Visual Art

Inside the Portland Art Museum’s Aux/Mute Gallery

DJ Ambush of the Numberz has transformed part of PAM’s fourth floor into a platform for BIPOC artists.

By Conner Reed December 20, 2021

Image: Jason Hill

AT the top of the Portland Art Museum sits a welcome explosion of color. The building's fourth floor galleries, historically used as painting studios and then as a showplace for Northwest art, have been repainted in shocks of blue and red. Near the stairs there's a faux-rooftop with neon sneakers slumped over a power line; high windows refract a rainbow across the ground. 

Since August, the space has been home to the Aux/Mute Gallery, the latest fruit from the museum’s partnership with local radio station the Numberz. The two orgs first linked up in 2019, when the station became an integral part of PAM’s Hank Willis Thomas exhibition, hosting workshops and live broadcasts from within the exhibit.  

That relationship continued through COVID, as the Numberz ballooned in size and started to outgrow their cramped—and not especially pandemic-friendly—XRAY.FM facilities. “[PAM] was like, ‘Well, our galleries are closed,’” says DJ Ambush, de facto head of the Numberz, from the middle of the Aux/Mute Gallery. “So we literally set up on the other side of this wall.” 

The arrangement echoed a little-known bit of PAM history: in 1941, the museum began hosting weekly radio discussions from its sculpture garden, which grew into more full-blown broadcasts by the middle of the decade. With support from RACC, the Numberz started to revive PAM's long-dead radio cred by broadcasting interviews with elected officials and mural artists from the 2020 protests, live in-house shows, and more. 

Eventually, Ambush started pinning up artwork around the new studio for inspiration: pieces from friends, a painting by his teenage daughter. "I texted her, and I was like, 'You have art in the Portland Art Museum,'" he recalls. "And she was like, 'Oh—I guess that's kind of cool.'" Stephanie Parrish, the director of learning and community partnerships at PAM, agreed. “Considering the museum’s history with radio, and considering how social practice functions, it felt kind of perfect to have the Numberz in the space curating art and bringing the community together. It’s kind of like, duh,” she says. 

In fact, PAM was already preparing to install Sharita Towne’s A Black Art Ecology of Portlandwhich pulls together far-reaching artistic projects by Black Portlanders, on half of the fourth floor in July 2020. (The Numberz relocated to a private studio a floor below, where they still broadcast). After chatting with Ambush, Parrish handed him the keys to the rest of the space—Black Art Ecology and Aux/Mute are separated only by a beaded curtain—and by August, Aux/Mute was live, with a show by Portland artist and footwear designer Sa’rah Melinda Sabino.

Next up was In My Skin, a stunning portrait series from local photographer Jason Hill that features his work for musician I$$A and shots of the Lion King touring cast on their day off in Eugene; March will bring a textile-focused show from New York native Christine Miller. At present, Aux/Mute is scheduled to stay in the space through June 2022. 

The space also sports a bodega, modeled after the corner stores of Ambush’s D.C. and Philadelphia youth, which sells exclusive merch—candles, t-shirts, jewelry, board games—by local BIPOC artists. That’s managed by Gayani Ekanayake, a friend Ambush made on the Philadelphia DJ circuit, and her partner Eric Gordon, both of whom now live in Portland. 

The name “Aux/Mute” is a music-centric play on the relationship institutions like PAM often have with BIPOC artists: too often “muted,” Ambush hopes to hand Portland artists of color the proverbial aux. So far, it seems, it’s working out. "Honestly, the museum has done a really good job of letting us spread our wings," says Ambush. "We're a Black radio station in the whitest city in America with our own art gallery in the Portland Art Museum. I mean, that's it."  

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