By Jordan Bartel, Times Staff Writer
Friday, November 09, 2007
BALTIMORE - It's an image of the Black Panther Party ingrained in
historical memory: dark clothing, darker stares, raised fists.
But, as a new exhibit at the Maryland Institute College of Art
demonstrates, underneath the black attire and the perception of the
group as simply a heavily armed radical militia, there were many
layers to the Black Panthers.
"Black Panther Rank and File," opening Nov. 8 and on view through
Dec. 16, is perhaps the first exhibit in the country to provide a
multifaceted look at the influential and controversial organization.
MICA is the only major mid-Atlantic venue for the traveling
exhibition, organized by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San
Francisco and co-curated by the YBCA and the Jack Shainman Gallery in
New York City. It includes never-before-exhibited historical
artifacts, recordings and photographs paired with contemporary works
by a slew of renowned artists. Alongside stark black-and-white images
of party members and activities, there are modern installations
reflecting the Black Panther ideals and ideas, as well as works
reflecting the struggle of blacks throughout history, including items
like a chilling minstrel show playbill from 1865.
The exhibit also features multiple public events, including a film
series and a two-part symposium on the Black Panthers' impact on art,
culture and politics.
Valerie Imus, YBCA's exhibition manager who was busy installing the
exhibit earlier this week, said much of the work of the contemporary
artists reflects not only Black Panther efforts, but the history and
struggle of blacks in America.
"We know the controversies, but many do not know all the details
about the party," Imus said. "In many ways, they didn't have enough
time to get their message out."
The exhibit's opening in 2006 in San Francisco coincided with the
40th anniversary of the founding of the party in Oakland, Calif., by
Huey P. Newton, David Hilliard and Bobby Seale. The group was most
active in the 1960s and 1970s but was controversial because of its
willingness to take up arms against police brutality in black communities.
But Imus said there was more to the Black Panther Party than its
militant tendencies. The exhibit showcases the party's devotion to
creating programs devoted to bettering black communities, such as
free breakfast for children and building community medical clinics.
That part of the group's legacy has all but been ignored, Imus said.
"The message was lost in what the media and others portrayed," Imus
said. "The members and their activities started to become exoticized."
An interesting component to "Black Panther Rank and File" and unique
to the MICA stop is the Baltimore Black Panther Resource Area and
Oral History Project, which offers local and national reading
materials and archival Baltimore material related to the Black
Panthers. MICA graduate students in the Master of Art in Community
Arts Program teamed up to conduct interviews with former Baltimore
Black Panther members and others involved in some way with the
organization during its heyday.
Dominique Stevenson, area director for the American Friends Service
Committee, worked with MICA as a community outreach representative in
coordination for the exhibit. She helped the school connect with some
former Black Panthers, among other activities. Stevenson, who saw the
exhibit when it opened in San Francisco last year, said it's received
a great response, and she is happy with the dialogue it is creating.
"MICA kept its ear to the ground to find local folks and
organizations, an audience to respond to the exhibit and help not
re-create the party but give it another view," Stevenson said.
"People never really had a full view."
Paul Harris, the president of social activism organization Collective
Cry and a sponsor of one of the exhibit's symposiums, said people
have internalized the misconceptions many held about the party.
"It's black men and black leather and big black guns," Harris said.
"That's all people know."
For Harris, part of creating a wider view of the organization is
pairing unique contemporary works with the historical archives.
Earlier this week, the 1982 MICA graduate was working on an
installation featuring the Black Panthers' 10-point plan, which will
provide space for visitors to write about what needs to be improved
in communities still divided by race and poverty lines.
"The issues the Black Panthers dealt with still need to be addressed
in a full spectrum of ways," Harris said. "And we need to take up
that struggle again, you and me."
Reach staff writer Jordan Bartel at 410-857-7862 or
If you go
What: "Black Panther Rank and File"
When: Opens with a 5 to 7 p.m. reception Nov. 8 and on view through Dec. 16
Where: Maryland Institute College of Art's Fox Building's Decker and
Meyerhoff galleries, 1303 Mount Royal Ave. Most public events,
including a symposium and film series will be in Brown Center's
Falvey Hall at 1301 Mount Royal Ave.
Hours: Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday
and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Information: Call 410-225-2300 or go to www.mica.edu.