By Taylor Bruce, The Seattle Medium
Print collages and paintings of fish, lobsters and faces in a variety of different shapes and colors line the walls of The East Gallery of The Henry Art Gallery, located at the edge of the University of Washington Seattle campus.
The exhibit titled “Fishing Was His Life” by Nina Chanel Abney centers the rich culture and identity of Black fishers as well as the structural inequities within the fishing industry in the United States.
Nina Chanel Abney is a New York-based artist who creates collages and paintings centered on intersectional subjects involving race, social issues and identities. Her work strays away from streamlined linear narratives that must be viewed sequentially, and uses bright color and large scale to convey its messages.
According to the artist biography from The Henry Art Gallery, Abney was born in 1982 in Chicago, Illinois. She attended Augustana College in Illinois, where she earned her BFA, and later received an MFA from the Parsons School of Design in New York. Her thesis painting, titled “Class of 2007” helped her get gallery representation from Kravets Wehby, a contemporary art gallery in New York City, and Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell, according to Culture Type.
Her first solo exhibition Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush debuted at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in 2017 and featured 30 of her paintings, watercolors and collages from the previous 10 years. Since then, her art has been shown around the world, and Abney has been commissioned to create artwork for locations such as the World Center in Miami.
One of Abney’s exhibitions entitled “The Great Escape,” a collection of paintings that centers Black queer utopia and interaction with nature, property and between individuals, led Henry Galley curator Nina Bozicnik to contact Abney.
According to Bozicnik, the topic of “The Great Escape” was compelling but also interested her because of how it related to leisure, recreation and the history of representation of Black people. She reached out in late fall of 2021 about the possibility of an exhibition at The Henry, and later learned about the work that is now part of “Fishing Was His Life,” which Abney created from a 2020 Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship.
The Gordon Parks Foundation honors the legacy of Black photographer Gordon Parks, who took photos across the United States and abroad between the 1940s and early 2000s. The foundation offers fellowships in art and writing, one of which was awarded to Abney in 2020. “Fishing Was His Life” was first shown at the Gordon Parks Foundation and was then later brought to The Henry Art Gallery.
According to Bozicnik, Abney came across a collection of Parks’ images from 1943 of predominantly white fishing crews off the coast of Gloucester, Mass., and Fulton Fish Market in New York.
The artist “was thinking about who wasn’t represented in those images, whose fortitude, resilience, wasn’t documented there in the long history of America,” Bozicnik said. “And so this work came out of that fellowship and out of that encounter with that imagery, as well as the culmination of some of her other preceding interests.”
Commercial fishing in the United States is a predominantly white industry. According to Monique Morris’ book “Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-first Century”, African Americans own only 2 percent of the businesses in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing and hunting industries.
“The image of a fisherman here is sort of that lone white guy in his yellow slicker, which is kind of a romanticized vision,” said Barbara Garrity-Blake, a cultural anthropologist and adjunct associate professor at Duke University, who specializes in fisheries. In North Carolina, and likely in many other places in the United States, there is no mainstream cultural representation of Black fishers.
The collection at The Henry aims to change that. It features the nine original print collages shown at the Gordon Parks Foundation, two additional paintings and a mural of a fish market on the exterior of The Henry specifically created for The Henry Art Gallery.
According to Bozicnik, photographs of the collection do not do the art justice: scale, construction and the individual marking on the prints can be appreciated more completely in person.
The Henry Art Gallery is open Thursday through Sunday. According to Tanja Baumann, director of communications and public relations for The Henry, admission is now based on a suggested donation instead of paid admission. “Fishing Was His Life” will be on display until March 5, 2023.