Seven exhibitions in Oakland and Berkeley commemorate the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) founding in October 1966. The celebration of one of the most successful and provocative social and political movements in American history reflects upon the Party’s profound influence. As Party member and long-time activist and educator Ericka Huggins notes, the breadth of engagement helped spread the Party’s resistance message: “The Black Panther Party always had art, music, dance, even fashion, as a way of thinking about how we shift cultural awareness.”
Over the previous five decades, institutional recognition of BPP accomplishments has proceeded, with slowly increasing attention to the iconic work of artist and former BPP Minister of Culture Emory Douglas in book and exhibition form. Rather than waiting for the Panthers to be celebrated in spaces where Whiteness and the benefactors of its privilege hold sway, Party members and allies have, for years, staged exhibitions and performances in both traditional and unconventional spaces. The Party’s fiftieth anniversary carries forward the legacy that protest, or celebration, can take place anywhere, while demonstrating art’s potential to galvanize and venerating those who have fallen.
One of the two largest exhibitions, All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), comprehensively elucidates the Party’s origin, activities, accomplishments, and the direct influence they have in today’s fight against institutional racism and its agents. While the other regional exhibitions (The Point Is…2.0: Black Panther Party 50th Exhibit at Joyce Gordon Gallery, 50 Years Later: The Art Show at SoleSpace, and ICONIC: Black Panther at American Steel Studios) pay homage to the Party’s rich visual legacy through specific aspects of the Party’s history—including women’s participation and influence throughout the Party or the Ten-Point Plan—All Power to the People provides both a thorough historical overview and contemporary meditations by artists Carrie Mae Weems, David Huffman, Hank Willis Thomas, Sadie Barnette, Trevor Paglen, and William Cordova.
Oakland-based archivist and activist Lisbet Tellefsen and curator Ashara Ekundayo drew Melorra and Melonie Green into their collaborative fold to organize the expansive installation Survival Pending Revolution: Black Panther 50. Archival and Contemporary Musings on Love and its conjunct Comrade Sister: We Are the Altar at Omi Gallery at Impact Hub Oakland. Survival Pending Revolution occupies nearly every wall of the Hub with rare and never-before-exhibited photographs, posters, and newspaper articles from Tellefen’s collection. Emphasizing women’s significant and oft underrepresented participation in the Party, its social programs, and international reach, the installation is a powerful reminder that archival exhibitions need not be tedious. Posters are dynamically hung along the walls of the Hub’s internal staircases and evoke a feeling similar to looking at family photos in a friend’s house. The installation presents a visual narrative of Party members engaged in an urgent fight for survival that was waged on multiple fronts and across international boundaries, which starkly contrasts with the dominant and racist media portrayal of Party members as menacing Black men carrying guns. While the space isn’t ideal for viewing objects in aggregate, Survival Pending Revolution encourages one to think about the Party’s focus on work as a collective activity and mirrors the tenets that were and are central to the BPP ethos and the Hub’s business model: inclusivity, creativity, reciprocity, and effectiveness.
Comrade Sister: We Are the Altar, as Ekundayo describes, is a “living exhibition” comprising contemporary works and creative responses to Tellefsen’s archival material that grows as visitors add the names of Party members who have been forgotten. Oakland-based artist and educator Joan Tarika Lewis, who was the first woman to join the party and contributed her prodigious talents to the Party newspaper under the name Matilaba, contributed a mural in less than thirty minutes. Other artists, including Karen Seneferu, likewise responded to the archival material by producing pieces that praise women’s work and further define the lineage between social-justice efforts then and now. Co-curator Melorra Green explains, “For Comrade Sister, Melonie and I handpicked Black women artists who we knew could lift, elevate, and echo the women of the Movement. Their stand. Their voice. Their pain. Their courage. All in this one space as a womb.”
After Emory Douglas’s seminal work, photography was the dominant visual medium that captured the Black Panthers and the roiling sociopolitical milieu out of which it burst. At the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the African American Library and Museum at Oakland, two final exhibitions capture what was, and in bittersweet fashion, what could have been. The World of the Black Panthers at UC Berkeley is an installation of twenty-four black-and-white photographs by Stephen Shames that document BPP activity in the East Bay and beyond. Shames met Party co-founder Robert George “Bobby” Seale while photographing Vietnam War protests in Berkeley in 1967. The two formed a tight professional and personal relationship, which allowed Shames insider access to the Party and its members. While Shames turned his camera to a variety of Party activities—rallies and demonstrations most prominently—his unfettered access also enabled him to capture more intimate moments such as teachers and students in the classroom, and senior citizens receiving food or transportation assistance. Shames’ images visualize the Party’s core work, and the display of his photographs in a hallway that is transited by journalists and journalists-in-training reminds us that the media at large cannot, must not, surrender to creeping political or social influence on matters of race.
Revolutionary Grain: Celebrating the Spirit of the Black Panthers in Portraits and Stories, an installation of forty-five black-and-white portraits by Bay Area photographer Suzun Lucia Lamaina, greets visitors at the top of central staircase in Oakland’s stately African American Museum and Library. Her subjects—members and associates of the Party who now sport gray hair and laugh lines—were photographed over the course of her five-year journey around the United States. Through photographs and personal statements, Lamaina’s work documents what BPP members accomplished after they left the Party, and reveals both their extraordinary achievements and the mundane details of day-to-day life. What emerges from these heartfelt statements is that for so many individuals, Party membership solidified the meaning of community as African American culture was under attack. Those lived experiences continue to sustain them as the fight for social justice persists. The testimonials of these now-elder members are haunted by the memories of comrades who didn’t live long enough to see the Party’s profound impact, and of the African American men, women, and children whose lives were cut short by the ongoing violent ideology that the Party vowed to fight in 1966. The African American Library and Museum in Oakland is dedicated to sharing the history of Black life in the United States, and though a temporary installation, Revolutionary Grain adds a significant and illustrative chapter to African American history in this place of learning.
Institutions, including the FBI, mainstream media, and the prison industrial complex, form a particular, if not dominant, context for the Black Panther Party. However, those constituents aren’t the only physical or ideological spaces that frame the Party’s history. The seven anniversary exhibitions in Oakland, and those staged nationally and internationally, demonstrate the Party’s critical influence in the fight for social justice and the powerful results of a community that embraces its own story. This is power to, for, and by the People.
The World of the Black Panthers is on view at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism through January 5, 2016.
Survival Pending Revolution: Black Panther 50. Archival and Contemporary Musings on Love and Comrade Sister: We Are the Altar are on view at Omi Gallery at Impact Hub Oakland through January 7, 2016.
All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through February 12, 2016.
Revolutionary Grain: Celebrating the Spirit of the Black Panthers in Portraits and Stories is on view at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland through February 28, 2016.