Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Colony Little reviews Hammer Projects: Kevin Beasley at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
A large black curtain impedes the entrance of Kevin Beasley’s installation at the Hammer Museum. Surveying the theatrics of the curtain’s placement, I was caught between fear and anticipation for what lay behind it. Inside, an empty wicker peacock chair is surrounded by dozens of hovering, colorful cast-resin ghosts. With a spotlight on the chair and an orange-hued window shrouded in cast-iron bars, the scene is imposing. The installation, Chair of the Ministers of Defense (2016), is a staging of one of the Black Panther Party’s most iconic photographs taken in 1967. While the photo is not on view in the gallery, viewers who remember it will likely imagine Huey P. Newton sitting in this chair wearing the infamous tilted black beret and leather jacket and holding a spear and a shotgun in each hand. The installation’s wall text reveals another reference to a monument of divine authority, the Vatican’s gilded Throne of St. Peter (c. 1647–1653) by Bernini. The Panthers’ photo and the Throne of St. Peter are two distinct frames of reference for engaging with Beasley’s work, both evoking strong connotations of power. It was the Panthers’ connection that immediately registered for me.
I thought of PBS’s Independent Lens documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, released in 2016, and I distinctly remember that it exposed how strongly my memories of the Party were tied to the way the media historically portrayed them as violent, rebel revolutionaries. Those same historical accounts largely ignored the societal ills of racial bias, restrictive housing covenants, and police brutality that precipitated the Panthers’ resistance. In the installation, Maasai and Zulu war shields rest on either side of the chair, triggering memories of the duality of the Panthers’ narrative while challenging the viewer’s perspective of the Party. Depending on a person’s vantage point, one might have felt intimidated and fearful, or enlightened, empowered, and protected.
In Beasley’s rendering, Newton’s presence at the center of the movement is a striking one—even in absentia. Here, we are left with the remains of a revolution. This is further punctuated by the faceless apparitions surrounding him, who act as metaphor for the unknown fighters for justice and equality, including the Black women who served as the backbone of the movement through their community work. While these faceless figures serve as stand-ins for the Panthers’ underpublicized community work, there’s also a looming specter of hidden forces that subverted the organization: COINTELPRO, blackmail, and internal strife. As I experienced this work while contemplating the enormity of these external dynamics, the power of the piece was amplified by the silence within the Hammer’s Vault Gallery.
Hammer Projects: Kevin Beasley is on view through April 23, 2017.
Colony Little is a Los Angeles–based writer and founder of Culture Shock Art. As a Bay Area native and long-term Southern California resident, Colony covers emerging contemporary art in California, the aesthetic of urban culture, and is a champion of African American art and media.