‘Angela Davis: Seize the Time’ blazes at OMCA
It’s easy to forget how young Angela Davis was when events catapulted her onto the world stage.
In 1963, at age 19, she was interrogated by the FBI after returning to the U.S. from Helsinki, where she’d attended the Communist Party-sponsored World Festival of Youth and Students.
In 1969, at age 25, she was fired from a teaching position at UCLA, reinstated and then fired again for “use of inflammatory language.”
Then, in 1970, she fled across the country from a massive law-enforcement pursuit, initiated because guns registered in her name had been used in a Marin courtroom shootout in which four people were killed. On Oct. 13, 1970, the FBI caught up with her, and was congratulated by President Richard Nixon on “the capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis.” This lit the flame of the international “Free Angela” movement.
Her image, with its defiantly big Afro, was on posters and protest signs. John Lennon and Yoko One wrote a song about her, “Angela.”
Sister, you’re still a people teacher
Sister, your word reaches far
Sister, there’s a million different races
But we all share the same future in the world
She was 26.
Angela Davis is now 78, and the subject of a major retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), “Angela Davis: Seize the Time.” Lisbet Tellefsen, whose extensive archive of Davis material forms the core of the exhibit, has known Davis for years, but recalls when she first heard of her. “As a child, the village elders who raised me were politically active, such as [educator/civil rights activist] Louise Thompson Patterson, and my grandfather figure, [founder of the National Negro Labor Council] Matt Crawford. I think I was eight or nine when I first heard Angela’s name.”
Later in life, Tellefsen met and became friends with Davis through Tellefsen’s partner, Ericka Huggins, who, like Davis, was a member of the Black Panther Party. She discovered, she said, that there was a “tale of two Angela Davises.” One was a global icon “who was able to register a win with [J. Edgar] Hoover’s thumb on the scale, and get a fair trial in the America of that time,” and the other—“She’s just Angela. She’s sometimes embarrassed [about how people view her].”
The idea for “Seize the Time” was partially inspired by the 2016 success of “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” at OMCA. One of Tellefsen’s archived artifacts was in the exhibit, which became the show with the highest attendance in OMCA history. “There is some nostalgia for that era,” she said, “but there are also young activists hungry for knowledge.”
“Seize the Time” was organized in partnership with the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, where Davis is a former professor. A version of the exhibit opened at the Zimmerli in September 2021, closing in June 2022.
OMCA’s Lisa Silberstein, project coordinator, noted that there are substantial differences between the two exhibits. “We added direct quotes from Angela Davis, as well as a piece, Mark Tribe’s The Liberation of our People: Angela Davis, 1969/2008, in which activist Cat Brooks reenacts Davis’ speech at DeFremery Park in Oakland.” Tellefsen’s 2016 book, Angela Davis: Seize the Time, functions as the exhibit catalog.
Silberstein also emphasized that a 30-minute recorded interview with Davis is at the heart of the exhibit. Tellefsen agreed, stating, “She talks about the continual need to question and challenge herself. She is a unique, powerful example of a life lived on purpose.”
At the Zimmerli show, visitors would have been “struck by the experience of being immersed in an archive,” said Tellefsen. The museum commissioned her to create 10 binders of archival materials that visitors could page through, and she was amazed at how much time young people took to look through them. These binders are also part of the Oakland show, in seated areas where visitors can peruse them.
But Oakland, she said, “is an activist city, and we took the next steps to encourage engagement.” For example, visitors can take their choice of eight different take-away cards prompting them to community action, or viewing local sites of importance.
“Angela Davis: Seize the Time” is organized into sections, described by Silberstein as a “scaffolding” for moving through the exhibit and its more than 130 items. The first section, designed to orient viewers, includes posters, archival newsprints, multimedia collages and photographs highlighting Davis’ life as an educator, activist, involvement in the Black Liberation movement, her Communist Party affiliation and UCLA firing.
The second section focuses on Davis’ arrest and trial, and includes courtroom sketches drawn in 1972 by Warren Lamm. These sketches are some of Tellefsen’s most prized archival pieces, as she was the one contacted when they were discovered in a storage locker after the artist’s death. One sketch shows Davis and her mother embracing after the “not guilty” verdict.
The third section’s focus is the international grassroots campaign to “Free Angela.” Visitors will see historical works inspired by Davis’ imprisonment, and artwork by members of the Black Arts Movement. Tellefsen also has a personal connection to one of the posters, which shows a black-and-white photo. She had been trying for years to track down the photographer, listed as “Walter Bell.”
During the exhibit’s opening weekend, writer/comedian/activist W. Kamau Bell visited the show, saw the poster, and told her, “Back in the day, my dad was a photographer, and he took that photo!” And in fact, Tellefsen said, “The ‘W’ in ‘W. Kamau Bell’ stands for ‘Walter.’”
Buttons, stickers, photographs, postcards, letters and more are also featured in this section. Two subsections look deeper into international support for Davis from communist communities, as well as worldwide efforts to free all political prisoners.
The exhibit’s fourth section’s focus is on mass incarceration, something Davis has devoted decades of her life to fighting. Works by contemporary artists and photographers connect slavery to the prison/industrial system. “Seize the Time” concludes with a section featuring the interview with Davis, conducted by OMCA in 2019, in addition to artworks and installations, that according to OMCA materials, “bring visitors into the past and present [through] historical moments connected to Davis, referencing her image, her writings, and her history.”
An important part of that history is Davis’ commitment to feminism, which includes recognizing the role of women in the Black Panther Party. They survived, when many of the male leaders did not. “The [media] image of the Panthers was Black men with guns,” said Tellefsen, “but two-thirds of the membership were women.”
“Women were the life and soul of the Black Panther Party,” said Silberstein. “Angela is now an elder, who continues to engage in the world around her.”
Because the pervasive attitude of law enforcement toward male Panthers was “kill them or jail them,” said Tellefsen, “women were left to run the organization. And to this day, they are still doing that work. They have committed their lives to it.”
Asked what other exhibit items speak strongly to them, Tellefsen mentioned Oakland contemporary artist Sadie Barnette, whose work “deals with finding memory. Her father, Rodney Barnette, was a Black Panther, and a bodyguard for Angela.” Barnette’s piece is FBI Drawing: Picketing or Parading, 2021, a new installation created for the exhibit. Tellefsen also cited a 1971 Faith Ringgold print, Women Free Angela. Now 92, Ringgold was the first feminist in the Black Arts Movement, she said.
Silberstein listed the trial sketches, “the powerful posters that are beautiful but political,” Barnette’s work and a projection by Carrie Schneider that shows women reading a book by Davis.
What will visitors to “Seize the Time” walk away thinking?
“It will be different for different groups of people,” said Tellefsen. “I hope younger people will see beyond the Afro and the iconic images to the forces that shaped her.”
Perhaps people will ask themselves, “What do you sacrifice? How do you not burn out?” said Silberstein. “Angela Davis is still constantly evolving.”