A new exhibition is celebrating the activist, abolitionist, and feminist, and exploring how she utilised her image as a tool in the fight for freedom.

A new exhibition is celebrating the activist, abolitionist, and feminist, and exploring how she utilised her image as a tool in the fight for freedom.

On August 7, 1970, 17-year-old high school student Jonathan Jackson brought three guns into the trial of San Quentin inmate James McClain. Inside the courtroom, Jackson drew a gun, then joined Black Panther Party members Ruchell Magee and William A. Christmas in taking the judge, Deputy D.A., and three jurors hostage. 

While attempting to flee the Marin County Hall of Justice in a van, the police opened fire on the group, setting off a shoot out that left McClain, Jackson, Christmas, and Judge Harold Haley dead. After discovering that Angela Davis, then assistant professor in the philosophy department of UCLA, had purchased the guns on 5 August, the state issued a warrant for her arrest on charges of aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder. 

Libertad Para Angela Davis, Félix Beltrán, 1971

Davis went on the run, becoming the third woman in history to make the FBI’s ‘Ten Most Wanted’ list. She was captured on 13 October and incarcerated for 16 months awaiting trial, becoming one of the world’s most revered political prisoners with more than 250 local organisations around the globe working to free her from jail. On 4 June, 1972, an all-white jury found Davis not guilty of all charges. 

Half a century later, Davis remains one of the foremost activists at the forefront of the intersections of class, race, and gender. In celebration of her impact, Donna Gustafson and Gerry Beegan have curated Angela Davis – Seize the Time, a new exhibition and book that features archival materials including magazines, press photography, court sketches, videos, music, writings, and correspondence as well as artwork by Faith Ringgold, Elizabeth Catlett, Stephen Shames, and Sadie Barnett. 

As an activist, abolitionist, and feminist fighting against systems of oppression, Davis was one of the few women to achieve visibility at a time when the Black Power Movement was dominated by the image of men. Repurposing her image from white media, supporters printed it on posters, t-shirts, pins, and placards they carried in demonstrations around the world. 

Angela, Mondo Mogo-wa-Ita wa Nairobi, 1972

Angela Libre, Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915–2012), 1972

“It was a David and Goliath story,” say Gustafson and Beegan. “Her self-presentation at the trial added to the image of heroic resistance against the State. The many now-anonymous individuals and groups who made this material saw how very important it was to keep Angela’ in the public eye the entire time she was locked away in prison.” 

In a video made for Seize the Time, Davis speaks about using her image as a tool in the fight for freedom. “She is also very aware of the traps of bourgeois individualism and what she calls ‘secular sainthood’ in focusing on one hero, when sees herself as one of many in the struggle. Davis insisted on changing the focus from ‘Free Angela’ to ‘Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.’”

As Davis points out, artists are essential to social change because they visualise what is possible, while reminding us that what is accepted as normal is a construction. Taking the lead from Davis, the curators use Seize the Time to remind us that “in order to work for a better future, you have to be able to imagine it”.

Seale At Rally For Angela, AP Wirephoto, 1971

Wanted by the FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, August 19, 1970

Women Free Angela, by Faith Ringgold, 1971

Intercommunal Day of Solidarity, Emory Douglas (American, born 1943), March 5, 1971

Boy wears a tee shirt with a portrait of Angela Davis at Free Angela rally in DeFremery Park in West Oakland, by Stephen Shames, 1972

Partially Buried Triptych (1970 at Large), by Renée Green, 1996

Angela Davis – Seize the Timeis on view at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, through June 15, 2022. It will be on view at Oakland Museum of California from October 8, 2022 – June 11, 2023.

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