The 1960s were a time of tremendous growth and unrest for the United States. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 during the height of the African American Civil Rights Movement cast a shadow of uncertainty during a period of alleged progress. Many laws were passed that seemed to shine a light of hope on the nation’s attempts to right the wrongs that had been scarring the States for over a century; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were tiny steps toward building a just and equitable future. Yet despite these advancements in federal policy, the lives of black people were still under great duress on state and city levels. Hope was shattered again by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, which resulted in considerable social unrest, inner city rioting, and policing of marginalized groups and black communities that were already dampened. The San Francisco Bay Area was recognized as a pivotal backdrop and center of this struggle, one which witnessed an enormous amount of social change and expression.
The Black Panther Party was founded in October 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, as a response to police brutality and social injustice toward black people in their West Oakland neighborhoods. The Party spearheaded several community programs including Free Breakfast for Children and community health clinics, but its core purpose was to create an armed citizens’ patrol of the black neighborhoods of Oakland that were faced with daily police harassment. Meanwhile, across the Bay in San Francisco, an entirely different cultural energy was unfolding with the Summer of Love that emerged from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in protest to the Vietnam War. The 50-year anniversary of these two distinct events is being recognized with exhibitions at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).
Among the most notable features of the OMCA exhibition “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” (October 8, 2016 – February 12, 2017) is the way it employs contemporary art to reflect on the history it details. When visitors enter the show they are greeted by Sam Durant’s bronze sculpture Proposal for a Monument to Huey Newton at the Alameda Courthouse, Oakland, Ca (2004), which accompanies Blair Stapp’s iconic lithograph Untitled (Huey P. Newton in a wicker peacock chair) (2003). Visitors are invited to sit in Durant’s sculpture, a bronze replica of the chair Newton is sitting in, and take photographs of themselves and each other. Throughout the exhibition are opportunities for visitors to touch, listen and dance or pose with art and installations, in addition to several films, a reading area, along with a reading list for visitors to take home and do their own research. There is also a listening station with both audio files of Bobby Seale’s talk at Cal State Fullerton in 1992, and an aptly curated selection of popular music that includes “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” by Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone’s on-point portrait song “Four Women,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “Brother” and “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, to name a few. Hank Willis Thomas’s Black Righteous Space (2012) flashes the Confederate flag with alternating kaleidoscopic patterns in red, black and green—the colors of the Black Nationalist Party. A large portion of the show features posters, ephemera and artwork commemorating the Panthers and several telling artifacts, including bars from a decommissioned prison and hand-written notes from Newton and Seale’s manifesto that generated their Ten-Point Platform titled “What We Want, What We Believe.”
Also on view are architectural fragments excavated from homes demolished in 1967 during the Oakland Center Redevelopment Project, wherein some 9,000 African American families were displaced from their Victorian homes to make way for more modern housing. Known as Acorn, the complex provided a scant 1,000 residencies in scattered low-income based project-type buildings. Among the objects on display are ornately carved column capitals, amber and sapphire-colored cabinet knobs and a suite of four endearing white marble doves; all of these decorative items are beautiful yet somber reminders of sanctioned erasure and tremendous loss of quality of life.
While Oakland was undergoing these challenges, the nation was also dealing with general public outcry toward the Vietnam War. In response, protestors, activists, and counter-culture hippies began descending on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury as well as surrounding counties. In addition to the notorious drug use and general debauchery, the main attractions were the many music festivals, such as the Monterey Pop Festival, which included The Who, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and more. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, along with the Walker Art Center, have organized “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia” (February 8 – May 21, 2017) in commemoration of this moment in history, which paved the way for an extended ethos that defines the Bay Area as a place for radicals, weirdos and innovators. “The exhibition provides a timely
opportunity to consider what strategies might still be of value,” says BAMPFA Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder, “and to create a platform for dialogue between generations so that today’s youth (who will inherit, for better or worse, the world we have made) can engage critically with some of the counterculture visionaries who are still around to reflect on this unprecedentedly revolutionary era.”
An extensive film series curated by Kathryn MacKay features works that “are about the search for enlightenment, transcendence and/or a better way of life both in terms of subject matter and formal innovation.” Among those represented is the seminal film organization Canyon Cinema, whose main interest was to create films outside of traditional constraints; their creativity grew out of studios, apartments, basements and backyards, by the likes of Bruce Conner and Chick Strand. They began as a distribution co-op incorporated by Bruce Conner and others, and were subsequently based in the apartment of Earl Bodein and Edith Kramer, who later became the Senior Film Curator and Director at BAMPFA.
The museum will feature an expansive assortment of political ephemera including works that acknowledge the Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of Alcatraz Island, Berkeley Tribe magazines,
Sister Corita Kent’s anti-war prints, and Black Panther posters. The Emeryville Mudflats, Ken Isaacs’ The Knowledge Box (1962/2009) and Frances Butler’s Quilted Coat (1969-70) “reflects a do-it-yourself ethos that was consciously opposed to mainstream histories,” says Rinder. In addition, the exhibition includes documentation of fringe and psychedelic drag theatrical troupes The Cockettes and the Angels of Light, which acknowledges the history of the still-strong LGBTQ communities that are drawn to the Bay Area.
In comparing the two exhibitions, “All Power to the People” aims to educate the public about the positive work of the Panthers and their influence on other artists, while “Hippie Modernism” is an overview of an era, an ethos and an ideology rooted in concepts of utopia. “The struggle for utopia seems to be deeply embedded in our social and cultural (perhaps even biological) make-up,” notes Rinder. In that case, both exhibitions are remarking on the idea that life could be better, more ecological, more tolerant and more thriving than it once was. As Rinder states, “I hope that this exhibition will suggest some alternative options to the emerging regime of crony capitalism, ethnic nationalism, and demagogic populism.” But considering that issues of racism, homelessness and the marginalization of blacks still plagues Oakland, and that our nation is ready to usher in a questionable president, the future seems anything but utopian. These two historically insightful exhibitions at least remind us of the possibilities that can be crafted in the streets, and in the studio—where resistance or challenging the norms becomes a place of power and potential.