This exhibition gives the Rutgers community and visual arts enthusiasts much to look forward to. Thursday’s event was the first of many and is a part of the year-long programming leading up to the exhibition opening, which was originally set for September 2020 but postponed due to the current pandemic.
This “Zimmerli at Home” Zoom webinar was centered around an engaging conservation on Angela Davis's enduring cultural presence between the book’s authors: Gerry Beegan, Nicole Fleetwood, Donna Gustafson and Lisbet Tellefsen.
The images which make up Tellefsen’s comprehensive archive, which the exhibition is born out of, mark 50 years since Davis’s arrest by the FBI in October 1970.
The cover of the book — a famous and patriotically colored 1972 portrait of Davis by Cuban artist Félix Beltrán, titled “Libertad Para Angela Davis” — symbolizes the worldwide reach of Davis’s political activism.
Her revolutionary impact in the fields of intersectional feminism, global inequity, racial capitalism and prison abolition transcended American borders. Her voice was heard in various corners of the world by artists and activists alike: from Havana and Oakland to New York, Paris and London.
Gustafson, the Zimmerli Art Museum's interim director and curator of American Art, introduced her colleagues and began the discussion of Davis’s relationship to artistic production, by asking the other panelists to talk about what they thought the most interesting works in the exhibition were.
Tellefsen’s selections stemmed from the cover and spread of Life magazine under the pejorative headline of “The Making of a Fugitive” in Sept. 1970. Artists like Shepard Fairey created various iterations of the images in Life magazine and paid tribute to Davis’s iconographic qualities.
Beegan, design historian and associate professor in the Department of Art and Design, who is interested in the materiality of the printed image, talked about images by the London Angela Davis Defence Committee and Davis’s impact on American intellectual life and on Black youth as a young college professor at the time.
A striking image that Beegan chose was from 1971 and is depicted in Davis’s first book “If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance” clenched in a fist, emphasizing that knowledge is power. Notably, Beegan’s Zoom background was a red, black and green 1971 Faith Ringgold political poster, titled “Women Free Angela.”
Fleetwood, a professor in the Department of American Studies and Art History and curator of the exhibition “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art PS1, selected vibrantly colored pieces that were reminiscent of pop art traditions of the 60s and 70s.
The first was a vibrant 1972 interpretation of the Life magazine image of Davis speaking into a microphone by Wadsworth Jarrell, with Davis’s words from the focal point of her mouth. The title of the painting, “Revolutionary (Angela Davis),” shows us that Jarell sees Davis as a powerful catalyst of positive change, not a dangerous fugitive.
Professor Fleetwood’s second selection, Elizabeth Catlett’s six-rainbow rendering of Davis in “Angela Libre” (1972), reiterates Davis’s omnipotence in pop culture as a radical Black woman in a serial portrait.
The discussion then moved toward why Davis and her messages as an activist have persisted in the public consciousness of America. The panelists discussed Davis as not only a public figure but also as a real human being and role model, who believed in fighting for a cause much bigger than herself.
She is a “larger-than-life” woman, Tellefsen said. People wanted to reproduce images of her, many of which are included in the Zimmerli Art Museum’s show, in order to live up to her.
Being one of the first, most visible and vocal Black women in predominantly white mainstream culture, Davis epitomized a broader resistance.
As a young woman sporting natural hair, Davis’ Afro hairstyle was inherently political and aligned with the objectives of the Black is Beautiful movement. Davis’s political style exemplified a “Leftist self-presentation against the white supremacist state repression” she faced, Fleetwood said.
Gustafson described this exhibition as perfect for a university art museum, as it represents the notion of “history as a living document” that is continually being written from a multitude of perspectives.
When the exhibition opens to the public next year, students and visitors will be able to flip through actual archives in designated reading spaces and take in complex historical narratives for themselves.
Apart from artworks inspired by Davis that were created in the 70s to inspire her liberation, the exhibition will also feature contemporary artists and installations by Sadie Barnette, Steffani Jemison and Justin Hicks, that visitors can engage with when the Zimmerli Art Museum opens.
Gustafson stressed that a contemporary dimension was important to add to this exhibition as it engages with Davis’s cause at a different, new level that makes her history less linear.
This exhibition serves the current cultural moment we are living through well, characterized by a racial reckoning in America and the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. Davis’s work as an activist, philosopher and educator represents a wider-reaching, generational struggle of Black activists.
When it came to what students could take away from this exhibition, Beegan reiterated that students will be able to follow and discover Tellefsen’s archive themselves and hoped that students will take initiatives to apply what they learn from the exhibition in their education and beyond. The exhibition covers much more than just the history of Davis and is an active educational experience.
“Angela Davis — Seize The Time” will be on view in the Voorhees Galleries of the Zimmerli Art Museum from Sept. 1, 2021, to Dec. 30, 2021.