Storme Webber


at Frye Art Museum

Storme Webber: Noirish Lesbiana: A Solo, ca. 1967, reproduction of a photobooth self-portrait, 221/2 by 18 inches; at the Frye Art Museum.


The first and largest piece in Storme Webber’s “Casino: A Palimpsest” was a photograph that covered an entire wall. The Venice of America (1891), taken by Frank La Roche and captioned “Indian dugout canoes in the harbor,” shows a formation of passenger-carrying canoes at the foot of Washington Street in Seattle. Above them, a shadowed crowd peers down from the docks. The scene seems tense—the aftermath of conflict, or a presage of trouble to come.

If history is a palimpsest, Webber’s act of displaying this photograph seemed meant to expose a lower layer. Native Americans flourished for over fifty thousand years in the Pacific Northwest before white settlements spread rapidly in the 1850s. The ensuing barrage of treaties, exclusion acts, bans, and settler laws destroyed the tribes’ trade systems, social structures, and access to natural resources within decades. While many Natives scattered, some refused to leave, as seen in the photograph.

A Seattle-based writer and artist, Webber is a descendant of Sugpiaq (Alutiiq), black, and Choctaw people, from a family that counts queer or Two-Spirit (third-gender) members in many generations. “Casino” commingled artifacts of local and national history with intimate family memorabilia and Webber’s own poetry, welding personal and historical memory to highlight many forms of resistance. The exhibition’s title refers to the now-closed Casino, one of the oldest gay bars on the West Coast and a Webber family haunt for decades. Since it opened in the ’30s, the Casino was a rare refuge for Native people displaced by settler occupation, as well as other people of color targeted by racial exclusion acts and queer people persecuted under the prohibition of same-sex relationships. A land-use survey of the Casino’s building from 1937 was mounted a few feet from the text of Webber’s poem “I Cover the Waterfront,” which transports the reader to the bar by evoking the “Cuban heel boots and sneakers,” the “stilettos and cheap thongs,” and the creaky, steep stairway.

Webber exhibited paintings and collages in galleries in New York and San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s, but “Casino” was her first solo show and didn’t include such works. On view were photos of subjects ranging from Webber’s great-grandmother to Webber herself, taken casually in photo-booths or formally as staged portraits, all offered as straightforward evidence of enduring queer livelihood. Webber has given the photographs affectionate titles, naming, for instance, a midcentury shot of her grandmother Flamingo, Like a Flame in the Sky; a late-’60s picture of her mother Noirish Lesbiana: A Solo; and a 2010 image of the artist herself dressed in male drag Blues Divine. The images hung in the gallery next to the Frye’s founding collection, whose nineteenth- and twentieth-century depictions of the French and German bourgeoisie serve as a reminder of the political history of portraiture.

Sidestepping exhibition standards, “Casino” demonstrated what Webber and curator Miranda Belarde-Lewis consider an “Indigenizing” approach that prioritizes Native American values. For instance, Webber divested from singular authorship by showing her family members’ photographs alongside her own. In the poem “All My Daddy Were Butches,” she attributes the way she moves through the world to her kin, writing: “I mixed you with them other butches. . . . I ain’t met a darkened street I can’t walk.” Rather than erect divisions between personal art and historical archives, “Casino” considered the intangible properties by which art and poetry are connected to family, ancestry, language, and public memory, revealing intergenerational, underground histories of resilience.