‘Brave People Have Taken Over’: Remembering the Black Panthers Through Art | Art

SAdie Barnette’s work pays homage to his father’s time in the Black Panther Party, a political organization founded in the tumultuous 1960s that attempted to combine socialism, black nationalism and armed defense against police brutality.

She notably takes as raw material a 500-page surveillance file on Rodney Barnette, compiled by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which described the Black Panthers as “the most dangerous and violence-prone of all extremist groups” in America.

The last in the series, a diptych using powdered graphite and colored pencil on paper, is featured in This Tender, Fragile Thing, a group exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery in upstate New York that offers a fresh look at the Black Panthers in the era of Black Lives Matter.

“I consider my dad to be kind of a collaborator and co-conspirator in this project,” says Sadie, whose parents filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the FBI file in 2011. Eventually we received this document and were totally blown away by how invasive, intrusive, terrifying and extensive it was.

Now 77, Rodney grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, one of 11 siblings, another of whom worked closely with Malcolm X in Boston. In 1966 he was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam, where he was injured and awarded a Purple Heart. He returned to the United States and traveled to Compton, Los Angeles to bury his nephew, who had been killed in the war.

Sadie recalled via Zoom: “He says he felt like he was always at war because of the police presence in black neighborhoods in Compton and the military-style raids they were doing.”

Rodney Barnette and Sadie Barnette. Photograph: Josh Edelson/The Guardian

Rodney felt he had to take action and saw the Black Panthers as a positive option in the community. Sadie continues: “I’m always fascinated by the fact that what we see after almost every war in our country’s history is that a generation of black and brown men (at that time mostly men ) have returned from a war and have not gained any more rights, status or dignity in this country than before, and so you will often see this upsurge in political activism or organizing.

Rodney opened the Black Panther chapter in Compton before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area and joining activists’ efforts to defend leading activist Angela Davis, with whom he lived during her trial for murder, kidnapping and conspiracy . “He says one of his most important jobs was to get her to court on time every day.” She was acquitted 50 years ago last June.

When Rodney finally got his file from the FBI, after a haggling that lasted nearly five years, it was surprising in its breadth and depth. There were his family members with birthdates and other details, interviews with his former school teachers, and a list of Black Panthers with “deceased” ominously written in parentheses after each name.

The file showed that Compton’s Black Panther chapter had been infiltrated by informants and agent provocateurs, prompting Rodney’s departure. He also clarified that the FBI was responsible for having him fired from his job at the Post Office for the allegedly unbecoming conduct of cohabiting with a woman he was not married to.

Sadie, 37, said: “It was infuriating and scary and we both felt he was very lucky to be alive. There are so many people who are still incarcerated as political prisoners, although it has become a bit fashionable to celebrate these moments. But people are still incarcerated. Families have still not received any type of reparation or compensation for lost loved ones. So my dad felt lucky to have lived to say it and I felt lucky to be born.

Installation image of This Tender Fragile Thing
Photography: Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The artist adds: “I felt a strong desire to use this material to do something other than what it was supposed to do, to make it live in my world and tell the story of my father, not in the sense where it’s going to completely fix or fix something, but just as a meditation on thinking about these issues and of course linking 60s surveillance to [the FBI programme] Cointelpro and surveillance now which, with all the digital capabilities, is just beyond that.

At first, Rodney was taken aback by the idea of ​​turning his FBI file, a product of a leaden bureaucracy with only one photo (his mug shot), into art. But when, once, someone asked him what it was like to see the pages exploded and displayed all over the walls; he replied that it made him feel free.

Sadie, who has lived with her father, mother and partner in Oakland, California during the coronavirus pandemic, said: “If I can make my dad feel free in this country, even for a moment , it really felt like a kind of mission accomplished as to the possibilities of what art can do, even in a very particular audience context. For him to feel that is really all I could ask for.

Tell a generation Black Panthers and they might remember the militants who barked at Tom Hanks in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump (he gets into a fight and says, “Sorry, I fought in the middle of your Black Panther Party”). There have been more nuanced portrayals in films such as The Butler and Judas and Lee Daniels’ Black Messiah. Today, fans of the Marvel superhero franchise might think of Black Panther’s place with the late Chadwick Boseman.

But the party’s revolutionary heritage is complicated and elusive. Its members epitomized radical chic as they patrolled the streets wearing berets, sunglasses, black leather jackets, turtlenecks and guns. His support network offered clothing, self-defense classes, ambulance services and deportation protections. Its free breakfast for kids program has been described by Hoover as “potentially the greatest threat to authorities’ efforts to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”

John Simmons, Free Huey, 1968.
John Simmons, Free Huey, 1968. Photography: Courtesy of the artist

The corruption of the party leadership, however, was noted in a 2016 New York Times article which said, “Historians have detailed the mistreatment of female members, extortion, drug trafficking, hijackings, funds and murders. At least 19 Panthers were killed in shootouts between them, authorities or other black revolutionaries.

The way cultural perspectives shift over time is evident in This Tender, Fragile Thing, on view until April 30, combining period materials related to the Black Panthers with works by contemporary artists in an old 30,000 square foot high school in Kinderhook, New York.

The exhibit includes photographs of Gordon Parks and John Simmons in the civil rights era, as well as Devin Allen in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, and Ada Trillo during the protests in Philadelphia following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

The huge Theaster Gates Walking Prayer sculpture is a vintage cast steel Carnegie library shelf housing over 2,000 books on the black experience. Gates bounces each book in black, with single words or phrases embossed in gold, snippets of its contents in place of titles.

Gallery owner Jack Shainman says via Zoom: “The past two years, sitting around working from home during the pandemic while everyone watches every night another unarmed black man get killed by the police, was mind-blowing. and so it seemed time to have it shown and reviewed. There are no answers. It just shows the struggle, the battle, and it really starts with slavery and all these injustices.

Why the title This Tender, Fragile Thing? Shainman explains, “We never heard of the Black Panther movement in school; we learned such a strange version of the history of this country. But the thing is, these very brave people got up and had to do something; it wasn’t like a choice.

“The Black Panther movement was always demonized by white people, but it was an amazing thing where they were educating, teaching, feeding people, etc. So to use that title meant it was such a fragile thing because it takes all those people to believe and try to do something to change it.

Barkley L. Hendricks, Michael BPP (Black Panther Party), 1971 A
Barkley L Hendricks, Michael BPP (Black Panther Party), 1971 A. Photograph: Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Jaci Auletto, the gallery’s associate director, believes the Panthers have lessons for today, especially those made uncomfortable by Black Lives Matter direct action. “I feel like the urgency when you look at the Panthers is so obvious and I don’t know if it’s because they had this more aggressive way of handling things where they weren’t really trying to. wrap things up for everyone.

“It was a more pragmatic way of dealing with what their community and minority communities were dealing with and I think that maybe shows where we are today. There are so many things we face that need urgency and we try to make everyone want to deal with them, and that doesn’t necessarily always lead to so much action.

Towards the end of the exhibition, Arthur Jafa’s film Love is the Message, The Message is Death brings together original and appropriate imagery that juxtaposes police brutality with depictions of black pride and beauty. This work and others on display leave Shainman pessimistic about the future.

But Auletto says the show gives him hope. “Yeah, there’s this history and these disturbing images and these depictions of violence but at the same time it’s all intertwined with these beautiful songs and these moments of joy. The fact that people are starting to have a conversation, to pay attention and to want to know more and to see the complexity of it is encouraging.”

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