When Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, was creating or selecting artwork for the Party newspaper, he always started with the same question: “Who is the art for?”
Douglas quickly grasped that Panther literature needed to use imagery that represented the readers the group wanted to reach — and it needed to depict those people in an empathic, dignified fashion. His guiding principle informed the curation of ICONIC: Black Panther, a group show on view at Stony Island Arts Bank that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Party’s Illinois chapter. But the more than 50 participating artists — most of whom hail from Chicago or other Midwest cities — don’t just share the same aesthetic or social concerns as the Panthers. They instead use the group’s work on issues like access to health and resistance to police brutality as a jumping off point to draw attention to today’s social issues.
“I have tremendous respect for the artists and how deeply ingrained many of the artists are with social justice efforts across the city,” says curator Tracie D. Hall. “It really felt like an opportunity to demonstrate the way Chicago artists have picked up on the Panthers's concerns articulated in their Ten-Point Platform.”
Drafted by Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Ten-Point Platform was a document that established the direction and goals of the group. Broadly, it sought basic needs for the community such as access to education, an end to police brutality and war, and justice and freedom for oppressed people.
Several of these tenets come together in Amanda Williams's standout contribution to the exhibition, titled Uppity Negress. A long, black fabric banner that hangs the full length of a wall and spills along the floor, it’s printed with white text: snippets of conversation from the arrest record of Sandra Bland and Michelle Obama’s 2015 commencement speech at Tuskegee University. Williams arranged these two disparate transcripts like a poem. It begins with the two women's words in dialogue with each other, with Obama remaining calm while Bland grows increasingly frustrated.
“You do not have the right/You do not have the right to do this,” Bland says. The former First Lady counters with an uplifting message, arguing that people of color can rise above the inevitable struggles and microaggressions they face. “I had the peace of mind knowing that all of the chatter, the name calling. ALL of it was just NOISE,” she says (emphasis the artist's.) Williams’s brilliant juxtaposition makes clear that for people of color across this country, taking the high road and striving for personal success, as Obama suggests, is often not enough to survive in a racist society. For many, like Bland, racism is still much more than just noise.
Uppity Negress is one of several works here that deal with both police and state violence — major points of concern of the Black Panther Party. In the early 1970s, the Illinois chapter hosted several events across Chicago on ending police brutality and establishing community control of the police. Forty years later, these actions had echoes in the efforts of organizers calling for justice for Laquan McDonald, the Chicago teenager shot and killed by city police in 2014. We’re reminded of these similar struggles by Hana L. Anderson, who captured street protests over McDonald’s murder in a pair of solemn black-and-white images that show a diverse mix of participants.
Many works in ICONIC: Black Panther reflect on the life and death of Fred Hampton, the Illinois party chairman and brilliant young organizer who was killed in an FBI-directed raid at the age of 21. Assassination of Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton Vietnam Era Steel Helmet Liner is a soldier’s helmet that artist Walter Lobyn Hamilton wrapped in newspaper cutouts, specifically of headlines and quotes related to the Black Panther Party. Also on view is a gorgeous print by Emory Douglas titled Fred Hampton Forever. It features a drawing of Hampton caught in mid-sentence and full of life, framed by a gold postage stamp border with “forever” printed on the bottom right.
This is the third iteration of ICONIC: Black Panther. Conceived by the Los Angeles-based art group SEPIA Collective, the exhibition was previously installed in LA and Oakland, and it will travel to New York City after Chicago.
Each version consists of work by regional artists hand-picked by a local curator. Hall, the Chicago curator, also worked with SEPIA founder Rosalind McGary and Tracye Matthews, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race Politics and Culture, to create related programming that engages members of the local Black Panther Party chapter.
“As soon as the idea came up to bring the exhibit here, I contacted the Illinois chapter to make sure they were involved from the very beginning,” Matthews says.
The lineup of events include free breakfasts, food drives, and testing for sickle cell anemia. These are inspired by the Panther’s Survival Programs — free community services that the Panthers implemented around the country to help address malnutrition, poor health, and other basic needs. In the Chicago metropolitan area, the Spurgeon "Jake" Winters People's Free Medical Care Center in North Lawndale provided essential health services in the '70s, while party member Wanda Ross coordinated free breakfasts for hundreds of children across the city everyday.
To anyone familiar with the legacy of the Panthers, this community programming won’t come as a surprise. “Most of us who were members of the Party are still involved — be it in social organizing, union organizing, helping the poor,” says Michael McCarty, former member of the education cadre for the Illinois chapter. “And we’ve all maintained that mindset because that mindset became a part of who we were. We still believe in serving the people. We still believe in standing up against injustice.”
This devotion to serving the people is what attracted McGary to the Panthers’s story in the first place. “They knowingly sacrificed so much of their lives to this struggle and this movement that they fueled,” she says. “They put their bodies, their hearts, and their souls on the line for others, for the greater good, for the majority. And still to this day, when I interact with them, there is this fearlessness about them that is couched in love.”
That love can be traced to the first tenet of the Panther’s Ten-Point Platform: the demand for freedom and the “power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.” The Panthers’s hard effort to bring peace, freedom, and basic human rights to the community is most palpable in Tonika Johnson’s color photograph, 81st and Laflin. It captures two young black girls sitting on a car on a sunny day — one on the roof and the other, balanced on the door. Both are gazing in front of them as a man, possibly their father, holds up a boy and tenderly kisses his cheek. The photo beautifully depicts an everyday expression of the peace and love the Panthers’ fought for, captured on Chicago’s South Side.
ICONIC: Black Panther runs through January 6, 2019.