In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.
You could say that Sadie Barnette was destined for work that requires action. The 32-year-old visual artist is the daughter of parents who have dedicated their lives to workers. Her father, Rodney, was a union representative for nurses while her mother was a labor commissioner for their home state of California.
"Labor work is their way to still engage in activism and service while also having stable jobs and raising a child," she says. "It was always a part of my table conversations, thinking about how things affect people in a larger context. Yourself and your job and what it’s doing for you, and always have a systemic analysis of the things that are affecting our community that are part of a larger system of oppression that needs to be addressed."
After serving his country in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Rodney became heavily involved with the Black Panthers chapter in Compton. Later on, he opened the first black gay bar in San Francisco. With a background like that, you might assume that Sadie would automatically follow in her parents' footsteps. She wound up taking the creative route, but Sadie's talent for visual art didn't come to fruition until she was in high school. (Prior to that, she was a dancer, figure skater, writer, and spoken-word performer.)
"I had always hoped that my daughter would grow up to be an adult whose politics were progressive, whose talents were artistic, creative, political. Sadie’s mother and I never forced our views of things on her, though I think she was influenced somewhat by our lives. But she has chosen what she’s done with her own life, through interactions with the community, her peers, her own self-education. And we couldn’t have asked for more, could not be more proud of her," says Rodney. "My own father never imposed religion or politics or even civil rights activism on his children; we thought it was our responsibility to learn and make our own decisions. But he was influential in the sense that he always shared his extensive knowledge of African-American history and encouraged his children to value our heritage and follow our own strengths and interests. Both Sadie’s and my politics have been dictated out of necessity—you do what you have to do."
Sadie's latest solo exhibit Do Not Destroy serves as a reclamation of her father's historic legacy. All of the photocopies on display are official documents created by the FBI that the Barnettes obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Now, spectators can get a small glimpse of the 500-page file through a bedazzled, sparkling, and pink-painted lens. Rodney admits that he never would have expected to be a part of Sadie's visual art—it came as a surprise when he found out how determined she was to make a project out of the surveillance files.
"I could feel that she was outraged when she saw these files, at the degree of harassment of me and our family," he said. "The files themselves led us to understand that there must have been surveillance like this on thousands of innocent people, people who only wanted to correct injustices, people like me, a law-abiding productive citizen and wounded veteran with a Purple Heart. What I am so happy about is the fact that this art is serving the purpose of educating Americans about the government’s willingness and ability to commit constitutional injustices against its own citizens. Although it’s not my personality to seek fame or be in the public eye, it is what it is."
Do Not Destroy is on display at Baxter St. Camera Club of New York until February 18. Watch Sadie give us a tour of the space in the video, above. To learn more about Sadie's personal history, read our interview, below.