Monday, April 28, 2008

Black Panthers and the White Art World

Never have I felt more acutely the separations in Seattle between white art and the real world than this weekend in Seattle. On Thursday night we had a moment of intersection (of sorts) thanks to Aperture Foundation and their publication of the amazing photographs by Stephen Shames of the Black Panthers. Stephen Shames, who is white, was friends with Bobby Seale in Berkeley and Oakland in 1966 from the time of the founding of the Black Panthers. He created a series of intimate photographs of the Panthers all over the country which have never been published before. They are on display at Odegaard and the book was sold at the Henry Art GalleryAuditorium in conjunction with a program.

We heard from Aaron Dixon and Larry Gossett about the founding of the Black Student Union at the University of Washington with only 12 students. Soon after they also founded the Black Panther Party in Seattle (although one comment on my blog suggested they were different groups) and it was the first Panther Party outside of Oakland. The picture shows some of the Black Panthers on the steps of the State Capitol, You can see Elmer Dixon right out in front. We also heard from Janet Jones who is responsible for an excellent online project about the history of the Black Panthers in Seattle. We are currently celebrating the 40th Anniversary of that historic moment. Unfortunately, UW is still dominantly white. Although there is an ethnic studies program, apparently faculty have blocked a 5 credit ethnic studies requirement for graduation. Obviously integration varies from program to program, also. Jacob Lawrence was hired in 1970 as a result of the Black Student Union pressures, and the diplomatic skills of then President Odegaard. But when I taught a course there in art history in 1997, there was no complete set of slides of Jacob Lawrence's work !

Stephen Shames photographs are on display in Odegaard Undergraduate Library at the University of Washington. So here came the Black Panther discussion into the Henry. Good for the Henry Art Gallery for hosting the discussion.

But then Friday I decided I needed to at least open myself to see a white art show so I went to Western Bridge where there was a generous buffet and several current artists, including Alfredo Jaar ( who is Chilean). Jaar was the reason I went, and his small work did not disappoint, it was three captions about the Rwanda massacre, without the photographs, part of his larger Rwanda project. The unspeakable aftermath of the Rwanda massacre that he witnessed has been the subject of many works by the artist. But the entire rest of the white art exhibition was playful, a room full of balloons, air in the eye through a hole, a text message piece that sends little cartoon images of a bear and other games. The idea was to "activate the passive viewer".

I went to hear Andreas Zybach on Saturday talk about his work. Inspired by a 19th century machine that produced energy from water in a clandestine way, Zybach's work involved a large construction through which we walked that generated 6.5 horsepower energy, enough to send ink through tubes and out on the floor of the gallery. It was not, however, about environmental crisis, energy issues or anything real (except perhaps in a closet way) . It was about taking the idea of a machine that generates energy and making it playful. The entire exhibition was called "You Complete Me," a theme suggesting interactivity, but when the ink on the floor started being used to spell "iraq" the artist decided this didn't complete him and rubbed it out. There lies a long essay perhaps on "what is art". Western Bridge according to director Eric Fredericksen, is about post painterly abstraction, so therefore Iraq has no place there.

It was going from Western Bridge to the Black Panthers anniversary that led to my despair. The event included speakers like hip hop artist Laura Peace(Piece) Kelly and Bobby Seale himself . People talked about both the present world of violence ( the police who killed Sean Bell had just been let off) and the tactics and strategies that the Panthers used to get gangs to work together, feed children, provide health care, educate black people politically, etc. The tactics used to break them up, infiltration by the FBI and getting them back to the business of killing each other, are exactly the tactics being used in Iraq today.

The myth of Black Panthers as simply carrying guns and threatening whites is a long way from reality, which brings us back to the photographs of the Black Panthers by Shames as well as the art work by Emory Douglas, ( this is not a link to Amazon, although it took some effort), now available in a book. Emory Douglas is the Black Panther Minister of Culture and his section of the Black Panther website is an amazing resource on all sorts of histories and references to both Black Panthers and current injustice. His posters and drawings document the strength of political art when it is done by a really good artist for a deeply felt cause in which he is engaged. ( Example below)

So back to segregation. I was sick at the isolation and narcissism of the white art world. The irrelevant playfulness of the art ( except for Jaar), at this time in our nation's history is so sad.

I wish the intersection at the Henry Art Gallery had been deeper, longer, and more committed ( like having a partner show in the gallery). But at least it was a start. According to Jen Graves in the Stranger, the Henry has been sneaking in politics all year. I am ready for them to be less stealthy, but again, at least it is better than little bears on my cell phones. How about an exhibition of the work of Emory Douglas?


Unknown said...

When you wrote "the founding of the Black Student Union at the University of Washington with only 12 students (see picture)" were you referring to the photo of the men with guns? Those are not BSU members, rather they are Seattle Panthers on the steps of the capitol building in Olympia. The same image is described in more detail here:

Something I have learned over the past few weeks in my research of this period of UW history is that the BSU was wary of the actions of the BPP. Their goals were similar, but their chosen methods were quite different.

deborah said...

Thanks for pointing out some serious paradoxes in our regional culture. It's great to know someone is paying attention, taking notes, and asking more from us--especially from the tastemongers.

deborah said...

Susan, Thanks for pointing out some serious paradoxes that flaw our regional art scene. I'm glad someone is patrolling, taking notes and demanding more from us--especially from the VIPs who hold sway in Seattle.