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A Panther’s Story Becomes Art

For her installation for OMCA’s exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50, artist Sadie Barnette repurposed the FBI file collected on her father, Rodney Barnette, during his time as the co-founder of the Compton section of the Black Panther Party. As the exhibition opened to the public, Sadie and Rodney spoke with each other about family history, personal politics in art, and the lessons today’s activists can take from the Panthers.

For any artist, it’s a treasure trove of raw material—500 pages of covert government intelligence gathered during one of the most notorious periods of activism and government surveillance in US history—the rise of the Black Panther Party. But for artist Sadie Barnette, it’s also a part of her own family’s story. Barnette’s glittering pink installation in OMCA’s exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 repurposes the FBI file collected on her father, Rodney Barnette, during his time as the co-founder of the Compton section of the Black Panther Party. As the exhibition opened to the public, Sadie and Rodney spoke with each other about family history, personal politics in art, and the lessons today’s activists can take from the Panthers.

Sadie Barnette: Dad, I wanted to ask you why you joined the Black Panthers, and why you started the Compton Section of the Party.

Rodney Barnette: I was in Vietnam for 13 months. I got wounded in Vietnam and saw a lot of bloodshed. People died around me and in my arms. I returned to the United States to attend my nephew’s funeral who got killed in Vietnam. I went to LA and was horrified to see how the police were treating people in the Black community. There were unjustified shootings; police were conducting the same kind of military operations that we were conducting in Vietnam. As a soldier, it was not acceptable to just take that. Fortunately, I found the Black Panther Party, and they had a lot of community activity and programs for kids. I said, “Well, this is the way I’ll fight back—I’ll join the Black Panthers,” and I did. It was so popular that within a year’s time we had nine offices spread out through Los Angeles County. I opened up an office—what we called Sections—in Compton.

I have a question for you, Sadie. As your father, I recognize you have a lot of artistic talent. How did my experience with the Panthers influence your views and work as an artist?

SB: Well, both you and my mom have always been very politically conscious, and had careers fighting for workers’ rights for my whole life, so it was something I grew up with—measuring situations with the lens of justice and equity. I’ve always felt like the least I could do was to make artwork and tell the story about what you guys did. I really feel like it’s my inheritance and my duty to tell the story.

RB: I’m just proud that your priority is to engage in political issues and try to heighten people’s awareness through your artwork.

SB: People ask me if I view my work as political. I think all artwork is political. Whether you’re choosing to address social issues or not, that’s still a political stance. Sometimes my work is poetic or abstract — but those things also have political meaning, which I think the Panthers also knew. The Black Panthers used aesthetics and culture and style and poetry to capture the imagination of the people.

RB: The other thing I am proud of is that you include the family in a lot of your artwork. Family history, photos, and drawings of our family tree—that’s great.

SB: Something I always come back to is the personal as political, and vice-versa. When the examples that I am using come from our family, there are multiple layers of meaning. Our family history is African American history is American history. Your biography basically takes us through some of the most important fights for civil rights.

I wanted to ask you, what made you want to obtain your FBI file?

RB: I remember one time, some people wanted me to take a bunch of guns and give them to the Black Panther Party, and I said, “I don’t even know who you are!” After learning more about COINTELPRO, I wanted to learn what role FBI informants had in trying to destroy the Black Panther Party and what personal contact I may have had with these different agents. I was surprised at how many informants they had within the Party itself. At least eight informants were mentioned in my files alone.

SB: One thing we recognized immediately while reading the over 500 pages in your files was how extensive the surveillance was. The informants were at meetings, the agents were observing you getting on airplanes, they were interviewing every employer you’ve ever had, your high school teacher, the little old lady next door to where you grew up as a child…

RB: They were successful in getting me fired from a Post Office job that I had when I first got to Los Angeles, based on cohabiting with a woman that I wasn’t married to: “Unbecoming conduct of a government employee.” I explained, “I’m living with the mother of my baby. We consider ourselves married as much as anybody else. We don’t think we have to go through a formality of getting a marriage license,” but that wasn’t good enough for them. Cohabiting with a woman was grounds for termination with the Post Office. That’s the law that they used to go after me, and other Panthers too.

SB: We know the real conduct that was “unbecoming of a government employee” was your organizing with the Panthers.

RB: Exactly. Fighting for civil rights was unacceptable. Feeding kids who were hungry before they went to school was against what the government wanted.

So, I have a question: How did you take these FBI files and create artwork out of it?

SB: I felt really privileged to have this primary source. It has the potential to be an amazing project that I’ll probably continue to work on for many iterations. I’m really happy that the project debuts in the OMCA exhibition, because it provides context for the piece. It’s in the COINTELPRO section of the exhibition, after you’ve learned a lot of history about the Panthers. I think it’s an amazing exhibition.

I spray painted some of the FBI pages to put my mark on the file as a way of reclaiming this information. I also did a drawing of your mug shot. It’s the only image in the FBI file and had been photocopied so many times that it had this poster-like quality to it. I wanted to draw it in pencil to really spend time and love laboring over it. Instead of the FBI investigating you, now I am creating a portrait of you using this material.

RB: I never saw that photo before I saw the files. I never knew they had a mug shot of me like that. They were pretty clever and sneaky with getting mug shots. We also have a letter in my file signed by J. Edgar Hoover, who had his hands in it.

SB: There are only two drawings in the installation. One is your mug shot, and one is the J. Edgar Hoover signature, because that crystallized this almost personal vendetta. The government was so paranoid about the possibility of Black liberation that they waged a campaign of intelligence and violence to dismantle the Black Panther Party. Reading through all of it made me realize how lucky I am that you are alive, because a lot of people were killed.

RB: And imprisoned. There are Panthers that are still in prison from the 1960s. Hopefully people will get involved in the movement to free these Panthers who are still in prison as a result of standing up for their rights. That’s important.

SB: Absolutely. We can’t just celebrate and pretend that everyone is okay.

Since it’s the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, it’s about looking back as well as looking forward. What do you want future generations and especially activists working today to know about the Panthers?

RB: This is where it was born, right here in Oakland. So much of the attack against the community happened here and Oakland is a stronger place because of the fight against that. Oakland is a place where it’s not just Black people or Latinos, it’s Asians and white people—when you see them protesting something, it’s a coalition of all races. That’s something that a lot of places don’t have.

Organizing is the key. We were able to organize, go into the churches, speak to congregations. We were invited to speak at other organizations, we formed coalitions, had breakfast programs, had a 10 Point Program—we need to do a lot more of that. We put theory into practice. I think there are lessons to be learned from what the Panthers went through.

What would you would want people to take away from this piece or the exhibition?

SB: One thing I would want is for all of the former Panthers and their support network to feel seen and heard and honored and appreciated. I’m so glad that this isn’t the 100th anniversary because then not as many people would still be with us. I want them to know that we’re still studying what they did and we value it. I hope that people will come back multiple times and spend time in the exhibition.

RB: The Museum is a very unique place. All kinds of people come through museums— tourists, students, political people—every part of a society. I think when people come to this museum and see this history, they’re not going to be able to be fooled by propaganda. It’s going to affect a lot of people individually and collectively. So much of the country thinks the Panthers were a gang or crooks. It takes courage of leadership in the community and people involved in OMCA to put something like this on display.

SB: Anything else you want to add?

RB: This morning, someone asked me, “Do you think there’s been any progress?” And I said to myself, “Well, there’s no such thing as progress.” You’re either free or you’re not. You have to make a qualitative change or there’s no progress until that happens.

All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 is on view in the Great Hall through February 12, 2017.

The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Oakland Museum of California, its staff, Board of Directors, or other affiliated parties.