Artists Examine Black Panther Party’s International Legacy

Frye Art Museum hosts the first of three talks centralized on the iconic group’s influence

by Agazit Afeworki

After George Zimmerman’s acquittal of killing Trayvon Martin, the black community’s collective weary manifested itself in a single hashtag: Black Lives Matter. This virtually-born group drew massive national protests in real ways. But their multi-platformed activism follows the tenancy of nationalistic groups like the Black Panther Party, which feels all the more timely five decades later.

At the Frye Art Museum on April 22 the historic group’s international prominence was examined at the opening of the three-part series of talks— All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party—  by fine art painter and graphic designer Yadesa Bojia, editorial and commercial photographer Robert V. Wade and reimaginatory photographer Ayana V. Jackson.

Manager of public programs and moderator Negarra A. Kudumu formatted the dialogue between the artists by posing questions that unpacked their experiences abroad. Jackson contextualized the Black Panther Party’s reach by noting their legacy  “I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic and in Argentina and then I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico and one of the things that became really clear to me early in my life is that the legacy [of the Black Panther Party] is resistance as a particular form of Black American culture and the Black Panther Party is probably one of the most iconic organizations that encapsulates that legacy.”

This sentiment was further echoed by Bojia who recalled growing up in 1970s Ethiopia when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party aided in overthrowing former Emperor Haile Selassie I. The political coalition channeled resistance  when distributing their anti-imperialism posters on poles, but it wasn’t until years later that Bojia recognized the connection, “It took me almost 35 years when I see [Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture] Emory Douglas’ work and it just reminded me exactly of the posters I used to see when I was a little kid in Africa,” he said “I did not put it together at that time but now I can see it.”

This series concurrently responds to the ongoing exhibit All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party at Photographic Center Northwest, which originally draws work from the 2016 same-titled book co-edited by executive director and curator at the PCNW Michelle Dunn Marsh and Kudumu.

All Power-Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party
Images from “All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party” featuring work from photographers Bruce Bennett, Enida Beal, and mixed media collage by Derrick Adams. (Image by Agazit Afeworki)

Marsh found the degree of connection between black artists and the Black Panther Party compelling. In doing so she pursued the less visible notion of black art communicating black history. In a short time span, she compiled submitted work to be published in what would launch a powerful 50th-anniversary commemoration of the party. First in print, then in exhibition and finally in civil discourse.

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was established in 1966 Oakland, Calif. by college friends Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. They were founded upon the guiding doctrine of the 10-point program: two declarative lists stating “what we want now” including an ever-familiar call to end police brutality as well as a list of “what we believe” which spelled out their position on matters such as reparations. Their fundamental community-oriented,-funded programs included armed tailings of police to ensure watchful (and intervening) accountability; also, among free health clinics and educational development, the pioneering free breakfast program provided thousands of students across the nation with substantive meals before school. As organizers, they allied people through a universal message freedom that Wade witnessed firsthand.

During the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in 1969 Algiers, Algeria, Wade documented the Panthers’ attendance and pop-up store installation gaining tremendous fanfare. Their ethos, though widely controversial, evolved to become internationalistic with an embassy in Algeria and offices from England to New Zealand. At home, Wade contends, they were misperceived as a racist organization labeled the greatest threat to security, but for the universally embattled people subject to inequality, they were revolutionaries.

The political party invoked a style of black militancy that lives within the borderless ubiquity of mainstream popular culture. It’s authoritative, it’s rebellious, its prideful and pop culture is stimulated with imagery derivative of the legacy. Jackson unpacked this aesthetic popularized by artists such as Beyonce who, costumed in leather, leading a militia of beret-clad dancers for her Superbowl performance, sparked immense socio-political commentary on the event. Or as Bojia mentioned, the Marvel phenomenon “Black Panther” which shared messages with the movement of black iconism and self-governance.  

Beyond the American viewfinder in which the Black Panther Party is assessed, the black youth-led movement instituted ideology that did not proffer equality, they demanded. As a result, they blueprinted an archetype of aesthetic and activism that continues to impact the global community in a relevant way. Marsh attributes this to their credo, still fought at the hands of a progeny of social movements.“There is nothing more timely  than the language in the 10-point program.”

Featured image by Agazit Afeworki: Artist Ayana V. Jackson posed in a series of photographs depicting periodic women in All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party exhibit at Photographic Center Northwest.

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