"Whether working in photography, drawing, collage, book-making or large-scale installations, I turn my attention toward unexpected locations of identity construction, family histories, celebration and excess. I create visual compositions that engage a hybrid aesthetic of minimalism and density, using text, glitter and found objects to demonstrate the necessity for poetry and abstraction in urban life and the power of the personal as political."
EIC Taylor Yates had the privilege of sitting with Sadie at Eva Jean's in Brooklyn for an interview over drinks and dinner, which is transcribed below.
what have you been working on recently?
My current project is about my father’s activism in the Black Panther Party. He had just come back from the Vietnam war, after being drafted at the age of 21, and he was outraged that the Black community was being treated by the police as if they were the enemy in a war going on here. So he got involved with the Black Panthers and co-founded the Compton chapter of the party in 1968. Recently, through the Freedom of Information Act and four years of back-and-forth with the FBI, my family obtained over 500 pages of FBI documents detailing surveillance of my father. My work is using the FBI files as a case study of the intense surveillance and infiltration the government used to dismantle the Party. They are an amazing historical document that shows the lengths the COINTELPRO program went to — how many states they visited to talk to my dad’s childhood neighbors, teachers, co-workers; how many informants fed them false information; how they got him fired from his job at the post office; how they watched him at airports and in meetings.
This work will debut at the Oakland Museum of California, which is doing a show in October to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. The Panthers are from Oakland, I’m from Oakland, so I’m happy to be part of that conversation, and for my dad to be a part of that conversation. The show will include both contemporary art and historical artifacts from the museum’s collection.
a lot of your work stems from your family life and is heavily influenced by your family and upbringing. how does your family influence you? how did they support you as you were developing into an artist?
I think my family has always been a big part of the work—one, because I love my family, but also because I’m really interested in the place where the personal and the political come together, both in the sense of personal experience, how you represent yourself, your lifestyle, your choices, and also when your family history is political history is United States history. Interviewing my dad about all of the different things he’s worked on in his life is like reading history books—or, often, not-written history books. Focusing on my family allows me to talk about political things and also everyday black life and also the aesthetics of California.
how old were you or at what point in your life did you begin to realize art was a channel for you to express yourself? how has your work changed over the years?
I guess I’ve always been making art in different ways – my mom was always supplying me with craft supplies and letting me make a mess on the kitchen table. I did a lot of dance and spoken word in high school through an organization called Destiny Art Center. I think that’s where I realized that I had a lot to say. Part of their mission was telling youth in Oakland, “Trust your voice. You have something to say. You have thoughts about the world and the way it should be.” After facing some challenges with the traditional high school system (I sort of stopped going), I went to an independent studies program through Berkeley High, where I would meet with my teacher once a week, get my work, and go do it on my own. There was a tiny darkroom on campus, and the photography teacher would be in there practicing his banjo and I would print photographs eight hours a day. I discovered a passion for photography, and consequently, a reason to graduate and go on to college. I applied to CalArts with this black and white portfolio and this probably very sassy Marxist essay and got in, and it was there that I was made aware of contemporary art and the art world and ways that I could interact with it.
you are a photographer but you're also a multimedia artist. can you talk about how you use different mediums? when do you prefer one over the other?
I think I started with photography as a way of looking at things and recording ideas, but there were times when the actual photograph became more of a sketch, or behind the scenes, for the final piece, which might be a drawing or a collage or a book or a screenprint. Sometimes the photograph needs one more layer of translation. I like utilizing the fundamentals of each medium to their full advantage. Sometimes using the mass-production potential of screen-printing is inherent to the idea, and sometimes the slow process of drawing adds a layer of texture or meaning.
what are the things you’ll be putting together once you’re back in Oakland?
Before the Oakland Museum show, I’ll be having a solo show in San Francisco at Karen Jenkins-Johnson Gallery (opening September 15th). Charlie James Gallery is presenting a solo booth of my work at Chicago EXPO, which I’m excited to check out for the first time.
I’ll be in a group show at Diane Rosenstein Gallery in Los Angeles (opening October 21st).
you’ve done a number of residencies, most recently at the Studio Museum in Harlem. how does that affect your work production? where else do you see yourself exploring?
One of the good things about residencies is that sometimes you find out more about where you’re from by being somewhere else. When I was in New York, I recognized the specificity of the California landscape where I come from. When I was on the beach in Florida at the Hermitage residency, I played with inserting urban aesthetics into the tropical environment. Being at the Studio Museum was also humbling because of its history and because I loved my fellow artists-in-residence so much.
I’d definitely like to do some international things. I’d love to be in Paris, Tokyo, Barcelona.
are you excited to be heading home to Oakland? what is the art scene like there and what was it like when you were growing up?
I have always felt that there is an amazing amount of culture — political activism and music and dance and trendsetting — that comes out of this tiny place. Oakland has a very strong identity and if you’re from Oakland that’s a big part of who you are. Gentrification is happening at an exponential rate in Oakland, and really changing the neighborhood that I grew up in and that my mom still lives in. I feel like it’s an important time to be in my town before it’s unrecognizable.
Sadie Barnette is from Oakland, California. She received her BFA from CalArts and her Masters in Visual Arts from the University of California, San Diego. Barnette recently completed a year as Artist-in-Residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem. She has shown her work in venues including Charlie James Gallery, The Mistake Room, Self Help Graphics, and Papillion in Los Angeles; Ever Gold Projects in San Francisco; Studio Museum in Harlem; and Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa. Commissions for public works include projects for UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College and for New York’s WNYC public radio. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, SFAQ (San Francisco Arts Quarterly), The Los Angeles Times, and online at Artnet News, The Huffington Post, and Art Forum.