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The Black Panther Party Honored in Downtown Los Angeles Art Exhibit

Gabi Duncan |
March 14, 2014 | 4:46 a.m. PDT

Executive Producer

Artists and Panthers at the art exhibit's opening at Art Share L.A. (Courtesy of RISE Arts Collective).
Artists and Panthers at the art exhibit's opening at Art Share L.A. (Courtesy of RISE Arts Collective).
The Black Panther Party may not exist anymore, but their historical influence is still felt to this day. In tribute to the iconic civil rights group, a new art exhibit is paying homage with a five-city tour called “RISE: Love. Revolution. The Black Panther Party.” The show, which opened downtown at Art Share L.A. on Feb 21, features almost 40 artists from across Southern California who couldn’t pass up the chance to share their respect and gratitude for the Panthers’ years of service to their communities.

“They’ve always been my heroes, and there’s a lot of intrigue, and I think misrepresentation surrounding the Panthers and Panther history,” said co-curator and artist Rosalind McGary. “It was a brilliant opportunity to bring to the forefront the truth about the Panther party and the work that they’ve done. They’ve made strides in civil rights for all people.”

The revolutionary Black Panther Party organization was active in the United States from the mid-60’s to the late 80’s. Founded in Oakland, Calif. by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers were highly influential during the Black Power Movement. However, the government saw them as a threat and used surveillance, police harassment and other tactics to eventually dismantle the group. Violence escalated over the years and many Panthers were murdered for their work and beliefs. 

“A lot of people didn’t understand what they were about,” said McGary. “They were described as a militant group hell-bent on killing white people and that was not the case. These were people who were very aware of what was going on politically. They created about 23 social programs. Most people know about the breakfast program the Panthers started to serve children in the mornings. They also had a clothing program, a canned food program, free clinics, the list goes on.”

The idea for the art exhibit originally began as a fundraiser to aid struggling members of The Black Panther Party. However, it progressively grew into a larger event.

“Everyone who was asked leapt to be involved, from the fine artists that are in the show to the people who helped grow it behind-the-scenes,” said McGary.

Richard Duardo's piece with JFK quote (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
Richard Duardo's piece with JFK quote (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
Initially, the curators generously offered to donate 100 percent of the proceeds to the organization. However, the Panthers couldn’t accept that gracious proposal and insisted that the artists still get paid what they deserved. So, the curators, the gallery and the Panthers reached a compromise that everyone could be happy with.

“50 percent goes to the artist, 25 percent goes to the Panther party with focus on political prisoners, their families and Panthers in dire need, and 25 percent goes to the art space,” said McGary. “It’s similar to the Panther template and the way they did things back in the day.”

“It’s a historical show,” said lead curator Lester Grant. “It’s one of a kind, it’s the first of its kind and it’s the first one of a five-city situation.”

Grant expressed his excitement to tackle such a unique and unprecedented affair. 

“I was most excited about meeting the Panthers and doing an event that was different,” he said. “It’s touched my heart in a lot of ways just to see them smiling and being proud of how they’re being represented. They’re finally being treated like the heroes and superstars that they are.”

It was extremely important to the curators for the show to truly embody everything that the Panthers stand for. 

“My biggest concern was that the show be about what they were really about, which was community, empowerment and inclusion,” said Grant. “We have a wide variety of artists that gave us their own version of the Panthers’ legacy, and we have some pieces with some major stories behind them.”

Rosalind McGary's piece on Henrietta Lacks (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
Rosalind McGary's piece on Henrietta Lacks (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
McGary herself created one of the most powerful pieces in the exhibit titled “Made Whole: the Realization of Henrietta Lacks.”

“My piece is about reparation, compensation and the disconnect that often happens when it comes to people of color in this country,” she described. “When Henrietta Lacks died of cancer, her tissue was taken without her knowledge and her family was never compensated for the use of her cells. Billions and billions of her cells have been taken and used since she passed away.”

Other notable works include a silk screen by Richard Duardo of an American flag with a John F. Kennedy quote emblazoned on top. It reads, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

“His first impulse was to give us a Malcolm X screen because the Panthers described themselves as ‘sons of Malcolm’,” said McGary. “But we wanted the JFK screen because it was more illuminating. You wouldn’t expect JFK to have said something like that, or I didn’t anyway.”

Shepard Fairey, who according to Grant is considered to be the modern-day Andy Warhol, also contributed a powerful original piece of Panthers’ founder Bobby Seale for the exhibit. 

With the show ending in Los Angeles on March 21, McGary expressed her satisfaction with its success. 

“Our mission was to empower artists to create shows centered around a dynamic theme, to empower the space where we hold the show, to involve members of the community and bring together people who may not necessarily find themselves in the same places at the same time,” said McGary. “That’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of doing this.”

However, when dealing with a passionate cause it is nearly impossible not to want to strive for more. 

Shepard Fairey's piece on Black Panther founder Bobby Seale (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
Shepard Fairey's piece on Black Panther founder Bobby Seale (Gabi Duncan/Neon Tommy).
“For the most part, I think we need to sell more. This show should be sold out,” said Grant. “Not just because they are stunning pieces but also because it’s a fundraiser to represent a group of people who have been treated so badly and so many of us have benefitted from them. It’s important that we sell as much as possible because it sends a message that we can do more.”

The show will travel to Oakland in the fall before continuing to New York, Chicago and London afterward. The new cities will welcome fresh artwork from innovative artists. It’s inevitable that each city will showcase dynamic and differing views of the Panthers and their historical significance.

“We’re already talking to people about Oakland in the fall,” said Grant. “It’s going to be a whole different kind of show because there is a major community of Black Panthers there and a lot of artists are heavily influenced by them.”

“Oakland is a very artistic place because of the Freedom Movement and the Civil Right Movement,” said McGary. “Just think about how much Oakland and San Francisco are still affected by those things today. It will be a colorful and engaging show there, just like it was here.”

Before wrapping up in L.A., the exhibit will host a panel discussion on March 19 featuring the artists and Panthers discussing the process of art and how it helps a revolution through inspiration and motivation. They will also conclude the exhibit with a closing reception and documentary screening of interviews with the artists on March 21.

If the audience takes away anything from their experience at the exhibit, Grant hopes that it is a deeper understanding of the Black Panther Party’s purpose.

“The Panthers were all about empowerment and community,” he said. “They just wanted everything to be inclusive because that’s what they symbolize. We learn history through art, so it’s important that people come in and learn that message.”

Reach Executive Producer Gabi Duncan here. Follow her on Twitter.



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