by Robert Atkins
All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50 is an unorthodox and fascinating exhibition. It employs multiple approaches, materials and methods, and the result is an alternating mix of respectful montage and seamless mash-up. Its hybrid character also inspires the unconventional nature of the piece you are about to read, which largely assumes the form of observations and questions, rather than the conventional art-critical or historical essay usually found in this space.
To call this exhibition boundary blurring is to be guilty of understatement. On view are both art and historical materials, including a treasure trove of interviews with Party members produced by radio station KPFA, along with much information on wall labels and texts. These range from the Panthers’ manifesto-like What We Want Now! to a curatorial note informing us that by the early 1970s, two-thirds of the party’s members were women. Also on view are architectural remnants of buildings that were demolished during the redevelopment of West Oakland, documentary and fictional artworks, installations featuring pop music or a hushed, funereal soundtrack, books that influenced the Panthers, contemporary performances on-screen, and a wall of gorgeous cover illustrations, made for the Party’s weekly newspaper by Gayle Dickson.
The first thing you see upon entering the exhibition is the iconic image of Huey Newton. Clad in black leather jacket and beret and holding rifle and spear, he sits regally in a wicker peacock chair. The theatrical photo is among the most resonant pieces of visual lore from late 1960s. Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale called it “a centralized symbol of the leadership of the black people in the community.” Adjacent is Sam Durant’s Proposal for a Monument to Huey Newton at the Alameda County Courthouse, a bronze replica of that same chair. The juxtaposition contains no small amount of irony. Almost as soon as the Black Panthers arrived and began clashing with law enforcement agencies, the Alameda County Courthouse became a symbol of unequal justice and police brutality. Later in the show it forms the backdrop for Keith Dennison’s news photo of a group of Panthers seen from behind. To sit in Durant’s chair for a selfie is to become enmeshed in Black Panther culture.
It began with the Party’s founding in 1966 by Newton and Seale, who met at Merritt (now Laney) College, which, like the Alameda County Courthouse, stands just a few blocks from the Oakland Museum. The Party existed for only 16 years, until 1982. Its immediate influence came quickly after its inception and is illustrated by its meteoric growth: By the end of 1968 the Party had
grown to more than 5,000 members in 38 chapters throughout the U.S. By the early 1970s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO (short for Counterintelligence Program) — which had been initiated in 1967 by J. Edgar Hoover to infiltrate and undermine black nationalist groups — had already taken a
deadly toll on the Panthers. Kathleen Cleaver, a lawyer, former Panther and widow of Eldridge Clever, author of Soul on Ice, succinctly observed that: “The Black Panther Party appeared like a comet and it reverberates still.”
If there’s as much history in the exhibition as most viewers can absorb, the history it presents—perhaps appropriately—is basic. Every exhibition is a narrative and this one focuses on the story of Black Panther achievement: the positive accomplishments and peaceful aims, achieved despite the distorted historical record promulgated by the powers that be, including the right-wing Hearst empire which dominated Bay Area media at the time. (Unfortunately, the museum’s apparent lack of money for a catalog means the omission of contextualizing information locating the Party within a web of resistance movements including the feminist, LGBT and anti-war movements, as well as prior U.S. struggles for racial equality.)
The show’s curator, Rene de Guzman (assisted by an unnamed team of “award winning advisors”), placed special emphasis on the Panthers’ manifesto-like ten-point program What We Want Now! (1966). Intended to publicize the lack of services and civil rights accorded African-Americans in Oakland, it appeared first in the Panther’s weekly newspaper and married a few radical demands, such as exemption from military service (which during the Vietnam war
claimed a disproportionate number of black lives), with calls for full employment, “decent housing fit for shelter of human beings” and “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Such demands for constitutionally mandated civil rights and tax-funded services are hardly the stuff of revolution; they are far closer to the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders than Nat Turner. That the Panthers would act on these demands and provide some of the services they called for, including health clinics and children’s breakfast programs, was one source of the Party’s popularity.
But there’s a problem in the exhibition attributable to the gigantic presentation of What We Want and other texts. Irrespective of their historical importance, in an environment of striking, mostly small images and non-standard-looking text works, these over-scaled -works — particularly the ten-point plan, which repeats in lieu of interpreting the text housed in a nearby vitrine — are disorienting. They level the distinctions between art and text, newspaper illustration and documentary photojournalism. The artwork’s function is sometimes reduced to illustrating the exhibition narrative, as with the handsome, documentary photo-portraits of living Panthers.
In the postmodern realm of multiple identities and simultaneous functions is this a problem? Not necessarily. Black Lives Matter, for instance, originated in Oakland as the expression of the political, aesthetic, personal and public impulses of Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse
Cullors, its queer founders. But in this instance, I was bothered not only by the billboard-scaled text, but by installation difficulties imposed by the museum’s awkward, multi-purpose space and the display of architectural artifacts oversimplifying the physical destruction of West Oakland. Between them, I was unable to recall much about the work of any artist with whom I was not already familiar.
Only Carrie Mae Weems’s stunning installation, Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008), rises above these leveling effects. Its church pew seating provides a place to meditate on Weems’s related still and moving images. The very large, remarkable photograph, The Assassinations of Medgar, Malcom and Martin, shows two black men and a black woman in a hijab bending over a third man laid out on a spot lit, altar-of-a table, linking the slain civil rights leaders’ deaths to that of Christ. Rendered in shadowy, black-and-white chiaroscuro, the effect is dramatic, evoking both Rembrandt and the crisply painted contrasts of Van Eyck and early Flemish painters. The installation’s video embodies the work’s funerary aura, its words, the heady moments of Barak Obama’s election. Weems has said of the work that she was also “dealing with the issue of appropriation. I didn’t want to have to appropriate anybody’s material; I just wanted to revisit this history." The result is an abstracted coupling of past and present, of recollection and regret, presented in haunting, indelible images.
Questions about new ways images, artworks and other materials are employed in exhibitions are always timely. I have a theory: The hybrid exhibition utilizing both historical and art materials is a product of the need for multiple forms of knowledge to comprehend the most incomprehensible or intractably inhumane events.
Following World War II — the cataclysmic global conflict that ended with the dawning of the atomic age — two exhibitions of non-art materials at two prestigious museums in New York attracted huge audiences. Both were devoted to photography at a time when it was not seen as art and both were eventually regarded as retrograde embarrassments. The earlier show, The Family of Man (1955) at the Museum of Modern Art, featured 503 pictures of smiling athletes, newborns and the dignified poor, en masse telegraphing their idealistic message, "We are all
one,” in the face of existential anxiety about the very future of humanity. The later, Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968 (1968) at the Metropolitan Museum, was a photo-record of Harlem focused on the epochal Harlem Renaissance of the arts, as seen by both little- and (later) well-known photographers including Carl Van Vechten and James van der Zee. Despite its subject, it featured not a single piece from Harlem artists, inspiring Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden and others to form the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition in protest. The group picketed the Met and other New York museums for their inequitable racial representation. Metro-
politan Museum Director Thomas Hoving pulled the catalog—for an anti-Semitic essay written by a 17-year-old—and soon publicly apologized for the exhibition.
Photo exhibitions such as The Family of Man and Harlem on My Mind are not only milestones in the elevation of photography into a medium of art, but also, as non-art offerings of a medium predicated on its “realism”, providing arenas for engaging ideological issues connected with the representation of reality. While the naively propagandistic The Family of Man failed to
acknowledge the existence of racism, Harlem on My Mind embodied it through its ethnographic approach and racist treatment of African-American artists vis-à-vis their white counterparts. All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50 is equally revealing: Its hybrid presentation of art and historical materials helps make it a breakthrough effort, assisting in the exhibition’s judicious, lively and fact-based approach to the still-contested ideological turf the Black Panthers inhabit.
If there’s a theoretical line extending to All Power to the People,it runs through the opening, in1993, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Devoted to one of the most horrific episodes of the 20th century, it is the rare museum as cautionary tale, especially in its high-profile location on the Washington Mall. Equally revolutionary were the commissions of artworks by world-class artists. The use of art in such circumstances reflected profound changes in contemporary art practice and artists’ engagement with history. The hybrid MO functions perfectly at the musem; the display of one sort of material validates and gives meaning to the
other. And that fact-based reality of the artifacts makes history literally tangible and counters absurd claims by Holocaust deniers, while the subjectivity of art offers intellectual interpretation and spiritual sustenance.
On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s new contemporary art branch, the Met Breuer, I was struck by the progressive language —the use of “Watts Rebellion” rather than “Watts Riot” for instance — on the wall labels of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, a retrospective exhibition devoted to work by the African-American artist. When flexibility about what constitutes truth, or even fact, is rampant, any exhibition’s plain speaking is, of course, welcome. The task of the Oakland Museum, however, was far more complex than celebrating a universally admired artist. The museum’s decision to mount a show dealing with so incendiary a subject is in itself highly laudable. One can only speculate about why no other institution is taking the exhibition. It makes their audiences poorer and the Oakland Museum responsible for the entire cost. Apparently, the price of progressive programming is high, and perhaps rising.
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All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50 @ Oakland Museum of California through February 26. 2017.
About the Author:
Robert Atkins is an art historian, educator and writer who has recently returned to the Bay Area. A former columnist for the Village Voice, he now writes regularly for Art in America and MODERN and blogs at Public Eye. He is the author of ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords (just released in its third edition); its modern-art prequel ArtSpoke; From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS; and Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression. Since 1995, he has produced online resources including TalkBack: A Forum for Critical Discourse; Artery: The AIDS-Arts Forum; and, in 2011, ArtSpeak China.org, the first bilingual wiki of its kind. He is a co-founder of Visual AIDS, creator of Day With(out) Art, and the Red Ribbon.