Sadie Barnette’s art studio is right on the edge of West Oakland, in the surreal part that feels like two different worlds stitched together — crumbling Victorians adjacent to gleaming condominiums. When I visit her, massive complexes sprout up in the open lots surrounding the neighborhood’s historic 16th Street train station, gloriously covered in the monikers of Oakland’s best graffiti writers and surrounded by barbed wire to keep new ones out.
Barnette grew up in North Oakland -- “Now, people would call it ‘Temescal’” -- but it feels fitting that when she returns from presenting shows in New York City and Los Angeles the mixed-media artist spends much of her time in this oddly evolving neighborhood with so much latent history waiting to be recalled. Her work, which often takes the forms of photography and found objects, plays with a multi-dimensional mix of themes — but perhaps the most prominent among them is memory.
Barnette could easily be called the Bay Area’s breakout art star of 2016. After completing a year-long residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem in in 2015, she presented a solo show at L.A.'s Charlie James Gallery in early 2016, followed by another solo at San Francisco's Jenkins-Johnson Gallery in September.
In October, Barnette -- whose father, Rodney Barnette, founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party in the '60s -- took over a wall in the Oakland Museum of California’s All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50 to present an installation derived from the 500-page file that the FBI kept on her dad's activity.
While her work was still on view at OMCA, Barnette opened yet another solo show at Baxter Street gallery in New York City entitled Do Not Destroy that featured an expanded iteration of her installation in Oakland. The show received coverage from countless publications, appearing in everything from Vogueto Forbes. And, on April 13 of this year, Barnette will present Dear 1968,…, her third iteration of the installation -- this time expanded into her first museum solo show -- at the new Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in Davis.
The story undoubtedly deserves the attention. And Barnette’s work is also a timely reminder that the personal is always political.
Rodney Barnette always had a strong sense that he was being watched, but it wasn’t until he acquired the file through the Freedom of Information Actdecades later that he knew for sure. The FBI had Barnette listed as an extremist. They interviewed his employer, high school teachers, neighbors, siblings and acquaintances. They documented decades of his life with details such as exact times he boarded flights with Angela Davis and exact quotes he uttered in meetings. It’s all in the notes.
Sadie Barnette frames the pinned-up files with touches borne from the lens through which she sees the world. Splotches of pink spray paint act as an unruly highlighter while pink plastic gems adorn other pieces of text. In the Oakland installation, fuchsia iridescent paper covers an entire wall displaying, at its center, a small rendering of her father's mug shot.
For someone who has only seen Barnette’s FBI file pieces, these touches might register simply as femme -- a way of filtering the files through the lens of a young girl. But, in the context of Barnette’s full body of work, those embellishments also reveal dimensions of race, class, chronology and geography.
Inside Barnette’s studio, a copy of Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright sits next to a floral cap bearing the word “Compton” and a sculpture of a spray paint can. On the bookshelf, there’s an old boombox, a copy of Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas’ Question Bridge, and a miniature peacock chair picked up at a thrift store. Among the works on the walls is a signed print by Emory Douglas. Next to that is one of Barnette’s original pieces: A sign that reads “Rodney’s daughter” in the font Cooper Black.
The font is constantly recurring in Barnette’s work -- just one way in which her aesthetic is adamantly populist. She likes it because it’s the font of iron-on letters and the make-your-own banners you can buy for birthday parties. “It’s pedestrian,” she says, “it’s the opposite of me designing a font.” Barnette is drawn to those commonplace adornments that can make anyone feel special. Early on in her career, for instance, she made weavings out of “fat laces” bought at the dollar store.
Wearing a gold name necklace and bright pink lipstick, Barnette flips through her first zine, made in 2012, called Plus One. Among the pages: A scan-like photograph of a “Black Ice” car freshener; a found advertisement featuring long acrylic nails accented with pink hearts; a photograph of the Martin Luther King Jr. Way street sign in front of a gradient made with black spray paint; and a full page of that recurring holographic glitter paper that Barnette has a clear affinity for. Here, it calls to mind the “candy” coating of a large-rimmed Cadillac.
“The whole something-from-nothing, ballin’-on-a-budget aesthetic is super important to me,” she says. “I guess you might see it in the things that have to do with Oakland or my interest in car culture … those aspects of, ‘You might not have a lot, but you’re gonna make it look like a million bucks.’”
There's something telling in the fact that Barnette refers to the 16th Street train station near her studio as "the E-40 station,” alluding to the rapper’s legendary 2009 music video for Bay Area anthem “Tell Me When to Go,” featuring crews of kids in tall tees “going dumb” inside the building’s eroding walls. With her own constant collaging of aesthetic references, Barnette tells an intergenerational story using a visual code grounded in the social rituals of early-aughts Bay Area hip-hop culture.
“That aesthetic serves as a platform for our generation to have this conversation,” says Barnette. “Who is the person that is looking back at this family history? It’s the same girl that changes her shoe laces every day and is wearing bamboo earrings and is doing her nails and finding the political nature of representing yourself that way. It’s meaningful. They matter, those small culture-making sartorial decisions.”
By employing such a visual code, Barnette’s work also claims space in a fine art world that often shuts its gates to artists working in that rich realm of creative resourcefulness. And, in effect, it excludes the people who are typically privileged in "fine art" spaces by calling upon an art historical canon that’s different than the one they’re used to.
“As an artist of color, you’re always aware that some of your references are going to be missed, and I sort of think of that as a fun game,” Barnette says. “There’s certain things that I won’t explain, I’ll just let them sit there, and if some people pick up on them then it’s great -- and if not, sometimes it’s good to know that you don’t get everything.”