African American mixed-media artist Sadie Barnette is known for labor-intensive prints, photographs, collages, and installations to illuminate her own family history – most especially the injustice done to her father during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Using a range of materials from Polaroids to graphite to glitter to spray paint, Barnette isolates individuals and events, sometimes removing all context to create remembrances of ordinary life.
Barnette received her B.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts in 2006 and an M.F. A. in Visual Art from University of California, San Diego in 2012. In 2018, she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture
Her projects often incorporated the 500-page FBI dossier on her father, Rodney Barnette, who was surveilled by the FBI in the late 1960s because of his involvement with the Black Panthers. In 1968, her father founded the ninth office of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles in Compton. The following year, he was fired from his job at the U.S. Postal Service. Her father was terrorized, surveilled, intimidated, and almost killed by the FBI. In 2011, her family filed an F.O.I.A. (Freedom of Information Act) request and five years later received the FBI’s 500-page dossier on her father and her family. “The folder is at once chilling, emotional, disturbing and violent.”
Barnette knows that her family is so lucky that her father is still alive today. She thought, “How can I reclaim this material? How can I highlight my father and our family history?” One way was her 2021 “FBI Drawings: Unknown,” a diptych done in powdered graphite and colored pencil, appropriated from two pages of the 500-page surveillance file sent to her family. One page was almost entirely black and gave the basic description of her father as a Black activist. The second page showed her father holding an identification number in lockdown. She did this work during the Covid pandemic by drawing with graphite. Drawing for her became meditative, keeping her “from spiraling off the face of the earth.”
Her “Legacy & Legend” exhibition, shown earlier at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College and Pitzer College Art Galleries, was a series of large, 60-by-48 inch drawings that re-created the above-mentioned FBI document which was filled with untruths. With this exhibition she reclaimed her father’s narrative and her family’s history.
Concerning her process of making works by graphite, Barnette first designs her ideas on a computer. She then creates stencils, lays them down, and uses powder and graphite in a painterly process that forces the design into the paper. She then peels up the central and gets white negative spaces. She inverts the white as black and has said that there is something ghostly about seeing the negative.
Another way of honoring her father was Barnette’s 2019 installation, the “New England Creek Saloon,” which reimagined her father’s bar – the first back-owned gay bar in San Francisco. Her father opened this saloon in 1990 to serve a multiracial gay community which hosted fundraisers for activist groups and honored Black people and their holidays. In Barnette’s installation viewers can take a seat at the bar and engage with documentation, such as clippings from the local newspaper or photos of past patrons and her father.
Barnette was awarded a residency to the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2015 and won an Art Matters Grant in 2016. In 2017, she received a San Francisco Artadia Award.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the California African American Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Miami’s Perez Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and the Guggenheim.