March 7th, 2017

Sadie Barnette and Essence Harden in conversation

Essence Harden interviews artist Sadie Barnette on the occasion of her first solo show in New York, "Do Not Destroy" at Baxter Street at CCNY.

“Do Not Destroy” is Sadie Barnette’s first solo exhibition in New York at Baxter Street at Camera Club of New York. A meditation on her father’s life, the Black Panthers, and the FBI, Barnette offers a landscape of black radicalism and family in the face of government surveillance and violence. Barnette’s work is an offering towards restoration, care, and black kinship via the entanglement of a protracted government brutality. Barnette’s father Rodney Barnette, a founding member of the Compton chapter of the Black Panthers, and his personal FBI files are used both here and as part of the series “My Father's FBI Files” which have appeared at the Oakland Museum of California and will have its third iteration at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. In this interview Barnette and I discussed the makings of this show, her ongoing project, and her devotion to her father.

Essence Harden: A large part of your work, for me, is this sense of the everyday. That Rodney, his life, and those he knew were situated, via the FBI's scope, as some sort of live act, which needed to be captured, remembered, and fixed in ink. They were obsessed, as if dinner, smiles, and conversations were a cosmology of threats by virtue of their blackness. How does your sense of the ordinary work, as you gathered and copied files and laid out the show?

Sadie Barnette: I think that's a great question. There are so many of these tiny moments observed. I always thought that these everyday incidences had substance and power, in terms of their beauty as a whole and the beauty of the black family. That there are these everyday acts of resistance, these small mundane things that you have to do in order to be an activist or just a person to thrive. There are so many minor moments that I think are imbued with a great deal of content. It's fascinating to see that the FBI also thought that they had content, but for very different reasons.

EH: Absolutely. And because of this, you were dealing with an endless number of pages since they're just recording endlessly. How did you figure which pieces of content to choose? What moments were remarkable for you to then want to blow up and put on the wall?

SB: Some moments were notable just because they related to the larger practices of the FBI. Finding out my dad's name was on that ADEX Category One list, which was the emergency apprehension and detention program list, that J. Edgar Hoover kept of citizens who could be rounded up and detained at any moment, without due process...

EH: Holy shit.

SB: ...Which was totally unconstitutional, and when the Attorney General told him that it was unconstitutional, his response was to change the name of the list and circulate a document around the FBI saying, "This is the new name. Don't refer to it by the old name, but continue to keep this unconstitutional list of people." Things like that really stood out from the file. Also, the executive order that was cited to get my dad fired from his job at the post office, which was, I don't know if I told you this aspect of it, but he was fired from the post office because of his involvement with the Panthers, but the reason cited was that he was living with a woman who he wasn't married to. They cited that as conduct unbecoming of a government employee, for cohabitating with a woman who he wasn't married to, even though they had a son together.

It was a law put on the books by Truman, Executive Order 10450, that was used to purge gay people out of government jobs for behavior unbecoming of a government employee. Those were a couple of the small things. Not small things, but things in my dad's file that relate to this much larger historical context.

But, then, there's also just the smaller moments that stick out, like when there's an agent observing my dad and Angela Davis getting on a plane at the airport, and you just feel how visceral it is that they were in the same room, watching my dad. Or when they're at Black Panther meetings. The paid informants, not the agents.

EH: It does make me think of these three moving elements which are happening within the show: imaging Rodney and his life as a whole person, the endless observation of him and people who knew him, and also the way that sexuality operates throughout these pieces.

I was thinking of how Rodney, as a queer person, is marked as such, in some of the files, and also is marked as having a heterosexual relationship with a woman. There's this way that they hold Rodney in these truly confined terms, and they really don't know what to do with him. They're endlessly trying to capture something that they never quite can get to. Your show, at Baxter Street, and your piece at the Oakland Museum, offer a queering of the Panthers via a queer vision of Rodney, your father. It’s a really dynamic contribution that you give us all who choose to receive it. Can you talk more about how queerness and the making of My Father's FBI Files series operated?

SB: J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO were just absolutely obsessed with homosexuality, and I don't know which came first, using that as a way to blackmail people whose politics they didn't agree with, or if just being gay was terrifying enough to them. Obviously, we know J. Edgar Hoover, that's a very complicated situation. It's documented that he had this significant male lover for a long time.

To me, what was really interesting about my dad's case was basically: it's not about your lifestyle, it's about criminalization. They would use, if they thought the homosexual thing was going to be what would get him fired, they would use that. But, instead, living with a woman he wasn't married to served their purpose. So, obviously, it has nothing to do with your actual lifestyle.

It just has to do with being criminalized, which I think has probably affected the way we look at sexuality, even as progressives. These terms are often just used to indict people, to separate people when the reality of a lived life is often this much more holistic experience. I think that was something that was important to both of us, shedding more light on the way the FBI viewed these things. We already know how we think about them.

EH: And I think that's what's so fresh. That instead of relying on bordered definitions; I think queerness, as a term, offers us something outside of a restrictive binary. Also, I think that what you do and what's so striking and always brilliant about your work, Sadie, because you know I love it so much, is you don't stay there. You don't just offer that as a readily digestible material truth. My next question is how does your use of color interplay between the FBI files along with the gems and crowns that you use to frame parts of the text, as well?

SB: Yeah, I thought that the pink was the opposite, or the antidote, to this teletype carbon copy typewritten black and white text account of this life, which is so flat, and so colorless. So, it seemed like throwing pink and glitter at it would sort of be J. Edgar Hoover's worst nightmare. So, there's that rebellious aspect of it along with using spray paint, which is also a fairly rebellious material, relating to graffiti and the permanence of things.

There's also an element of the little girl, daddy's girl, looking up at her dad as a hero, and decorating/adorning the pages of the file, trying to heal them a bit, even if that isn’t quite wholly possible. But, the work is this process of trying to reclaim the material. Sometimes, it works, sometimes, it doesn't work, sometimes, we feel that it's ours, and sometimes I still feel scared and sad that my dad was classified as a terrorist. But, then, there are these other times, I feel like we've subverted it sufficiently.

EH: That’s beautiful. I think there's such warmth in your pieces, which blends within the austerity of the text and the FBI itself. It gives it some life, and it poses something more than sheer ruin. Can you talk about the gems and the crowns? They frame text like your father’s occupation, age, etc. or, "Do not destroy. Historical value, National Archive," with a crown on top and your frame of jewels around it. I wondered if they served a similar purpose towards healing and idolizing?

SB: Yeah, I think the gems are used to highlight certain elements. There are many pages that talk about my dad's military service. He was drafted to Vietnam, and he talked about his experiences with racism there and coming home. It was his surviving that war and serving his country that became a large catalyst for his joining the Panthers. There's one page, which talks about his military service, and I decorated it with these small Purple Heart jewels because he received a purple heart in Vietnam.

In another page I use these crown gems, I placed them on the names of people who were murdered at the time. So, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, who were assassinated at UCLA when they were organizing with the BSU there, I put crowns above their names to honor the dead, those whose lives were stolen, and families who lost their loved ones in this battle. It's been sobering to know that my father was on these lists and monitored in this way, but I also feel really lucky that he's alive as so many people are not. So, I pay homage; I don't want to forget them.

EH: Absolutely. I’m thinking of the interplay between family photography, and the FBI's sort of endless calculating are woven together here in a relationship between capturing and surveilling. Can you talk about the sense of watching as benevolence, via your family and also watching as an authoritarian act of oppression?

SB: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting way that you've put it, and what I was thinking about when I placed, in the Baxter Street show, the two giant Polaroids that are blown up almost life size, although they're actually these small family snapshots that my dad's niece shot of him, in opposition to these FBI files. Perhaps it is a similar desire in terms of wanting to capture, and it provides an almost ghostlike/haunting quality that the files do as well.

With photography, in general, there’s a sense that as soon as you take a photograph, the moment is gone and dead but lives on, and I think that's why they call it a capture, and why some people don't want their photograph taken because it's going to seize their soul. It does have a power that this tiny 1/60th of a second, or whatever your shutter speed is, is caught and remains fortified in this object. A similar thing happens when an FBI agent sitting at San Francisco Airport writing in his notebook and later having his secretary type up his notes on my dad’s movements leading to him getting on an airplane. There's this ghostlike or dead/undead moment that lives on.

EH: Absolutely, there’s a presence and eeriness to it all; to have Rodney read, watched, and surveilled as a younger person. It's wild.

I was also thinking of how, one of my favorite pieces of family photography you include is of Rodney lying down, cradling you as a very new, little baby, and how it's a truly generous offering you give the audience and Rodney. It's what you were saying earlier about how to sort of be in conversation with repairing these files. The family photographs work to create a whole picture of a person's life, and that photo, in particular, is something that happened after the Panthers in the year 1984. That we are now situated in a post space, which gives us Rodney outside of a deeply oppressive force, and it was you who gave it to us. Can you talk about choosing photographs and why this one, in particular, needed to appear?

SB: I think that picture is just such a tender, gentle vision of black fatherhood and how the essence of why people were dedicating so much to fight for black liberation was located in generational survival. So much of the Panthers' programs and those who were Panthers were about day-to-day subsistence for their community. They were doing it for the children, for the people they loved, not necessarily because they all wanted to maintain political power, but because they wanted their daughters to be able to grow up, and their sons to be able to grow up, and their children to be recognized as human beings. That family tenderness is really what was behind the political sacrifice. No one's going to be working so hard to liberate the people if they don't love the people.

EH: And that's what is missing from this FBI file. Obviously, a lot is missing from these FBI files, but the passion folks had for family.

For the FBI, the black family, or families, or kin networks were an absolute threat. Literally, the idea of feeding black children, or having folks be able to have an educational space that was not invested in anti-blackness was seen as a threat to the nation. I think your work untangles the perception of the Panthers from its icons to get at/work through this sense of the lives ensnared.

You pen these beautifully scripted moments with graphite: "Dear 1968, Love 1984," or "We all we got." You do this work to remind folks where we are; that we are not just looking in on the glossy images of Huey, or Eldridge, or Brown but we're looking at a person's life, which also was lived in service to a cause outside itself.

Another piece that I really enjoy is Dad on Black Dot. You do this in other pieces, as well: a spray-painted dot with a cutout of a photograph, looking quite expansive on a sheet of white. Can you talk more about including that in the show, and your process around that work?

SB: I wanted to include this moment of abstraction, or departure, and also to bring my present-day dad into the conversation, and allow him to look back at all of this from this moment. I often employ this large expanse of negative, white space to take these figures out of their context. Perhaps, in a way, it’s an act of liberation, but also could be a bit disrupting. You're in a non-space, and maybe the viewer can project, on to that space, a better future, or maybe they're projecting onto it a lack of a world; a non-belonging, or emptiness if you will. I think that's okay, too. When the figures become really small in all this white space there's a tension between them being more powerful and less powerful. They're so tiny that they don't seem to have much power, but at the same time, they're commanding the power of this whole large frame, just with their small presence. I feel like that tension also speaks to the experience of a lot of people in this country and in this world. It's like this negative space, but a charged space as well.

EH: You included your book “NOTHING.” Can you talk about how that work functioned for the show?

SB: “NOTHING” is a book that just has one word on each page. Each word becomes an object, or a picture. It's essentially a poem, but when you flip through it, because it just has this one bold word on each page, it really has this performative rhythm almost to it. “Radio up, top down, Baby bossed, lady friend, car wash, brainwash, cops, cops, cops, and then it talks about, "No More Free Stuff," "No More Freedom," "No More People Party," "No More People Power," "No More Nothing." I'm not remembering the exact text, but it's a reference to the death of the party and allowing that word party to mean multiple things.

It ends with, "No More Nothing," which seems kind of apocalyptic and end of the world. Also, someone describes it as an end of the world party, so it's both optimistic and pessimistic, because if there's no more nothing, maybe it's a chance to rebuild something.

EH: Awesome. It feels like part of it this then is a sense of becoming and within that process is contending with and standing in the past. “NOTHING,” as you described it, and Dad on Black Dot are in this dance with blackness as void and possible futures. There’s this ceaseless meaning making that happens in which the Panthers as memory and lived futures gets to be re/performed.

You titled the show "Do Not Destroy." I'm very interested in the significance of that phrase because it's also something that you frame via the gems, as well.

SB: It comes from that stamp on the file, "Do Not Destroy, Historical Value, National Archives." I just felt to use it as the title is directly just quoting the FBI, so it has this found quality, which is something I try to achieve in my work; it’s not necessarily creating something, but reframing something. This found text, but by using it as a title, I'm trying to, or I am, subverting the FBI's language, and putting it in the voices of the people. It's now saying we will not be destroyed. It becomes a rallying cry from the FBI's office to a protest sign.

EH: I have shivers when you say it, because it's such a visceral truth. You do such a fantastic job of giving us a life lived in living, so worthwhile of attention and consideration in its fullness.

SB: I've had a lot of people tell me that their parents were also involved in various movements or organizations, and they haven't talked that much to them about it. I feel that's another aim of this project that this political history becomes a family reunion talk. Let's learn more about it, as a community, through our families.

EH: I think it does. The show ends today. I want to know what's coming next.

SB: Great question. So, the next iteration of the FBI works, it's going to be at UC Davis Museum. They just built a brand new, gorgeous museum building from the ground up that just opened in November at UC Davis. It's the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, and my show will open there April 13th. It's going to be my first museum solo project, so I'm very excited that this project can continue to do its work.

EH: I'm so excited. I'll be thinking I'll be driving up there to see it.

SB: You should drive up, and we should all ride on the party Amtrak, up there.

EH: That's exactly what I want to do!                                                         

SB: Perfect.


Sadie Barnette (b. 1984 Oakland, CA) earned her BFA from CalArts and her MFA from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally at venues including The Studio Museum in Harlem, the California African American Museum, the Oakland Museum of California, The Mistake Room, Self Help Graphics, Charlie James Gallery, Ever Gold Projects, and Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa. Barnette has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian UK, Artforum, Vogue, Artillery Magazine, and SFAQ, among other publications. Her work is in the permanent collections of museums such as The Pérez Art Museum in Miami, the California African American Museum, and The Studio Museum in Harlem.  In April Barnette will have a solo exhibition at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California at Davis.  She lives and works in Oakland, CA and Compton, CA.

Essence Harden (Oakland, CA) is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and independent curator. Essence earned her B.A and M.A from UC Berkeley and is a current Ph.D candidate in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley. She has exhibited art at Good Children Gallery (2017), Black Portraitures III, SOMarts, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), and The Diaspora: The Department of African American Studies (UC Berkeley). Her writing has appeared in SFAQ: International Arts and Culture and Everyday Feminism. She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA.

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Tags: Category: Interview