Friday, November 23, 2007

Michael Paul Britto's part of the "Black Panther Rank And File" Exhibition.



This major traveling exhibition, with an accompanying Baltimore-specific oral history project and resource room, as well as a full slate of public events, offers rare insights into one of the 20th century’s most controversial and influential organizations. Black Panther Rank and File was organized by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, curated by Claude Simard, curator at Jack Shainman Gallery, and René de Guzman, director of visual arts at Yerba Buena.


Black Panther Rank and File coincides with the fortieth anniversary of the Oakland founding of the Black Panther Party, in October 1966. This exhibition starts with the Panthers as a point of departure but also extends its scope to include a broad range of related ideas, themes and perspectives. Documentary material specific to the Panthers is presented in dialogue with a large body of experimental work by contemporary artists from the United States and Africa. These artists’ range of artistic approaches and subject matter provide conceptual and historical underpinnings that offer expansive new insights into the Panther legacy. The show also brings political matters into a fine arts setting to posit a role for the arts that includes, among other things, its engagement with political activism and social change.

Huey P. Newton first formed the Panthers around the idea of defending the Black community against police brutality. Over the course of its existence, the Party became a potent symbol of militancy and self-determination, growing into a revolutionary organization with alliances around the world. Its attraction was not only due to its idealism and charismatic leadership but also to the significant contributions and sacrifices of its rank and file members. The Panthers possessed an uncanny ability to seize the public imagination with dramatic acts of resistance and showed an equal commitment to directly provide for the public good. Their groundbreaking community assistance work was often lost in an understanding of the Panthers as merely an armed resistance group. Services such as free breakfast programs and neighborhood health clinics eventually became a model for government sponsored aid. The Panthers tried to radically change the American political system but also transformed Black discontent into electoral power, running candidates for public office and being instrumental in electing progressive politicians. While the Party came into being to address the specific needs of Black communities, it did not subscribe to the separatist tendencies of Cultural Nationalism. Among the Panthers’ strengths was their ability to seek common cause and create alliances with a diverse range of organizations and peoples who shared similar political and economic agendas.

A full appreciation for the Panthers, however, must include the controversies surrounding them. As with other militant movements, the question arises whether the use of arms as a means to create a more civil society is ultimately an insurmountable and self-defeating contradiction. In addition, questions linger about the equitable role of women within the Party. To the Panthers’ credit, women rose to high positions in the organization with Kathleen Cleaver, Erica Huggins and Elaine Brown among others providing important leadership throughout the Party’s history. The issue of gender equality stems from the Party’s challenges to fully implement the high standard of egalitarianism they espoused. The Panthers were more advanced than most, yet were not immune to the struggles of incorporating feminist enlightenment into day-to-day practice and attitudes, a reality that continues to plague society to this day. Despite the Panthers’ complex history, their legacy is as compelling as ever. Perhaps the recent interest in the Party grows out of today’s increasingly upsetting political climate. The current state of pervasive global conflict appears to have no end in sight, and the perceived inability of existing political systems to reflect the will of the people have heightened the stakes and inspired, in some, the desire for clear purpose and radical change that the image of the Panthers represents.

This exhibition delves into political realities to highlight how the arts can be a medium to shape society. Key to this idea is the inspirational figure of Emory Douglas, the former Panther Minister of Culture, whose artworks illustrated the Black Panther newspapers, and translated the Panthers’ liberating ideals into visual expression. Douglas states, “We must begin as artists to project, in our art of survival, that survival involves more than just the gun alone… It is our duty as servants of the people to advocate for the needs and desires of the oppressed community through our images of awareness …” While art and politics are separate pursuits, it is worthwhile to consider an expanded value for the arts that includes direct engagement with political matters. Unfortunately, this role is too often put in opposition to other crucial artistic functions such as providing a forum for advancing free expression and cultural innovation. Black Panther Rank and File does not intend to provide a pat response to this open question about the relationship of the arts with activism. This project simply hopes to demonstrate how cultural production and political work have had and continue to have a rich partnership with the interests of freedom and social progress.

In addition to showing how the arts can inspire awareness of critical social concerns, a large portion of the exhibition’s artworks consider the Panther legacy obliquely, putting it within the broader historical context of slavery and rebellion in this country, and African colonization by European powers that, over the course of time, led to the necessity of the Black Power Movement’s struggle. This art expands the specificity of the show to meditate upon wider issues of resistance, race and history, and addresses the complexities of Black identity. By putting historical records next to works of art, Black Panther Rank and File offers an exhibition experience that grows out of the poetic associations between the two. The exhibition therefore places the underlying themes of human liberation and dignity at the pregnant intersection where what is real and tangible meets the artistic imagination.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is indebted to Bill Jennings, director of It’s About Time, the Black Panther Party alumni organization, for inspiring the creation of this project. He has provided invaluable guidance and goodwill throughout the development of the show. In addition, Claude Simard, independent curator and co-director of Jack Shainman Gallery, must be acknowledged for his substantial contribution to organizing the majority of the contemporary artworks and for participating equally in the exhibition’s design.

No exhibition can do justice to the breadth of the Black Panther Party legacy nor highlight the full range of significant individuals and topics related to the Party… therefore…an array of public programs and…Resource Room…complement the exhibit.


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