“Artwork is more than beauty or decoration. It’s a weapon,” says Amplifier deputy director Cleo Barnett as she leads a guided tour through protest posters about the immigrant and refugee crisis. “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It‘s a shield, reclaiming our visual landscape.”
The free exhibit, “Sanctuary: Design for Belonging,” displays this artistic weaponry from floor to ceiling, along with urban design proposals and local and historical contexts for the global crisis. Presented by Design in Public and AIA Seattle, the displays are up now through Feb. 23 at the Center for Architecture & Design at 1010 Western Ave.
Barnett’s use of fighting words is intentional; she states that these posters are now being published as “full-color newspaper arsenals.”
Before World War II, businesses commissioned posters with anti-immigrant sentiments, but today artists have reclaimed the medium. The posters on display are dated from 2004, but most are from the past couple months.
The artwork meets the eye from the front windows — one wall faces the street, greeting visitors upon their entrance; the second is an internal wall to the immediate left. Hanging alone at the beginning of the exhibit is the poster that inspired the concept of “Sanctuary.” Titled “Refugees are welcome,” its frequent placement throughout an Oakland neighborhood intrigued Design in Public Director Debra Webb during a stroll to explore graphic design’s social impact. To produce the exhibit, Design in Public enlisted the help of Barnett as graphic art curator and Mayumi Tsutakawa as research writer.
Three groups curated the majority of the posters on display: Amplifier, a non-profit that builds art to amplify the voices of grassroots movements; Just Seeds Collective, which gives off anarchist vibes in its collection of open-source artwork; and Culture Strike, a pro-migrant think tank and activist studio investing in art as a movement in and of itself.
Visitors are offered a free poster illustrated by Pacific Northwest artist Raychelle Duazo, a queer femme Filipina American artist. The take-home poster, “Together we are home,” features a multi-generational family of immigrants in a loving embrace, an image and message that organizers hope will resonate with viewers.
Images on display include the artwork of trans immigrant artists like Micah Bazant and Rommy Sobrado-Torrico. Also featured is the poster that became a symbol of the Women’s March, “We the People,” originally created by artist Shepard Fairey to protest President Trump’s inauguration. The exhibit includes Bazant’s response poster to “We the People.” Titled “We all belong here / We will defend each other,” it was the outcome of an intense conversation among 40 Muslim artists and activists in New York who wished to amplify the voices of Muslims in non-traditional attire. Molly Crabapple, an Arabic-speaker of Puerto Rican heritage, created the No Muslim Ban series in the exhibit.
The far left and back walls display posters of a different sort — over a dozen entries to an international design competition called “Displaced: Design for Inclusive Cities.” This spring, Design in Public and AIA Seattle called for innovative design proposals to support refugees and immigrants navigating the challenges of urban life. More than 40 people submitted proposals for $15,000 in cash prizes.
Barnett was among seven jurors, including Tukwila Mayor Allan Ekberg and Charles Mudede, film editor for The Stranger. Designers were expected to center their proposals on the voices of those directly impacted by the persecution, human rights violations, conflict and violence that have displaced over 60 million people worldwide.
“This was a media experiment in human-centered design,” Barnett said. “Humans know the answers to their problems. The design process leads people to them.”
Proposals fell within five categories: social innovation, resource hubs, shelter, gathering spaces and storytelling. The winning entries — three prize winners, an honorable mention, and a student winner — were announced at the Seattle Design Festival in September and are featured online.
The grand prize winners, Juan Manuel Garcia Alvarez (who attended the opening reception from Mexico City) and Marian Santibañez, are featured in the exhibit’s Social Innovation section. Their proposal, “Comparte/lo Simple,” is essentially a modern-day Underground Railroad of safety and information hubs assisting Central American refugees on the way to the United States. Alvarez and Santibañez are design students who noticed that the Mexican government has not responded to vulnerable migrants’ needs as they arrived into cities. Upwards of 70 percent of forcibly displaced people in the world now live in cities.
In their proposal, they wrote that Mexico has no policies recognizing the complex situations of violence and risk most refugees encounter. As in the United States, many migrants are perceived as a threat to national security, when actually they are just seeking better life opportunities. “Comparte/lo Simple” proposes a cultural exchange festival, opportunities to sell products or offer skills as temporary jobs, and upon migrants’ departure, access to Wi-Fi hotspots and a survival kit that includes a smartphone, food, clothes and first aid.
Other prize winners include “Seattle Resource Hubs: Connect + Access” by Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects; “Cuiseen” (a food truck training program) by Benjamin Ku; “Displaced Handbook,” a physical manual and digital app by Clemente Miller, Wendy Greenberg, Daniel Lee, and Ricki Xie in partnership with World Relief; and “Rose Triangle Commons” by Juliana Hom and Mo Li, students who proposed the creation of a neighborhood cultural and transportation hub on an unused lot in Rainier Valley.
Internal exhibit walls include displays “bringing the outside in” with definitions and local history and resources.
Mayumi Tsutakawa, a Seattle Globalist contributor and curator who has focused on Asian Pacific American history and arts, helped develop Sanctuary’s theme and historical content, offering a local context.
“The exhibit’s approach is international, national, and local, in regards to immigrants,” Tsutakawa said.
The Seattle City Council reaffirmed the city’s status as a welcoming city in January 2017. The cities of Seattle and Portland filed a lawsuit that year challenging President Trump’s claim to financially punish sanctuary cities for refusing to comply with federal immigration law enforcement. Trump’s executive order was denied by a federal judge.
“Seattle is a sanctuary city, but a lot of us live lives of wealth and privilege,” Tsutakawa said. “I want the general public to ask, ‘What can I do?’ So this exhibit is for everyone — not just for people who work in design, architecture, or [for] an organization that serves immigrants.”
Tsutakawa’s charge was not to turn people into activists, but rather to inform and inspire them to think about current events.
“You can read about it but not think about how it affects us locally,” Tsutakawa said.
She insisted that the exhibit have a historical immigration overview of five different racial groups in Washington State, but said it was challenging to compress over 3,000 years of history (especially that of Native Americans) into mere paragraphs.
The exhibit introduces local organizations that are working on refugee and immigrant issues and providing resources, information, and support such as shelter and gathering spaces. Visitors are encouraged to take free handouts listing these local groups.
It is encouraging that Seattle, like other cities around the world, has organized an exhibit educating the public on what being a welcoming city means — in ensuring not only the safety of refugees and immigrants, but also giving them opportunities to thrive.
“This is a beautiful exhibition about creating design for a sense of belonging that sets people up for success,” Barnett said, stating that the bottom line of the exhibit is social justice.
The hope of these designers, activists, and writers is that the public will dig deep for empathy and be led to learn more about stories outside of their own worlds.
Tsutakawa is leading the next guided tour on January 24, for which there is a wait list. The exhibit is free Tuesdays through Saturdays, and open during standard business hours except on Saturday when it is open in the afternoon. Organizations are hosting other events in conjunction with the exhibit. The Seattle Architecture Foundation is hosting a workshop on poster design Jan. 16. The Center for Architecture & Design is hosting an architecture workshop for kids on Jan. 26.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the artist of the poster titled “We The People.” We also clarified that Micah Bazant is the artist who created the poster “We all belong here/We will defend each other” and that artist Molly Crabapple created the “No Muslim Ban” series that is part of the exhibit.