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Image Makers

Exhibition Keenly Observes That All Power to The People Was Aesthetic as Well as Political

Sam Durant's "Proposal For A Monument To Huey P. Newton."

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 11/21/2007

The Black Panther Party, a black nationalist organization that for a brief period in the late 1960s and early '70s was a vital player in American politics, is perhaps the most striking example of the power radical ideas have when matched with radical aesthetics. Its party platform, like the platforms of many radical movements and parties in U.S. history, still reads as fresh and relevant, even if the anti-colonial and separatist politics that run through its organizing Ten Point Plan has been rejected by all but the most ardent black nationalists.

The Black Panther Rank and File exhibition currently on view at MICA isn't interested in political nostalgia, or any form of political expression as an end in itself. Instead, the exhibit, traveling from San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, examines the Panthers as consumers and producers of particular types of racial and cultural imagery that were used in the service of radical politics. These images also became inspiration for other artists who, historically removed from the events of the '60s and '70s, more deeply interpreted the Panthers' politics.

The focus on the Panthers' aesthetics--which are as striking, if not more so, than their political platform--allows this exhibit to skim past the particular arguments they made about society and their, at times, violent solutions to political problems. Whether you agree with these tactics or not, it's rare today to hear U.S. radicals of any stripe propose violence and terror as an answer to the crises of the moment. And it's this political disconnect between our times and those of the Panthers that allow us to consider them as artists who happened to be political, rather than what they were: radicals who sought power by any means necessary, which included a brilliant media campaign.

If the exhibit were just political posters--many of them made by the Emory Douglas, the party's first minister of culture--photographs of rallies, and political platforms, it might still have been powerful, but it would have been read too specifically as just another '60s product, not unlike the psychedelic art produced by white artists of the period. But the exhibit includes what might be described as a visual history of international racism, a history that artists inspired by or associated with the Panthers took very seriously as they sought to undo the centuries of damage done by stereotypes of blacks.

The show works on three levels, with each one touching on but not determining the other. From the archive of racist imagery comes a postcard of a lynching produced in the 1920s, a diagram of a slave ship from the 1700s, and anthropological drawings of African women produced in the 1800s. We then see echoes of this imagery in Douglas' pop-art agitprop posters he made for the Panthers in the 1960s, and even in the most famous image of Panther leader Huey Newton, where he sits on a wicker throne, surrounded by objects that could have been collected by a European explorer newly returned from a visit to the African continent in the late 19th century.

But it's the third level of the exhibit, which includes both recent art that addresses the Black Panthers and community art that address issues specific to Baltimore, that raises questions about the longevity of the Panthers' radical chic and racist images from the world's attic. Daniel Joseph Martinez's 2005 piece "We wanted to be" reproduces a typeface common to 1960s radical press to argue that "we live a sort of armed existentialism," a sentiment echoed by pieces that attempt to show radicalism and despondency in a single stroke. Hank Willis Thomas' 2005 sculpture "Untitled (Fist)" puts an ironic spin on the Panthers' most famous gesture, the raised clenched fist, by showing a luxury wristwatch and a suit jacket on the arm that raises it. The revolution has been won, this work argues, if all you need to win is to show a little bling when you make your battle cry.

The sheer amount of material on display, and the still potent images and ideas of the Black Panthers, who showed as much interest in feeding schoolchildren breakfast as they did staging media events, makes this exhibit a must-see for the short time that it's here. And some of the community projects--such as the one that asks people to put blue pins on a map of Baltimore to mark locations of surveillance cameras--insert a tiny bit of action into what is otherwise a passive exhibit. But the Black Panthers were remarkable not because they produced powerful posters and staged media events as effective as anything President Bush's team has cooked up. Instead, we remember them because they made a difference, sometimes using controversial tactics, and succeeded even though they were attacked by the government, the media, and often the communities in which they lived. That's the statement we need to remember, not their aesthetic legacy.

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