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How 500 Pages of FBI Surveillance Documents Became Art

The FBI kept extensive files on Sadie Barnette’s ex-Black Panther father, so she turned the declassified documents into art.

Founded more than 50 years ago, the now-dissolved Black Panther Party was once deemed “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States” by the FBI. As is often the case with revolutionary groups, this was but a limited and biased understanding of an organization primarily concerned with community betterment in light of relentless oppression. Artist Sadie Barnette reframes the legacy of the Black Panthers in Do Not Destroy, a highly-personal exhibition at Baxter Street New York, that reinterprets declassified FBI documents on her father, an ex-Black Panther, through Barnette’s own artistic sensibilities.

Rodney Barnette, the artist’s father, founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968 after returning from the Vietnam War a changed man. Photos of her father before and after the war depict a man who became disillusioned by his own country after leaving a brutal foreign war, only to encounter a different, police-on-black war within his own community.

Untitled (Dad, 1968), Sadie Barnette, 2016

Untitled, Sadie Barnette, 2016

Standing up for the Compton community came at a price. Labeled as an ADEX 1 Category individual, meaning he could be legally detained without due process, and viciously monitored by the FBI, Barnette’s file with the Bureau eventually encompassed 500 pages of surveillance. Decades later, Rodney Barnette filed a request to read his FBI file through the Freedom of Information Act. Just last year, after a four year back-and-forth with the Bureau, he finally received the coveted pages detailing years of individual scrutiny funded by the US government.

My Father’s FBI File, Project II (detail), Sadie Barnette, 2017

“My emotions were very mixed while going through them,” Sadie Barnette tells The Creators Project. “In a way, it was so fascinating reading about all of this history of my dad and our family. But it was also very scary to know that you are reading this information because people followed my dad and interrogated our family, simply because he was viewed as an extremist through his community organizing with the Black Panthers.”

Sadie Barnette

For Do Not Destroy, the second iteration of Barnette’s work incorporating her father’s FBI files, the artist has tampered with and defaced 110 pages from the files with pink paint, glitter, and rhinestones. This artistic act attempts to both reclaim this detailed account of her father’s life from federal institutions and also looks to portray the intricacies of a father-daughter relationship as a metaphor for how personal life can reflect political life.

My Father’s FBI File, Project II (detail), Sadie Barnette, 2017

“Looking at things through the lens of the familial or the personal has always been something important in my work,” explains Barnette. “In this example, there is a sense of a ‘daddy’s girl’ looking to her father and hero, a decorated Vietnam veteran and a community organizer. I think my family history is African-American history, which in turn is American history.”

My Father’s FBI File, Project II (detail), Sadie Barnette, 2017

“Using a personal narrative in my work allows you to view my father more as an individual and being a part of a family, as opposed to being an icon or a caricature or a two-dimensional person, which is definitely what you get from the FBI report,” the artist adds. “There is no looking at the hopes and dreams of this person, or what made them passionate about trying to change the world and trying to uplift their community in these documents. But when the personal narrative goes in there, I think you learn more about who the person was on an individual level.”

My Father’s FBI File, Project II (detail), Sadie Barnette, 2017

The next chapter in Barnette’s exploration of her father’s FBI files will take place in the spring at UC Davis’ Manetti Shrem Museum, marking the artist’s first solo institutional exhibition. For now, you can view Do Not Destroy at Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York until February 18. More of Sadie Barnette’s work can be viewed here.

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