In the heart of the downtown Los Angeles Arts District, a striking arts collective known as Art Share LA is hosting an exhibit entitled, “Rise: Love. Revolution. The Black Panther Party.” Featuring over thirty artists, this collection of works are each inspired by the Black Panther Party’s legacy of marrying aesthetically phenomenal artwork with modern political consciousness. Co-curated by renowned local artists Lester Grant, Nery Gabriel Lemus, Rosalind McGary and James O’Balles, this exhibit has broadened the legacy of the Party by challenging a variety of multicultural, multiethnic artists to reinterpret the ideology of the Panthers through their own artistic lenses. When arriving in the Art Share LA gallery, it becomes remarkably apparent how the BPP affected not only the black community but continues to impact national and artistic experiences.
So often when the legacy of the Black Panther Party is discussed, people first invoke controversial images of Black Nationalism, fist-raised protests and promises of armed revolt against brutal police forces and government establishments across the nation and these are all valid images. The polarizing images have come to overshadow the history of the Black Panther Party as one of the nation’s historically most articulate civil rights organizations, which articulated the realities of a racist, violent America fraught with poverty, racism and hunger; and then, sought to remedy those problems through self-defense, free school breakfast programs, free medical care and a variety of other programs. The same programs viewed as radical in the 1960s and 70s are commonplace today due to the their activism. Equally important are the rich and controversial artistic images published by the Party’s Ministry of Culture under the leadership of Emory Douglas. Though only 22 at the time of its inception, Douglas would go on to use the Black Panther newspaper as his vehicle for publishing a visual campaign targeted toward the black community and embodying the political aims of the BPP. Douglas’ iconic images deeply reflected the legacy of Harlem Renaissance artists like Elizabeth Catlett and incorporated styles and techniques from across the globe including West African and Cuba. Though always artistically exceptional, the artwork of the Black Panther Party remained geared towards the masses and reflected their concerns in a politically challenging environment.
Each of the artists within the Rise exhibit in some way channeled either the technique or the ideology of the BPP and its Ministry of Culture and reinterpreted them through their own personal style or politic. As articulated in an interview with co-curator, Nery Gabriel Lemus, this exhibit seeks to fit into the Black Panther Party’s legacy by “bringing themes and personalities popularized by their efforts into modern art. Many of our works speak to what they stood against then like police brutality and what we continue to stand against today.” A stirring depiction of Trayvon Martin echoes this notion, as well as, meditations on other aspects of the nation’s legacy of violence through lynching, persecution and rioting. One particularly fascinating art piece by artist Lili Bernard entitled, “As American as Cherry Pie,” depicts a white child’s historic indoctrination of violence as early as the high chair. She explained that when charged with creating a piece commemorating the struggles of the BPP, she recalled H. Rap Brown’s quote, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” This set her on a path of researching the history of American violence which she later narrowed into the nation’s painful legacy of lynching. As a mother, she was struck at how common such practices were and how often women and children were involved as perpetrators, spectators and victims.
Other themes run through the exhibit like the exploration of black protest icons such as Angela Davis and Bobby Seale whose visages are now as American as a portrait of George Washington and equally as controversial. As is common within the world of art, images and messages become intertwined. Angela Davis’ globally recognizable Afro, seen in a number of pieces, has come to embody the politics of liberation and an embracing of black feminine beauty. And while she has written that she does not always care to have her style choices of the sixties and seventies encapsulate complex and hard won ideals, for members of the Rise audience, her Afro is inspiring as are the leather jackets and berets found in the portraits of Bobby Seale and other recognizable Panthers.
Whether conscious or not, the “Rise: Love. Revolution. The Black Panther Party” exhibit at Art Share LA fully exemplifies the spirit of the revolutionary and groundbreaking Black Panther Party. From its multiethnic list of artists to its being housed in Art Share LA a live/work artspace in downtown Los Angeles’ Art District with the goal of offering community arts programs as well as providing affordable housing for low income artists, Rise not only sends a social message, it inhabits it. In the words of Art Share LA’s board president, Rick Robinson, “the Black Panthers and Art Share LA have a particular symmetry. They both seek access, social leveling, fairness and availability.”