The white thread on Lisa Myers Bulmash’s jean jacket spells out Hell instead of Hello Sunshine. The mixed-media artist deliberately removed some letters, she says. “It was too cheerful for me.”
It’s hard to believe. When I meet with Myers Bulmash in North Seattle to talk about her current solo show at the Northwest African-American Museum, her laughter billows out around her. She even uses funny voices.
Describing her “Saint Felicia” icons, a pair of mixed-media assemblage sculptures, she recalls “falling over laughing” when she saw a meme referring to an African saint as the patron saint of farewells. Not long after, Myers Bulmash painted some plastic Christian icons to appear Black, gave them dreadlocks and turned them into “Felicias.” She framed the scene, which includes a background of fake moss and lights, with a halo of ceramic “talk-to-the-hand” doll hands.
The faux-religious diptych is one of the crowd-pleasers of Myers Bulmash’s first solo museum show, You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?, which opened earlier this month at NAAM. Made of altered books, recycled cigar boxes, wash boards and found objects, the collection of collages and sculptures aspires to more than laughter. Myers Bulmash also wants to invite visitors to think about the African American identity and experience in the Pacific Northwest, Black home-ownership and the “hyper-visibility” of Black bodies. “The art in my show centers African American faces,” she says.
What does the title of the show, You’re Not from Around Here, Are You?, refer to?
I’m hoping to confront some of the unspoken questions about belonging that people often face here, specifically African American people. “You’re not from around here, are you?” is never a question. It’s a challenge, it’s “how do you belong here?”
It’s never innocent.
Right. Nobody who asks that question just thinks that you live down the street. I’m from LA, where everybody is from somewhere else. I’ve been here for 20 years and moved up from Southern California to work as a reporter for Q13.
How did you transition from journalism into art?
I’d just moved in with my fiancé and was making some handmade save-the-date cards for our wedding. When I went to the post office, they told me I couldn’t send them without envelopes, but I didn’t even care. I went home and made some more [laughs]. The whole process had been so therapeutic. After that, I started making mixed-media cards as a hobby. It wasn’t until my father died that I started using art to express more personal concerns. Part of the reason was that my mother had already died, as had other relatives. If I wanted to find out more about my family, I needed to start asking questions right then. Some of those stories have found their way into my work.
Would you say your art is still very personal?
Yes. Some of my collages are based on real family photos from my childhood. The collage “Tourist” is based on a picture of me as a little kid, posing in the backyard of our house in LA. I made the image “bleed” on watercolor paper and layered on an image from NASA’s Apollo moon mission so that it looks like the astronaut is taking the picture. (In truth, my mother took the picture.) Our neighborhood was so new and unfinished, it felt like an arid moonscape. There were only four other Black families living on our block.
At school, I felt accepted—but mostly conditionally. I was thinking about that recently and realized that at a certain age, my brother started to get treated differently than me, a light-skinned African American girl. My dad started to warn my brother about not invading people’s personal space so he wouldn’t seem threatening. “Tourist” deals with that idea of conditional acceptance.
So for you, the personal is political.
More or less. I’m using these images from my family and from people who look like me to talk about larger concerns. At the same time, I wonder: Why does a Black face always have to mean it’s a work about race or politics? Why is it that when a Black face appears, or a Black body appears, we’re suddenly talking about race? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s just a person with more melanin.
Part of what I’m trying to do is to normalize images of people of color in art. Maybe it’s just an image of an African American man in a Victorian suit walking down the street walking next to a Black woman in a puffy dress. Maybe it’s just a nice image about an individual, not a statement about an entire group.
In your statement for the show you politicize your work. Is it hard to negotiate both poles?
To a certain extent. After the 2016 election, making political work became more urgent. My husband is Jewish. Before we got married, we used to joke that if we ever had kids, bigots would have twice as much reason to hate them. Now I have two young boys, and after the election we saw those bigots coming out of the woodwork. Although “coming out of the woodwork” suggests they were hidden, or there was no way to know who those people were. That’s not true: They’ve always been there, and I’ve just become a more political person in relation to my children’s future. I’ve been dealing more with the recurring anxiety that their lives could be taken away at any moment. But it’s not going to help protect them if I wake up and go to bed every night consumed with terror that my children will be murdered because somebody can’t see them as individuals. So I have to find a way to deal with it in constructively—which I do in my work. I have no idea if the people who need to think deeply about these issues will ever see my work. But I have to try.
You’re Not From Around Here, Are You? is on view at NAAM through April 8, 2018.