Sadie Barnette Made Art out of Her Father’s Black Panther FBI File

The artist on surveillance and the role of art in activism.

By: Emily Ramshaw
Photography: Anna-Alexia Basile

There are many ways one might be expected to react when reading one’s own father’s FBI file closely chronicling his activities during his time with the Black Panthers. But Sadie Barnette, who did exactly this, made them into art. She’s exhibited the work a few times already—in New York and Oakland, where she’s based—but seeing the piece (which she changes and reworks with each new show) in her studio with the artist herself was, if we’re being honest, a little bit mind-bending.

First, there’s the sheer scale of the work—pages and pages of typed material she narrowed down from the 500-page file mounted on the wall—that requires you to stand back. But as you get closer and actually read the material—that agents talked to neighbors and employers about Barnette’s father; that he was on a list that would allow the agency to detain him at any time—it becomes a completely different kind of art, but art nonetheless. Barnette always works with mixed media; she loves glitter and jewels and sparkles. Her studio—huge, airy, and in a building she shares with other artists and a family of chickens kept in a coop in the yard—is full of pop-culture ephemera, like a box of Wheaties emblazoned with Stephen Curry’s face. It’s also full of her work and works in progress, hung as it would be in a gallery. Speaking of, Barnette is giving the FBI file its next moment in the spotlight with a new solo show called Dear 1968,... at UC Davis’ Manetti Shrem Museum. If you can, you should see it—click through the gallery to find out why.

“At the new UC Davis show I’m going to push the materiality of the files themselves, so I’m going to have all across one long wall, 30 pages of FBI file mounted on neon plexi. It’s this technique I’ve done before—mounting paper on plexi and hanging it about an inch off the wall. It gets this glow around it. The source material is just so... there’s so much content to it, it’s so personal, as well as being so political, that it will probably take many iterations to really figure out the best way to work with it. For the show at the Oakland museum, I specifically titled My Father’s FBI File, Project 1 to include in the structure that this material is bigger than me, and it’s going to take a long time to figure out all the ways to work with it.”

“The first time I really realized that I had something to say was with this organization called Destiny Arts Center in Oakland. It’s still around and grown into an amazing community center and helps with violence prevention through dance and martial arts. They also have a performance company where high school kids write their own monologues and talk about issues that affect them, and that was a really powerful experience. In high school that I got really into photography. I wasn’t the best student—I went to this giant public high school in Berkeley, it was totally underfunded. I saw so much inequity and racism and criminalization of youth that I pretty much checked out of high school. Then I did this independent studies program and they had a dark room on that campus that the photography teacher built in like a portable. I’d be printing photographs eight hours a day. I think being alone and being able to shoot out in the world and spending time with those images really spoke to me. People were applying to college and I was like, ‘Well, I’ve been taking all these photographs, I guess I could apply to art school.’ I went to Calarts and that totally changed my life and really opened up the contemporary art world that I hadn’t known about. I had some amazing mentors there, and it’s such a strong community that it continues to really be a part of my life and my work.”

“Starting with photography, I felt like there were certain conversations that that medium limited you to, so I started drawing and found that that opened up some more possibilities in abstraction. The first book I did was when I was in grad school and some friends wanted to publish a book of art for people that didn’t work in a book format typically, and that really opened up and democratized all the different modes that I was working in. A book allows you to bring behind the scenes things up front. I think that was something that helped me to work in a multi-media aspect.”

“My family has always been a big part of my work. I have a really big family—my dad is one of 11 children and he’s the youngest. I was born when he was 40, so the generations get very old very quickly. My great-great-grandmother escaped from slavery—for a lot of people it would be like four greats. I’ve always had a really strong connection knowing that my family history is black history is American history. These stories [about my family] seemed so personal and precious but also bigger than me. When my dad requested his FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act, I had a feeling that there would be some stories in there that would make their way into my artwork. Then I received them and they’re so graphic and visually interesting as well as disturbing, that I felt like the files themselves really needed to be at the forefront. I didn’t want to filter it too much through my lens but really let them speak for themselves and do more reframing rather than completely collaging them and altering them.”

“It’s been a lot of highs and a lot of lows [creating the FBI file work]. It was definitely terrifying learning some of the facts within the FBI file—my dad’s name was on this list that is the emergency apprehension and detention program list. Those things were very chilling. They made me realize how lucky I am that my dad is alive. A lot of people’s names in the file were assassinated at that time, and those things made me scared and mad and sad, but also really lucky that my dad is still here. But it’s also served as a container for these conversations for me and my dad to have.

There were informants in the Black Panther meetings that are reporting back to the FBI; there were agents watching my dad get on an airplane with Angela Davis at San Francisco airport. It feels very real when you read about the fact that they knocked on all his neighbors doors, neighbors that he doesn't even remember.”

“One thing I've had a lot of people tell me, ‘Oh, my parents were also involved in this aspect of the movement.’ Or people have told me, ‘Oh, I always wanted my grandparents’ file from the McCarthy days’. Sometimes we separate history from family and they’re really the same. Especially people who are lucky enough to have living relatives, that living history is so important—we should have those conversations around the dinner table; get out your iPhone and record the conversation. Another thing I would want people to take away is to question the government. The government is supposed to work for the people. It’s written into our constitution that if the government isn’t serving the people, the people have the right to change that government. Dissent is legal, it’s American, it’s part of what this country was founded on. Especially now with the Patriot Act, surveillance is on a whole other level. When we have someone like Trump in office, people are seeing first-hand why people need to be able to organize against politicians; if the FBI is dismantling organizing efforts, then how are the people going to hold the government accountable?”

“The problems of today are the same, but the climate for organizing is so different. So much of the language of resistance and revolution has been co-opted, and activists now have to work against that. Even the world revolution is now used in lipstick and car commercials. That whole aesthetic of protesting has been diluted. I think also there’s so much discussion about individual success that we don’t have such a community—when we measure how people are doing, everyone just thinks about themselves, which is hard to organize against. Because we had a black president a lot of people say there’s no more racism, but it’s like, well there can only be a black president if there’s still one million black people in jail. In a way, it’s more difficult to organize against racism after Jim Crow is gone. You’re not fighting to change the law anymore—the law says that everyone is equal but we know that it’s not working that way. I think it’s difficult, but some of the conversations with the Occupy movement—obviously it didn’t overthrow capitalism but giving everyday people that language of the 99% and the 1%—it’s an analysis that people weren’t necessarily having around the dinner table before then, and same with Black Lives Matter. Sometimes I think just changing the conversation is the first step.”

“Art is really important in changing the way that people think and the way they imagine things. Actually being able to dream up a world that works better is something that comes from imagination and art, and that can happen with art that is overtly political as well as art that’s not so obviously political but just changes the way your mind works. It can affect the sciences and technology as well as organizing and politics.”

“Most of my day is trying not to be overcome by emails, which is what I think most artists the majority of their time doing. I usually think of my work as a way of seeing things rather than a way of making things. I’m not one of those painters where it’s like you come in and have a ritual mixing of the colors and the stretching the canvas and the certain types of light you like to paint in. My practice looks very different all the time, so one day I might be drawing with a graphite pencil for eight hours and then another day I might be in the 99-cent store looking for objects for an installation. I spend a lot of time in craft stores like Michael’s sourcing weird glittery gems and things.”

“I think of glitter and hologram surfaces as a transportive, hypnotic, transcendent devices—ecstasy, escapism, hallucination. I love when that works, but also when it fails and you realize that it’s just a piece of paper. It also has some sci-fi connotations to it. I’m usually juxtaposing it against something that seems to be the opposite of glitter, like a hubcap. It kind of gets you high, but it’s also cheap, synthetic, and fake. It’s artificial sweetener.”

“I don’t think my work is message-driven. It’s not propaganda. It’s trying to open a space for critical thinking to happen and there’s these elements of poetics that are at play that you can’t quite figure out or describe. I like for things to be a little unsettling and not completely wrapped up. I like to make the viewer work a little bit more; that’s why I do the drawings and why you can almost not tell that they’re drawings so you had a spend a little bit of time. I feel the most happy when everything is there for you but you have to put it together yourself.”