How The Daughter Of A Black Panther Is Making Art Out Of Her Father’s Legacy


Sadie Barnette outlines her relationship with her father, art, and blackness

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.

When did art come into the picture for you? A lot of artists will say that they’ve always liked drawing since they were kids, but was it something that you grew into early on or were you older and fell into it?
The first time that I realized that I had things to say and had a creative outlet was with this organization called Destiny Arts Center in Oakland. It’s dance and arts, and they talk about it as a violence prevention thing through the arts in Oakland.
To be honest, I felt like [my high school was] a prison pipeline and that the school wasn’t serving people as individuals. There was a lot of tracking, it was hugely underfunded and there was racism within the school and criminalizing of students. So I checked out of high school and the only thing that saved me was photography. I went on an independent study program—and probably gave my mom a panic attack from dropping out of high school—but there was a dark room at that campus and I was able to print photographs all day and that was basically what I did. Everybody was applying to college and I was like, 'Well, I guess I can apply to art school. There’s no way that I can go to the UC system.' So I applied to CalArts and that was the one place I applied to and I got in and it just totally changed my life. That was where I really found out about the art world and contemporary art and that you can be a multimedia artist and that was really when I committed to doing this.
Why did you decide to get your MFA? What was the value of that experience for you?
I guess especially being someone who struggled in school, and then after graduating from high school I didn’t even have the credits to go to a UC system... but then after I went to art school I ended up doing my MFA at a UC and that felt very much like a victory to me. Even if you don’t learn or succeed in the traditional ways, I still made a path to get two degrees which I’m sure many of my high school teachers would be very surprised to learn.
"I think just continuing my education, continuing to dialogue and having a group of genuine, dedicated students who I was on this journey with was really invaluable. The people whose opinion that I hold the highest about my work are fellow cohorts from when I was at UC San Diego.