The recently closed exhibition Dear 1968… by artist Sadie Barnette at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery created a disturbed home in the gallery space. The exhibition is built upon “the 500-page file that the FBI amassed after her father [Rodney Barnette] joined the Black Panther Party in 1968” and the effect of her family’s discovery of the file on their sense of home.
The show’s single room sets up a destabilized atmosphere that overwhelms the visitor with every aspect at once. Upon entering the space, our eyes are drawn to the blown-up polaroid photos on the left wall, then to the graphic and colorful wallpaper on the left and near walls, then to the wall of perfectly aligned FBI documents decorated in pink spray paint and rhinestones, and finally to sparkling portraits of prized family memories with subtle hints of violence like a tiny bullet hole. This visual chaos recreates for the viewer the feeling of invasion and disruption the Barnette family experienced upon reading the file. Our eyes are forced to constantly flicker between pictures of loving, warm, family feelings and cold, official government documents, prohibiting comfortable resting on either environment. Through this show, Barnette argues that for her black family in America these two environments were deeply intertwined. Citing the second-wave feminist slogan the personal is political, it is clear that many black families in America cannot escape the watchful eye of the system, and the rest of society must not turn away as if surveillance is an individual issue. In addition, the historical is the present, and particular events are not isolated from their context; speaking to 1968 (Dear 1968…) from 2017 and signing it Love, 1984 (Sadie Barnette’s birth year) demonstrates the ease with which time periods can be, and are inevitably, linked.
In retrospect, I am curious my place was within the exhibit as a white person in 2017. By stepping into the exhibit, was I invading the home Sadie Barnette created? Is my review of the show and my guess as to what it means just as reductive and assuming as the FBI file was of Rodney Barnette? I believe part of what made the show so successful is its self-reflection, keeping me from seeing myself in the space. The FBI documents directly face the graphite replicas of Rodney Barnette’s mug shot and J. Edgar Hoover’s signature; the FBI information mirrors itself. The polaroid photos of Rodney Barnette and the woman he lived with face the wall of sparkly family photos of joyful moments and a body-less letter addressed to 1968; perhaps the Barnette family’s story fills in this letter. I am therefore stuck in the middle of the show, irrelevant to whatever story Barnette has to tell. My irrelevance is necessary for a show like this by a marginalized person to even begin to be really heard.
All photographs courtesy of Lisa Boughter
Esme Trontz ’18, History of Art Major, Brooklyn, NY