“We are in community with people not yet born.”
This quote rests on the wall above a diptych placing Angela Davis among six other women leaders in the fight for Black liberation: Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Audre Lorde, to name a few. This linkage between past and present figures who challenge the status quo perfectly sums up OMCA’s “Seize the Time” exhibit, on display until June 11, 2023 at the Oakland Museum of California.
The exhibit reconstructs Davis’ legacy through the lenses of race, gender, economics and policy with works from the Oakland-based Lisbet Tellefsen collection. The layout roughly follows Davis’ life story, from her upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama, to her teaching post at UCLA, to her time spent as a political prisoner and formative leader of the Black Panther Party, all the way to her current position as an icon of American Black radical resistance.
Three distinct rooms are connected by an open space where a 2019 interview with Davis is played. The first room centers around the fight to free Davis, which took place after she was arrested in 1970 under false charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. The second explores the state of mass incarceration in the United States, a cause that Davis directed her energy toward after being released from prison. The last room presents reinterpretations of her work and informs visitors on ways they can take action. Seats in front of Davis’ interview offer a place from which to take it all in, while the narration engagingly unites the myriad of topics.
The artwork filling these spaces takes a variety of forms. One wall features courtroom sketches of her trial, and the adjacent is lined with colorful “Free Angela Davis” posters from Europe and Latin America — places where members of local Communist Party chapters fought for Davis’ release from prison. Below these posters lies a display of postcards written by children to Davis while she was in jail, beside binders of “wanted” posters that rest open for visitors to flip through. A series of dim, shadowy prints by Stephen Tourlentes on the gallery’s back wall depict the eerie relationship between prisons and their neighboring communities in today’s prison-industrial complex. By drawing upon so many different sources, many of which were not intentionally created as art, the constitution of the exhibit reflects the idea that change can come from anywhere and can exist in many different forms.
The final room that visitors walk through includes several multimedia works: a video by Coco Fusco about the role of photography in generating and circulating racial stereotypes, a silent film of women reading Davis’s writings and a reenactment of a speech Davis gave in 1969 at Oakland’s DeFremery Park. These captivating videos provide examples of ways in which Davis’ work has been constantly rethought and reframed.
The exhibit’s design enables visitors to learn Davis’ story without being simply a biography. This may seem untraditional, but is extremely fitting given Davis’ self-perception: She discusses her struggle to live up to the image of herself that she has seen spread throughout the world. To come to terms with this, she sees herself as one small piece of the puzzle, and the battles fought by Black people as an inspiration to people fighting for freedom all over the globe.
Acknowledging the 50 year anniversary of the fight to free Angela Davis could be seen as a marker of the lack of progress we’ve made as a society. Yet Davis’ narration fills the gallery with hope as it emphasizes the fundamental intergenerationality of social justice movements.
“Seize the Time” reminds visitors that resiliency stems from holding onto the awareness that freedom is a constant struggle and, most importantly, the exhibit provides resources to engage in this struggle. Postcards with QR codes line the final wall visitors pass as they leave, connecting them with ways they can take action on the issues raised within the exhibit. Though the task seems daunting, a quote from Davis leaves us with a vital reminder: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”