b. 1962); and I Was Not Waving But Drowning (2005) by Atul Bhalla (Indian, b. 1964).

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