Contemporary black radical aesthetic practices that emphasize materials that surface, texture, and visualize blackness ineluctably trouble, if not unravel, the panoptic qualities of the visual itself. It is without a doubt that images play a hyperactive role in our understanding of black life, but what of the material matters of black resistance? In my use of the phrase, black radical aesthetic practices endeavor to recompose the relationship between the body and visibility, often by sidestepping representational mandates towards “accuracy.” Instead, these practices turn to the potentiality of abstract or conceptual approaches in materializing black corporeality. Much attention has been paid to the vexed relationship between representation and black cultural forms in light of white supremacist practices that have produced and policed images of black people along the spectrum of spectacular and quotidian violence. By emphasizing abstract and conceptual artistic practices, my definition of black radical aesthetics builds upon the notion of blackness as anoriginary abstraction—a category created in the service of devastating material, corporeal, and psychological violences that trafficked through the Middle Passage and whose afterlives are still active today. Abstract and conceptual practices do not abandon the social, cultural, and material meanings that blackness invokes. As Adrienne Edwards has lucidly noted, these practices turn to what blackness “does in the world without conflating it—and those who understand blackness from within a system that deems them black, that is black people—with a singular historical narrative or monolithic subjectivity.”
In this spirit, the black radical aesthetic practices detailed here fully activate many of the aims of the black freedom struggle through conceptual and material choices that disturb visibility as a measure of black presence. Instead, these approaches impede sight. They trouble its stability and open up modes of touch that reroute our expectations. This essay focuses on select works by David Hammons and Sadie Barnette that ask us to consider what constitutes the matter of black life, and in so doing reclaim the place of material and the body as archives of black radical history.
Redaction and Affection in Sadie Barnette’s Aesthetic Materialism
On June 15, 1972, Rodney Barnette was observed embarking on American Airlines Flight 474 in the company of Angela Davis. This flight was en route from San Francisco to Chicago.
—Observation by FBI special agents (June 16, 1972)
By 1972, the FBI had amassed an unprecedented amount of surveillance documentation under their now infamous Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). This program had successfully carried out a complex network of operations aimed to discredit, dismantle, and destroy black radical activists, organizations, and movements.16 Collected among over five hundred pages of FBI documents on Rodney Ellis Barnette,17 the two-sentence memo above is striking. Barnette was followed by FBI special agents (SAs) for years. His everyday movements and activities were under constant surveillance. This particular surveillance operation was conducted just eleven days after Angela Y. Davis was found not guilty on charges of murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy. Barnette lived with Davis during the duration of her trial and was in charge of her personal security.18 Here, even after Davis was rendered not guilty and without a single criminal charge leveled against Barnette, we’re given a scene of relentless government surveillance and invasion of privacy—an all-seeing operation invested in policing Davis’s and Barnette’s lives.
The FBI’s ongoing and invasive surveillance documentation reveals a deep investment in keeping track of Barnette’s every move. Barnette’s leadership in the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) was the primary justification for this level of government interest in his activities. Barnette opened the BPP’s Compton office and emerged as a central figure in community organizing. The FBI’s surveillance of his everyday activities was comprehensive to say the least. It included a steady team of SAs who conducted routine surveillance, harassed people close to Barnette, and attempted to frame him in conducting illegal activities by soliciting informants to infiltrate the BPP.19 Apart from its many disturbing revelations, Barnette’s FBI file marks the state’s overall structural investment in maintaining sight of him—keeping him in view at all times as a standard measure of policing and criminalization.
These uses of sight are evidenced in the amassed pages of FBI files obtained by Barnette and his family after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request some decades later. These documents reveal a decentralized strategy aimed not only to keep an eye on Barnette, but to archive and materially record activities as noteworthy. These typed memos were relentlessly photocopied, faxed, and filed away in FBI field offices and headquarters around the country. While we have no certain way of tracing how these documents circulated, we can speculate that this paperwork fell into the hands of hundreds of governmental employees, were read by several officers, and even probably occupied file cabinets across the nation. Barnette’s surveillance therefore reflects a long-standing practice of policing black people at the level of sight. It also reveals how policing is recorded through documentation that necessitates a particular kind of material practices.
Rodney Barnette’s files take on a radically different material character in his daughter Sadie’s hands. When received by the Barnettes, these documents looked like all FOIA-requested FBI files—full of redactions, visibly represented by thick strikethrough rectangles, sometimes filled in black, but mostly left open in white. These redactions staccato the flow of information, as they leave crucial details hidden. What are the names of the secret agents that followed Barnette and Davis on June 16, 1972? Who was “at the residence of John Huggins on the night of ”? Who were “all of the above named individuals” now obscured by empty white boxes, save for Huggins and Barnette, whose names repeatedly appear on page 14 of the released files? These spaces are evidence of the state’s withholding, as the information left unseeable is most often the information most wanted—the details of operations, names of informants or agents, and goals and targets of key events. The desire to know is impeded by these stubborn obstructions, which protect the state from relinquishing details that would further support claims by victims of COINTELPRO of governmental overreach, violation of constitutional rights, and the encouragement—if not incitement—of violence against black radicals.
Sadie Barnette troubles the central role of sight in a series of 2016 works that utilize her father’s FBI file as raw source material. Barnette’s installation of three works, My Father’s FBI File, Project 1 (2016), Untitled (J. Edgar Hoover) (2016), and Untitled (Dad’s Mug shot) (2016), were show-stopping contributions to the Oakland Museum of California’s “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” (2016), an exhibition commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the BPP’s founding. Nestled in the corner of the exhibition, taking up two adjoining walls, Barnette approaches these documents as archival materials which bring her into closer proximity to her father specifically, and to the Black Liberation Movement more broadly. In this way, she channels these documents’ historical import into a contemporary discourse on their repercussions for post-1960s social movements and those who inherit their legacies.
For My Father’s FBI File, Project 1 (2016), on one wall, Barnette transformed 180 pages of her father’s file into a wheat-pasted wallpaper that covers the entirety of the 9’ × 13’ museum wall, from the ceiling to the floor. Rather than display these documents as received in their fully redacted format, Barnette flourishes them with bright pink and purple hues or thick coats of black spray paint that selectively obscure legibility, and thus accentuate the paint’s density in relation to the flatness of the glued documents. What comes into focus as one steps back from My Father’s FBI Files, Project 1, is the spray paint applied to select pages by Barnette’s own hands. Her pinks, purples, and blacks obscure portions of text and page into further illegibility, rendering opaque already impenetrable memos, descriptions, and data. She coats aerosol paint on decisively, allowing splatters of color to delicately sit on the page before laying it on so thick that its viscosity bubbles from the surface. Fully realizing the wallpaper motif, Barnette mounts ornamented frames that hold family photos. Next to these photos sits Untitled (J. Edgar Hoover) (2016), a 22” × 30” pencil drawing in a plain white frame. The drawing is Barnette’s rendering of the most notable signature in all the files: “Very truly yours, John Edgar Hoover Director.” Sandwiched between “yours” and “John” is the infamous COINTELPRO architect’s signature, brilliantly forged and magnified by Sadie Barnette herself.
Barnette’s riffs on the redactions of her father’s file throw into even more crisis the conditions of visibility documented by the state’s information-gathering protocols and subsequent practices of redaction.20 The frustration of not knowing certain details transforms into a self-reflexive moment. The reality sets in: Even if all the words were there, made transparent, would that make the truth of this information somehow less disturbing? Isn’t it enough to know that the government conducted sustained and invasive surveillance against political activists? Barnette moves us to ask these questions for what they mean now. If COINTELPRO pioneered state intelligence-gathering programs to date,21 then Barnette’s material methods take on ever contemporary meanings. Her application recalls a popular 1960s visual tactic: wheat-pasting, whereby political posters were glued in thick, repeated sequence on public walls. Here, spray paint, often associated with the 1980s urban aesthetic practice of graffiti, another method of visual intervention in public, is layered on top of this wheat-pasted wall. Barnette stages historical collision, where reproductions of 1960s and ’70s photocopy ink is met with spray, a material associated with Sadie’s generation. The conditions of visibility here are where history’s present becomes activated—the relevance of COINTELPRO’s legacy is functionally accented by an aesthetics generationally out of its reach. Sadie Barnette speaks here to the public function of seeing itself: radical visibility after COINTELPRO is always wrapped up in the nexus of policing, surveillance, criminalization, and vulnerability to state violence. Rodney Barnette’s redacted FBI files make that reality certain, and Sadie Barnette’s enhanced obfuscation make that reality felt.
This is best seen in Barnette’s use of surface, as perfected in her shiny pink glitter wall, which stands adjacent to the document-laden wall. This wallpaper glows when the light catches it, making for a shine that radiates off the wall and mobilizes what art historian Krista Thompson has so brilliantly theorized as “shine”: a black diasporic aesthetic strategy in which “the visual production of light reflecting off polished surfaces” emphasizes the “materiality and haptic quality of objects.”22 The shine invites the viewer to come close. Once close, we are met with Barnette’s Untitled (Dad’s Mug shot) (2016). Mounted in a frame far too large for what it carries sits another pencil drawing, this time a recreation of Rodney Barnette’s mugshot as captured within his file. In an interview with her father, Sadie tells him:
I also did a drawing of your mug shot. It’s the only image in the FBI file and had been photocopied so many times that it had this poster-like quality to it. I wanted to draw it in pencil to really spend time and love laboring over it. Instead of the FBI investigating you, now I am creating a portrait of you using this material.23
The drawing’s chiaroscuro is strikingly perfect as it embodies the effects of repeated photocopied reproduction, as well as the racialized politics of black and white. Barnette attends to the material effects of the copy as she herself reproduces the stark contrast of black and white, manifesting an image not of clarity but of obscurity, not of resemblance but of difference, not of distance but of intimacy.
This formal and material manifestation alerts us to the racial logics of the colors white and black, which have been adhered to subjects as signifiers of one’s proximity to state violence and its attendant white supremacist logics. Barnette calls attention to the violences of anti-black racism through her recreation of her father’s highly contrasted mugshot—there is no gray area, only the spaces between black and white. This image eerily reminds us of the manifest impacts of state violence at the affective ties that emerge from those who inherit these legacies. Hers is a labor of love aimed to rematerialize a mugshot into a portrait, a state-rendered image of criminalization into an intimate image of affection.24
Barnette’s aesthetic materialism transforms an image meant to signal her father’s (and by extension, the Movement’s) criminalization into one of adornment, even celebration, thus making claims towards an intimacy that remains.25 Barnette does this at the level of touch, as she spends time with the drawing, rendering her father’s face with her own hand. Hers is a black radical aesthetic that demonstrates how these files tarry between public or private, wallpaper or wheat-paste, family album or FBI file, a cherished photograph or police mugshot. She works to trouble how knowledge is constituted through a rematerialization of intimate space, portraiture, and archives in black radical aesthetic practices. Barnette forces us to think about the intimate proximity between visibility, policing, and surveillance in the wake of COINTELPRO. In so doing, she traces her lineage, the evidence of her corporeality, through the lines and marks of ink on the page, through an image of her father flattened by protocol and the state’s war on black radicals, until she arrives at an image of him that is only made possible by her touch, her aesthetic material. This is her life matter—her aesthetic materialization of black radical history’s present.