'Black Panther Rank and File,' Rallying Its Own Art Movement

The exhibition, organized by the nonprofit Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, displays many pieces from the commercial Jack Shainman Gallery, including the six-foot-tall cardboard fist by Hank Willis Thomas, above, and Jeff Sonhouse's mixed-media portrait.
The exhibition, organized by the nonprofit Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, displays many pieces from the commercial Jack Shainman Gallery, including the six-foot-tall cardboard fist by Hank Willis Thomas, above, and Jeff Sonhouse's mixed-media portrait. (Images Courtesy Of Jack Shainman Gallery)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 23, 2007

BALTIMORE -- Can we distill the sweat and rage that fueled the militant Black Panther Party into something suited to exhibition walls? The group founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 was as complicated as it was notorious, advocating violence against cops even as it initiated free lunch programs in the poorest schools in Oakland, Calif. Condensing its history would prove a fool's errand.

It's a good thing, then, that "Black Panther Rank and File" doesn't try. On view in the Decker and Meyerhoff galleries at the Maryland Institute College of Art here, the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party inspired the show.

But the Panthers are just part of the story. Panther photos, video and ephemera are juxtaposed with artwork and artifacts unrelated to the movement yet evocative of American black experience. The show expands from the particular to the general, engaging race in America from a variety of angles.

The exhibition was organized by San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in conjunction with Claude Simard, a curator associated with New York City's Jack Shainman Gallery. Shainman represents many of the contemporary artists on view; the gallery also supplied a number of historical pieces.

Though Shainman is a well-known source for African American artists and ephemera, Yerba Buena's association with a commercial gallery raises questions about conflict of interest. The show favors Shainman artists, who gain exposure on this small museum tour -- "Black Panther Rank and File" originated at nonprofit Yerba Buena, traveled to nonprofit Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and now hangs in a university gallery. That kind of exposure can translate into higher earnings for Shainman artists, casting a shadow over this otherwise strong show.

On view: photos and video capturing Panther rallies; Panther pamphlets and newspapers; oral histories of former members. Those unfamiliar with the group will leave with a strong sense of what they stood for. Among the Panther ephemera hang works by 20th-century artists engaging racial issues either head-on or tangentially -- Lawrence Weiner, Andy Warhol, Carrie Mae Weems, Margaret Bourke-White and David Hammons among them. Historical artifacts -- 19th-century cartoons, banners and lithographs -- round out the show.

And so the show veers from the didactic to the open-ended, from artifact to artwork. It's an evocative mix, one that works more often than it fails. On occasion, though, frank historical objects cast weak artworks in harsh relief.

Take the page describing the proper transport of slaves, circa 1789. Among its many harrowing details, the text counsels that slaves negotiating the Middle Passage by boat should be brought on deck daily for exercise. The author recommends that males should be exercised by jumping up and down in their chains. "This, by friends of the trade," the author writes, "is called dancing." And on it goes, in chilling detail.

Nearby, a photograph of a clenched fist mounted on cardboard stands six feet tall; it's a 2005 artwork by Hank Willis Thomas. The black hand is raised in solidarity with black power but the arm betrays the trappings of success -- a gold-and-silver watch hangs off the wrist, a gray suit sleeve clothes the arm. The gesture deflates the Panthers' Marxist leanings and questions the viability of rage in a time of prosperity. But next to that 18th-century slave tract, such ironies feel shallow.

Other contemporary works come off better. Michael Britto's satirical "Dirrrty Harriet Tubman" videos recast the Underground Railroad conductor as a gun-toting Blaxploitation-style film heroine. One memorable segment finds Tubman and a crew of six dancers gyrating to Britney Spears's raspy "I'm a Slave 4 U." Tubman and company coordinate moves miming hoeing, cotton-picking and brow wiping -- a horrible vision and a hilarious one at the same time. You laugh even as you think you shouldn't.

As for the Panthers themselves, they come off as a media-savvy group. Their look was totally put together: the shades, the afros, the black berets and leather jackets falling to the hip. Even their symbol -- a fierce crouching cat, claws extended -- has remarkable graphic power. These folks knew the power of an image.

But what of the Panthers' critics, of which there were many? For the most part, this is a pro-Panther project. Yerba Buena worked closely with former Panther Bill Jennings to construct the show; he's even credited for suggesting the project.

To the organizers' credit, questions about the viability of a movement employing violence to beget tolerance do arise. (By the mid-1970s, even Seale had tempered his aggressive stance.) But the only overtly critical work comes from the painter John Bankston, who points out Panther homophobia in his 2005 canvas "The Sermon." In it, two latter-day Panthers have seemingly strong words for a transvestite and his companion.

But I can't fault "Black Panther Rank and File" for its point of view. Its engaging mix of artifact and artwork leaves room for a multiplicity of opinion.

Black Panther Rank and File, at Maryland Institute College of Art Fox Building,1303 Mount Royal Avenue, Baltimore, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m, Sunday noon-5 p.m., closed major holidays, to Dec. 16. http://www.mica.edu.

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