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'All Power to the People' explores the often misunderstood history of the Black Panther movement

'All Power to the People' explores the often misunderstood history of the Black Panther movement
The exhibition "All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50" includes Hank Willis Thomas' "We the People," 2015, a quilt made of decommissioned prison uniforms. (Hank Willis Thomas / Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.)

When the Oakland Museum of California decided three years ago to create an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party and its significance to black people,  the museum didn’t know exactly how the discussion of race and gender inequality would reverberate in 2016.

“It’s fascinating to observe the parallels in terms of themes and issues that were true 50 years ago and are relevant today,” said René de Guzman, curator of “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50.” The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 12, explores the often misunderstood history of the controversial and revolutionary party.

"The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin," 2008, an archival pigment print by Carrie Mae Weems, provides a contemporary view of the Black Panther Party.
"The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin," 2008, an archival pigment print by Carrie Mae Weems, provides a contemporary view of the Black Panther Party. (Carrie Mae Weems / Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

More than 200 objects on view look at aspects of the Black Panthers that are less known, such as the Free Breakfast for School Children Program as well as the Ten Point Program of principals and political demands written by co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Their original purpose of protecting residents from police brutality closely aligns with the Black Lives Matters movement of today.

But also on view are rare artifacts and art such as a clenched fist  made of wood. The show provides a contemporary view of the party with works by modern-day artists Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Mark Teemer and Trevor Paglen, whose emphasis is on mass surveillance.

Thomas’ maze-like quilt, made of decommissioned orange and white prison uniforms, hides the message “We the People.”

In a still from Black Righteous Space, a 2012 multimedia work by Hank Willis Thomas, the Confederate flag is recast using colors associated with the Pan-African flag.
In a still from Black Righteous Space, a 2012 multimedia work by Hank Willis Thomas, the Confederate flag is recast using colors associated with the Pan-African flag. (Hank Willis Thomas / Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

A confiscated Panther rifle was repurposed into folk art with imagery of the group by Teemer, a former member and a Vietnam combat illustrator.

Paglen’s landscape photo of a white streak against a night sky draws similarities to high-tech government intelligence “black sites,” Internet eavesdropping facilities and the secret FBI counterintelligence program COINTELPRO initiated by Director J. Edgar Hoover.

“We included the photograph because it evokes ideas around state repression and how government handles dissent,” De Guzman said. “The intention of the FBI program was to discredit the movement, a key part of the Panthers’ story that led to the end of the party.”

"Tree Huggers," circa 2007, by David Huffman is among the works in the exhibit "All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50."
"Tree Huggers," circa 2007, by David Huffman is among the works in the exhibit "All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50." (Collection of the Oakland Museum of California)

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