Q&A: Tariqa Waters

By Rafael Soldi   |   August 18, 2016

Tariqa Waters is a Seattle based contemporary visual artist, gallerist, and educator. Born in 1980 in Richmond, Virginia, she was raised with artists in her family and developed an early interest in oil painting. Self-taught, she started working as a muralist while in Sicily, where she lived from 2003-2007. Returning to the States, she began creating and showing her own work in Washington DC and Atlanta.

Tariqa relocated with her husband and their two children to Seattle in 2012. Settling into a unique live/work loft in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, she opened a gallery/art space which she called, Martyr Sauce. Also an arts educator, Waters is employed as a teaching artist at Seattle Art Museum. She regularly teaches, lectures, sits on panels, and facilitates activities all over the city.

Rafael Soldi: Give us a little background about you. You've lived in a lot of different places and done lots of different things. How did you end up in Seattle, one of the whitest cities in America? 

Tariqa Waters: I grew up in the Northeast, DC area by way of Richmond VA. Not to be confused with NE DC although 11th and U St. were my old stomping grounds, pre-gentrification. I’ve bounced all over the US and lived in Sicily for nearly 4 years before settling down in Atlanta. With the exception of San Francisco it’s kind of a case of ‘been there done that’. My husband lived in NYC for over 10 years before moving down to Atlanta. And unless we were millionaires, NYC with young kids is just too much of a grind. Neither one of us had ANY desire to move to LA…not our cup of tea. We were strongly considering Portland, but it wasn’t enough of a city for us. We fell in love with Seattle immediately and still love it.


RS: What is Martyr Sauce and how did it come about? What is does the future of Martyr Sauce look like?  I'm really intrigued by the original branding of Martyr Sauce—the pop elements, the humor. This idea of creating a product to brand a place is really unique. Can you elaborate on that? 

TW: Martyr Sauce is a renegade gallery. From day one my intention with that space was to open it up for artist in the community to show their work but how do you turn a stairway into a gallery? It quickly became, fuck it, you just do it! Turn an unconventional space into a resource for others. Soon the space became a piece of art in and of it’s self. Because this was my first commercial property, immediately I wanted to play with marketing and branding. The name Martyr Sauce actually came from my then-7-year-old daughter blurting out and alternative to tartar sauce, an expression my son would usually say in frustration. My husband and I held on to it and would use it in anecdotal conversations at dinner parties… “Can you believe this came out of our daughter’s mouth!? Martyr Sauce!” So, to make a long story longer, that’s how the name came about…out of the mouths of babes. My husband and I had a lot of fun with the concept of un-branding a brand; Turning Martyr Sauce into “nothing”. Empty bottles and branding only for branding’s sake. It got folks curious and had them involved in turning that nothing into something. Redefining it for them…what’s in their Martyr Sauce? It has since expanded to an underground space on 102 S Jackson St., which used to be Bud’s Jazz Records. Now, my husband, Ryan and I can combine our two passions, visual arts and music.


RS: Seattle has a vibrant art community, but it seriously lacks diversity; it's not secret that Black artists and opportunities for them are few and far between here. You hit the ground running and have really staked your place here unapologetically. I take issue with the broad belief that it is the responsibility of a marginalized person to educate others on how to treat them. Does this lack of diversity inspire you to push the envelope and create more room for Blackness in our community, or do you feel as if you're expected to do so?

TW: I’ve felt a real disconnect with people when I discuss or share my cultural experience—my black experience—and there’s a perceptible deficiency in nuance and context. As I’ve become more familiar with the city, I’ve come to understand and almost even accept this as a regional quirk. This is a big American urban city, but quite isolated, geographically and culturally, from what I’m used to. It’s strange to me, when American culture is so defined by and expressed through the black American experience, that a major American city still feels so unfamiliar. Seattle has a rich black heritage, especially in the arts, but unlike other cities, it seems to be almost exclusively expressed and acknowledged intellectually. It lacks the attitude and sense of identity and ownership that I feel elsewhere. 


RS: You're a gallerist, a curator, a teacher, and organizer, and an artist. Your exhibition, 100% Kanekalon: The Untold Story of the Marginalized Matriarch, is currently up at the Northwest African American Museum. In it you juxtapose a number elements—dramatized self portraits, your grandmother's church hats, 100% Kanekalon hair extensions, a DNA test, audio of your uncle reciting his banana pudding recipe—that tell the story of a "marginalized matriarch who exists on the margins... the story can only be understood by those who need understand." A number of strong women, as well your own womanhood, have influenced this work. Can you tell us about how this show came together and why it's important to tell this story? 

I’m very much a “laugh to keep from cryin’” kind’a chick...I try to find humor even in the darkest of situations. Around this same time, I very unexpectedly lost my best friend/more like a sister, Nikki. She was gorgeous and always hella fly. She and her mom used to do my hair as well as other peeps from around the way. When folks would get their hair braided, Kanekalon would get shouted out all of the time...“Yeah, get the 32 inch, but make sure it’s KANEKALON!”  The branding behind most of the products we use is hella funny to me and super commonplace, but so seldom celebrated…So the piece I created for Out of Sight, I called, 100% Kanekalon, as a nod to that memory from our childhood.

Then, when this show for NAAM came up, I went back to that piece and really felt like there was more story to tell. I’ve always looked to the matriarchs of my family who, despite some crazy bat shit drama, have managed to find the laughter in the most dire of situations. They do so with this beauty and grace that I’m fascinated with that's so often overlooked by our own and so often co-opted and appropriated by others. I also saw an opportunity to come back to some of those issues I brought up earlier that were bothering me so much and find a common narrative.

Like this explanation, the show itself is a bit all-over-the-place. There’s photography, some Martyr Sauce-style pop art/branding pieces, and a few surprises. As in most of my work, satire and spectacle will be prevalent, but I also intend for this show to be very personal.

Installation view of  100% Kanekalon

Installation view of 100% Kanekalon

 5. You embrace humor and lightheartedness in your life and in your work, which is refreshing in a world where most artists and institutions take themselves very seriously. Likewise, your gallery is very nimble and you don't really adhere to traditional concepts. You mentioned that you're trying to bring good vibes—I love this—you said, "the vibes are leaving." Talk to me about this.

I think any one who takes at least 5 steps to the left or the right in this city knows what I’m talking about. There are only so many Artisanal Pickled Peppered Pears a bitch can take. Ha!    



All images © Tariqa Waters