Most Influential, Arts: Tariqa Waters

Fighting the establishment while uplifting other creatives

By Rachel Gallaher March 20, 2023


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Tariqa Waters is one of Seattle’s 25 most influential people reshaping our region. #mostinfluential  

Photography by Alex Cayley

Most people in Seattle know Tariqa Waters as the owner and curator of two art spaces in Pioneer Square: Martyr Sauce gallery, a creative hub she opened in 2012, and its little sister space, Martyr Sauce Pop Art Museum (MS PAM), which burst onto the scene during the flagging days of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Martyr Sauce, which started as a gallery in the stairway that led up to Waters’ apartment — and was one of only a few Black-owned businesses in the neighborhood at the time — is a popular stop on First Thursday art walks. There’s always music, whisky, and an interesting mix of people tucked into the current underground location, which feels like a glamorously grown-up, art-forward version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. 

MS PAM, its street-level companion, is an immersive experience, with wall-to-wall murals and giant pop art-inspired pieces (central to the space is a gigantic rotating lunchbox featuring actors from the 1960s TV series, Julia). Waters, who moved to Seattle with her husband and kids a little over a decade ago, uses both places as a platform for her work, and to elevate the work of other artists. 

“I’m circumventing the white-box gallery model altogether,” she says. “The thing that bothered me the most about the arts (scene) is when I would walk into a commercial gallery and not feel welcomed or like I belonged in the space. I wanted to connect to other visual artists, but if I didn’t feel welcome, how would I know that my work would be?” 

With her deep, easy laugh, ever-changing hair and deliciously bold style, the award-winning Waters is a creative force made for the Instagram era. Offline, she’s funny and easy to talk to, and her art — much like she is — is sharp, smart and unapologetic. A child of the 1980s, Waters is known for her poppy, large-scale installations that stop viewers in their tracks, then invite them to think deeply. 

Beneath the crayon-box colors and throwback imagery runs a succession of more serious messages addressing ideas around pop culture, sexuality, consumerism, and the social and political nature of what it’s like to be a Black woman in today’s society. 

“I’m creating work for little girls that look like me,” Waters says. “For little Black girls that have never seen themselves in spaces like art galleries. Growing up, I felt powerless. I felt like I had no right to speak up or say anything. Now, I speak up.”

This sentiment is ingrained in Waters’ practice and serves as a touchstone for her curatorial work. In 2016, her breakout show, “100% Kanekalon: The Untold Story of the Marginalized Matriarch,” was installed at the Northwest African American Museum. Featuring mundane household items from her childhood — beauty products, church hats, plastic shopping bags, packs of toilet paper, toys — the exhibition was an homage to the women who raised her. It was also surprisingly relatable. Much of Waters’ work includes universal images and objects, providing easy entry points into deeper discussions surrounding race, class, politics, feminism and the power-laced systems that make up the art industry.

Since that exhibition, Waters has presented her work or curated shows at the Museum of Museums, the Seattle Art Fair, Frye Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum and more. In 2020, Bellevue Arts Museum asked her to curate a show at the institution — the first Black woman to do so. The highly anticipated result, “Yellow No. 5,” featured work from 10 Northwest artists exploring the human relationship with material goods. Four months after the opening, Waters signed a public letter calling out discriminatory treatment by the museum’s executive director, who resigned because of the incident.  

The event points to issues within the archaic systems that run these acronymous institutions and who makes decisions regarding which artists are “worthy” of showing their work —something that Waters has spoken up about and set out to counter through her curatorial work. 

In 2015, she cofounded “Re:Definition,” an annual show held at the Paramount Theatre’s lobby bar that celebrates artists of color, effectively giving a platform to creatives who might otherwise be overlooked. During the past year, Waters has been working on a television show with the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture titled “Thank You, MS PAM” which will debut on the Seattle Channel in 2023. It’s a delightful educational program that spotlights creatives working in different media, from music to dance to food.  

“I wanted it to be a fun way for people to engage with the arts, even if they aren’t able to leave home,” Waters says. When it comes to her own work, it’s been a challenging journey to becoming a successful Black female artist, but one that she’s taken with grace, empathy and strength.

“One of the biggest things I can say now is that I know my value,” she says. “I want to make sure that other people can stand up for what they value and believe in, too.”

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