SAN FRANCISCO — The historical archive is so often understood and formalized (and institutionalized) as a relic to some pasthood. It is a space, often, where memories and renderings of history compete for primacy and dominance, and a space from where “official histories” — hegemonic histories — emerge. But throughout her body of work, and particularly in two of her most recent projects, Sadie Barnette demonstrates the production of a vernacular archive that not only subverts the standard or traditional archival form, but also gestures towards futurity. Born and raised in Oakland, Barnette describes the themes and aesthetics of her work as “abstraction in service of everyday magic and survival in America.” Her work, to quote Essence Harden, isn’t just a love letter to her hometown, but “a love letter to black possibility, liberation and restoration,” a motif befitting Bay Area cultural production, as Oakland and San Francisco have steadily been gutted of Black life through violent, displacing processes of gentrification.
I first began following Barnette’s work when I read about her project Dear 1968,…, a show about familial history using select documents from the chillingly detailed file amassed by the FBI whilst surveilling her father Rodney Barnette, the founder of the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party. (I saw one of the iterations of this work in Redacted: Art for Human Rights at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 2018.) In what I came to understand was typical Barnette fashion, the name of the show is taken from the inscription of one of her large-scale drawings, “Untitled (Black 1968),” which reads: “Dear 1968, / Love, 1984.” She not only re-imagines what might constitute historical archive, she persistently inserts herself into it, gesturing toward the idea that the archive is an organism as alive as the histories contained within it.
At the reception of her show Phone Home at the Museum of the African Diaspora, I was struck by her connection of technology and Black materiality to glittery, dreamy ephemera. Part of the show consisted of speakers, televisions, computers, headphones, and stereos gilded in holographic car paint. The sparkle ascribed a kind of valuableness, transforming these forcibly obsolete pieces of technology into trophies and West Coast cultural beacons. There were also photo album-like pieces mounted to the wall to accompany these structural installations: a scrapbooked bricolage of childhood souvenirs and photographs of friends, family, and neighbors. Surrounding these images is the brightest pink, signaling the production of a kind of feminized memory that is still authoritative despite its symbolic girlishness (which is always read as an unseriousness) — it’s a decided rejection of the tradition of masculinist Black remembering.
Her newest project, The New Eagle Creek Saloon, is a recreation of the gay bar her father ran in San Francisco from 1990-1993: the first black-owned gay bar in San Francisco. Barnette told me that the installation was a commemoration of her father’s dedication to the people, musing that his creation of a safe space for Black queers in a racially antagonistic San Francisco scene was an extension of the political labor of his Black Panther community work. Barnette’s project is also a resurrection of her father’s bar from the erased annals of queer San Francisco history, a material remembering of the Black queer sociality that is rapidly being expunged from the gentrifying city. It was created in an attempt to understand space-making as an alternative archival form and offer the same spatial opportunity for filiality and multigenerational gathering. It was an “honoring of [queer] lineage as artistic gesture,” she said.
These two projects, within her practice of large-scale installation, are perfectly encapsulated by what she describes as the liminal space “between monument and altar.” Where monument is about celebration and commemoration, altars are an offering to powers governing the present and the future as they necessarily relate to the past: a temporal relation and interdependency. She maintains a clear emphasis on intergenerationality in both sets of work.
With Phone Home, we see a spectrum of age and familial relations (both biological and not) represented in the photo albums she creates, as well as a multigenerational representation of technological forms. The use of glitter coating, too, is reminiscent of car and bike culture: a tricking out of and personalizing the ordinary. It begets a beautiful projection and reflection of Black object-relation both in a near past and in some magically liberatory Afro-future. The show is accompanied by a Spotify playlist that showcases the eclecticism of her musical and artistic sensibilities. Her Afro-futurist visuals are set to a sonic landscape that ranges from Gil Scot-Heron’s agitated “Whitey on the Moon,” to groovy homages to home in Rodger Collins’s “Foxy Girls in Oakland,” to more contemporary bangers like Lil Wayne’s “Phone Home” (from which the exhibition gets its name). She told me she’s “daydreaming about escaping to outer space” while also wondering if space is “a safe daydream,” if any space is safe for Black people.
The New Eagle Creek Saloon was deliberately created to be inclusive of queer elders, which is not always a common part of queer gatherings. She hoped to offer leisure and pleasure for young queer and trans people, as well as a space for the original patrons of the bar space to be nostalgic — because “surviving the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco is like surviving war” — and also to interact with the younger generation, with queer futurity. Honoring tradition, the bar will be transformed into a parade float and will be featured in the San Francisco Pride Parade on June 30th, where participants will do the electric slide just as her father did in the 90s.
In extracting the archive from its standard physical and metaphorical single-dimensionality and transforming it into the three-dimensional sculptural, Sadie Barnette offers us news modes of conceiving of and visualizing our memories. Through this reconfiguring of remembering, we might imagine more dynamic ways of Black knowing and imagining.
The New Eagle Creek Saloon will be on view every Wednesday in June from 5-8pm at The Lab (2948 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103) and will culminate as a float in the San Francisco Pride Parade on June 30.