The Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College welcomed Sadie Barnette and her artwork with an artist talk and reception about her “Legacy & Legend” exhibit on Sunday.
The main elements of the art pieces were her father’s FBI files that expanded to a 500-page report on his private and public activities as part of his participation in Compton, California, with the Black Panthers, a 1960s Black militia group with the goal to protect the community.
Barnette’s father was a young activist working with the Black Panthers and activist Angela Davis to secure her freedom in the Bay area.
“So the backstory is that my family together file a freedom of information act request in 2011,” Barnette said. “And after five years of back-and-forth with the FBI, we received this 500-page document that was at once chilling, emotional, enraging, terrifying, you know, evidence of wasting taxpayers money, to violation of constitutional rights, to everything in between.”
The exhibit presented drawings, photos, sculptures and objects all collected to create the immersive environment that was part of the exhibition. Barnette’s drawings looked like they were prints because of the densely applied graphite. The graphite had a different view from every angle because every bit of glimmer was different at every angle. This was in common with the theme in the glittered couch and the bright splashes of pink all throughout.
“I wanted to turn this into artwork that somehow I wanted to make these files do something different than they were meant to do,” she said. “I wanted to make them live in my world and tell my father’s story, my family’s story which is also so many other families’ stories in this country.”
Her art was composed of the FBI files beautified through the graphite that looked like they were imprinted on, as well as the hand drawings that were applied on top of the words. Some of these images are incredibly detailed white washed stencils of flowers and leaves.
“I can relate that the speaker was trying to tell a story of something very horrible and daunting and found a way to express it,” said Seohyeon Lee, freshman Pomona College student.
Her art connected his surveillance to the humanity behind what the Black Panthers were protecting; that was family which in all signifies comfort and security within a household.
“It’s a collaged art to multimedia, and also you know the core idea of taking the archive and turning it and responding,” said George Gorse, professor of art history at Pomona College. “I think that is so powerful because this is an archive of information that can make a resented statement of hope coming out of this.”
Barnette’s exhibition also included familiar objects one would most likely see at someone’s home like a coffee table. However, the one in her exhibit had blinged out surveillance cameras conveniently hidden under it to showcase just how embedded the FBI was in her father’s life. Her drawings were scattered all across the gallery, settled alongside furniture and pink patterned wallpaper like one would see in a home.
“The idea of these children’s doodles is a way of working though things emotionally and working through the original emotional power, and bringing a new kind of emotional reductive power to it,” said Daniel Hackbarth, visiting professor of art history at Scripps College. “Those layers I think are what makes the work function and speak to us today.”
One drawing in particular was her father’s mugshot: hard, sharp shadows lining his face, his head bowed and a disappointed look about his face as he held up the letterboard. His name was written in negative bold letters: “RODNEY ELLIS BARNETTE.” Flowers stemmed behind his picture with hues of pink and purple and leaves curled in every direction, growing from behind the portrait. The colors in the roses were reminiscent of what one would see behind the lens of a heat camera. Little blips of life and heartbeats of humanity were what those colored fragments in the white and black picture looked like.
“These are places of like, nostalgia, of kind of going back and remembering but part of nostalgia is not being able to go back,” said Hackbarth in reference to the installations.
Liliana Castaneda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.