An overflowing crowd gathered inside and outside the newly opened Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College last Saturday afternoon, eager to hear the methodology and meaning behind artist Sadie Barnette’s work.
Barnette set the tone for future Benton openings by drawing in over 150 people to the museum’s first artist talk for her exhibition “Legacy & Legend.” The two-part exhibition includes one half at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College and the other at Pitzer College Art Galleries.
The Benton half features 12 new drawings that expand on Barnette’s previous project, “Dear 1968,…” which features files from a 500-page FBI dossier documenting the organization’s surveillance of her father, Rodney Barnette, due to his involvement with the Black Panther Party.
With this new series, titled “FBI Drawings,” Barnette meticulously recreated the files with powdered graphite into 60-by-48-inch drawings, then covered them with images of flowers as a memorialization, images of Hello Kitty as a nod to the father-daughter relationship and spray paint flourishes as a mark of protest.
“I wanted to turn this into artwork … somehow I wanted to make these files do something different than they were meant to do. I wanted to make them live in my world and tell my father’s story, my family’s story, which is also so many other families’ stories in this country,” Barnette said.
At Pitzer, the other half of the exhibition is modeled to look like a living room with reworked Barnette family photos hung on the walls.
Ciara Ennis, Pitzer College Art Galleries director and curator, explained that the installation imagines a future free from the kinds of violence inflicted on Barnette’s family and many others.
“It’s a very intimate space, but at the same time, it’s very inviting… The whole point of the space is to provide some kind of respite from the police brutality, from surveillance, from gentrification,” Ennis said.
Barnette hopes the interactive exhibition will prompt viewers to radically imagine the future.
“I imagine the space at Pitzer as sort of a ‘where do we go from here’ space,” she said. “I think of this installation as kind of a room for magic, [a] room for possibility and dreaming — space and objects that pay tribute to the moments of beauty and hospitality and togetherness that we manifest even amidst all that we’re up against. A space where maybe it’s OK to have questions and not have all the answers, and have debates and disagree and still be in loving community together.”
The event also marked the launch of a book of the same name that compiles Barnette’s new and old work, including a zine commemorating the first Black-owned gay bar in San Francisco, founded by her father.
For Barnette, the process of this series of works is that of reclamation, a way to heal from the harm caused by the FBI’s surveillance of her father.
“I make this work just to kind of figure out a way to move through this world and to witness the world as I see it, [to] make sense of the poetry, of the pain and all of it together,” Barnette said.
“Legacy & Legend” is part of the Benton’s Project Series, which has been in the works since 2018, before the Benton had opened. Rebecca McGrew, senior curator at the Benton, was introduced to Barnette through her exhibition at Charlie James Gallery.
McGrew felt that Barnette’s work was important to highlight at the Benton because of its relevance to the United States’ current political moment.
“I think things only got more and more intense with all the social justice movements and the political unrest and uncertainty and the traumas of COVID and all the murders,” McGrew said. “… Sadie’s work speaks to another historical moment like that.”
After COVID-19 delayed the exhibition’s planned spring 2020 opening, the show expanded to include the Pitzer portion with the help of Ennis.
Working with Barnette and McGrew to bring the exhibition to life was a synergetic experience for Ennis.
“[Barnette is] incredibly generous as an artist and very collaborative,” she said. “Some artists that you work with have a very fixed idea about what they want to do, but she’s open to having conversations about everything, including the production or what would be the look of the catalog and so on.”
Since the exhibition opened to the public on July 22, Ennis said the response has been “amazing,” especially when she has taken her art history classes to see the show.
Due to the use of “informal materials like holographic fabrics,” Ennis said the format of the Pitzer show is particularly accessible for her students.
“[Barnette provides a] platform to air these issues in a very exciting and provoking environment,” she said.
In fact, many of the attendees of the artist talk and reception on Saturday were students, such as James Pratt PO ’24. He returned to hear more about Barnette’s work after viewing her work last month with his father, Nathan Pratt.
Nathan Pratt felt that her work spoke to issues that concern young people. However, he noted that the Benton could do more to make its exhibitions and events more accessible to students.
“I think that this museum has so much stuff in here geared toward the adults and non-youth … very high-end, high-concept art,” Nathan Pratt said. “But I was walking through this show, and thought it was just rockstar quality and would be something that that students would just love, if the campus would really push it.”
His son agreed.
“I’ve only been to this [kind of] event when parents went — it’s very non-student-friendly,” James Pratt said.
Another student, Marisa Branco PZ ’22, was familiar with Barnette’s work but hadn’t gotten a chance to see it in person until this event.
“I really like that her stuff has this … high culture [and] low culture speaking to each other thing, especially with [the] cartoon characters and glitter,” Branco said. “I also think it’s a really fun appropriation of the documents.”
John Trendler, Curator of Visual Resources at Scripps College, came to the talk because he’s a fan of Barnette’s work, having seen her work at previous exhibitions.
“Her work’s fascinating,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of layers — [it’s] playful but intense, and so listening to her speak gave me more understanding of what kind of source materials [she used] and the background [of her work].”
A second Pitzer event for the “Legend & Legacy” exhibition is planned for Dec. 7, this time formatted as a conversation between Sadie Barnette, her father Rodney Barnette and activist Ericka Huggins. Both installations are on view until Dec. 19 by reservation.