The Boundless Light of Black Children: Barbara Earl Thomas’s “Geographies of Innocence” at Seattle Art Museum

In the center of a gallery space—the walls of which glow a warm, patterned gold color—a wall of silver, of the same pattern, stretches from floor to ceiling.
Barbara Earl Thomas, The Geography of Innocence, 2020–2022. Installation view, Seattle Art
Museum, 2020, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Spike Mafford.

“I want everybody to be a little bit off their rocker, a little bit shocked, a little bit dazzled, a little bit held. That’s what I get to do.” —Barbara Earl Thomas

Electric shades of yellow, pink, orange, and blue outline a youthful figure who stands holding a book. These colors appear not on top of but rather underneath black paper, cut to reveal details of the figure’s hoodie sweatshirt, curly hair, and ponderous face with plump cheeks and eyes that look away as if in thought and reflection. Made of cut black paper and hand-printed color backing, One Poet is a 2019 work by Seattle-based Barbara Earl Thomas. It is part of the luminous and reflective Geographies of Innocence, a solo exhibition of works by Thomas at Seattle Art Museum, which runs until January, 2, 2022.

Two adjoining spaces delineate this exhibition. The first is a long narrow corridor where portraits of Black youth line the walls, each made of cut black paper illuminated by bursts of color backing. Luba in Paradise (2020) finds a smiling Black girl holding a cat while wearing a textured dress; orange and yellow colors flood the upper frame, suggesting a sunset. Elsewhere, endless detailed cutouts reveal snakes and birds, flowers, and a book with Paradise on the spine. In Color Wheel, a young Black boy stands directly addressing the frame. He wears a hoodie and jeans, and positions his hand over his heart. Behind him are rulers, books (Between the World and Me and Notes of a Native Son), and a glass-paned window—each defined by cutouts, underpinned by variegated color blocks of luminous blues, reds, and oranges. Other portraits—including Boy in Night Light (2019), Holding Fire II (2020), and Wonder Boy (2020)—highlight Black children and their boundless light and worlds. 

A little girl holds a cat in her arms, before a wide window pane, alight with soft shades of pink-orange.
Barbara Earl Thomas, Luba in Paradise, 2020. Cut paper and hand-printed
color backing. 40 x 26 inches. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery. Photo: Spike Mafford.
Two little boys stand beside each other; behind them, the world erupts in motion, with cars screaming down the street, street lights and thunder stretched across the scene like flames.
Barbara Earl Thomas, Boys in Night Light, 2019. Cut paper and handprinted color backing. 40 x 26 inches. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery. Photo: Spike Mafford.

Black children have long been denied innocence; in Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, Harvard professor and performance historian Robin Bernstein writes how “innocence was raced white.” But in Thomas’s Geographies of Innocence, especially along the narrow hallway, portraits of Black children beam with play, thought, reflection, joy, and growth. When I first visited the exhibition, I didn’t know any stories behind these representations. I thought: “These children have an amazing story. I don’t know it, but I like being lost in the unknowing and imagination of their lives.” 

I told this to Thomas, when we spoke about her exhibition over the summer. She replied, “I wanted it to be that way. I kept telling people, don’t complicate this.” She continued: “Culture teaches you to look at the void rather than the other side of it. Here’s an opportunity to see [the children] in that kind of light.” In talking with her, I think of artist Jen Everett and scholar Kevin Quashie who center Black quietness and interiority to more fully present Black lives.

That quietness beamed in the second room, filled with soft, iridescent, warm, inviting, and intriguing light. In the middle of this room: a rectangular white paper colonnade intricately carved casts soft shadows on the surrounding walls. Figures with bulbous thighs, legs, stomachs, and arms, each in different postures—laying on side, standing, falling, sitting—appear through cut detail, as do flowers and snakes. There are stories in this paper. White cut paper also wraps the room’s outer walls, bathing the entire space in brilliance and narrative.

Against a rusted yellow gallery wall, a black-and-white portrait of two figures rests on a white table.
Barbara Earl Thomas, The Geography of Innocence, 2020–2022. Installation view, Seattle Art
Museum, 2020, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Spike Mafford.

Thomas told me: “That room was a place where I wanted people to step across the threshold. You’ve just seen all these loved children, and the color with the cut paper, and now you’re in this room, and you’re not quite sure where you are. So that they are really in another world, and then able to think about just what they are thinking about at that moment, and being in the geography of the mystery. And being able to let the mystery hold you.”

Geography—a concept, practice, and theme—pervades this exhibition. It’s named in the exhibition’s title and I later learn that most portraiture figures are/were once Seattle-based Black children. Geography as Seattle is also in the museum’s title. In our conversation, we talked about the Seattle Art Museum’s collection, similar to many collections at flagship museums: mostly works about dead people by (mostly white male) dead artists. I often think of the root of the word geography—earth writing—and in this case what Thomas (a Black woman born and raised in Seattle) writes onto the museum’s walls: care and light for Black children, people, and imagination. 

Stark against a mimosa sunset, a figure smiles softly, and around them swirls a compass, a dragonfly, clouds of flowers, a more.
Barbara Earl Thomas, True North, 2020. Cut paper and hand-printed color
backing. 40 x 26 inches. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery. Photo: Spike Mafford.

Thomas told me about the figure represented in the portrait True North (2020). Centered in this frame is a young Black boy who looks outward with expressive eyes. Behind him are dragonflies, birds, snakes, flowers, and a compass. Here, warm reds and yellow color flood through the black cut paper, as if lighting his path. 

The figure represented is now an adult. Thomas described: “So he’s called True North, and [the work is] about how you find your own self, your own way, your own path, in the geographical landscape, but also in the emotional landscape.” She continued, recalling talking to him: “Because I saw you starting out young, and then finding yourself. You found your place in the world. Look what we would have lost had we lost you. Look what we have because we didn’t lose you. And that is something to take joy in. It’s not the way we normally do things.”

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence
November 20, 2020–January 2, 2022
Seattle Art Museum


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Author: Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud

Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud is an arts advocate, curator, and historian of performance and art. Her interviews and writing have appeared in ASAP/J, Art Forum, Canadian Art Review, Howlround, Hyperallergic, LitHub, and South Seattle Emerald. She is assistant professor of Theatre History and Performance Studies, with an affiliation in art history, at the University of Washington.