How Artist Karon Davis’s Tour-de-Force Portrayal of Black Panther Leader Bobby Seale Reveals a Cruel Blind Spot of American History
The exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch in New York revolves around a terrifying image of Seale bound and gagged while on trial in Chicago.
Sandbags were a last-minute addition to sculptor Karon Davis’s newest installation—or at least, replicas of them. The Black Panthers once piled up real ones around the perimeter of their various headquarters as makeshift fortifications against police raids. “No bullet was gonna penetrate three-foot walls,” Los Angeles Black Panther Party leader Geronimo Pratt once explained.
Davis had seen a picture of them, stacked one atop another like long, flat pillows, and was so taken aback by the lengths the Panthers had gone to protect themselves that she recreated them for her new show, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” which opened at Jeffrey Deitch in New York on March 6.
The installation revolves around an image of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale bound and gagged while standing trial in 1969 on charges of inciting a riot. She first made a cast of that image: a rough, patchy plaster model of a figure that looks like the real man, but is much more notable for how well it enables us to see inside him—and what he went through that day. It’s in the eyes. Davis had them glass blown. They are glazed and unfocused.
She worked on the gag last. It wraps around his mouth, with a second bind starting from under his chin and secured atop his head. Davis used sketches from the trial for her rendering of the full scene, which also includes the judge and jury. The 12 busts sit under vitrines tinted in red and blue—colors not represented in the all-white American flag hanging next to the judge at his bench.
Sandbags aren’t in the sketch. But in Davis’s estimation, they’re still an essential element in her mise-en-scene. Same for the casts of grocery bags positioned in front of the gallery, referencing the Panther’s free food programs for kids. Set among that display of 50 bags is another plaster figure of Seale.
Davis began pursuing her career as a visual artist seriously about ten years ago, right around when she opened the Underground Museum, a Los Angeles-based community art space, with her husband, artist Noah Davis, who died shortly thereafter, in 2015, at the age of 32. It’s not surprising that her practice, which has coalesced around these ghost-like plaster casts, is so invested in chronicling and remembering.
We spoke with Davis about how filling out these legacies shapes not only her practice, but also history as we know it.
Before we get into your current show, I want to talk about your trajectory as an artist. There was a point when you didn’t even quite envision yourself as one, and your late husband Noah encouraged you to pursue it. What did he say? And how has your work evolved since then?
I always called myself a closet artist. I went to film school. I have a theater background and I thought that was my destiny—and I think it still is.
I feel like all that education has come in handy. But what is that saying? You make plans, God laughs. After a while, you just give in to it. I just fell in love with making things with my hands, and the intimacy of it, the privacy of it.
I love just being able to go into the studio and make work. It really feeds me and is my therapy. I’m so thankful that Noah pushed me because I would have never pushed myself like he did. The first show we had at the Underground [Museum] was “Imitation of Wealth” [for which Noah recreated sculptures by artists including Jeff Koons and Marcel Duchamp]. And he looked at me and said: “Okay, this is the plan. I’m going to have [another] show at Roberts & Tilton, and the after-party is going to be here. But when people arrive, it’s going to basically be our quiet opening of the Underground.” So one side was “Imitation of Wealth,” and the other side was my work.
That was your first solo show?
Yes, it was. And he said: “You get two weeks to make the show.” It challenged me. He was always challenging me and I appreciate that he did that. Now, everything I’ve learned in theater and film and art is coming together. This is my first solo show in New York, and this huge space was intimidating for me at first. But it was also exciting because it was like: What can I do here? I can take my theater and film background and build a set.
Right. It’s all become interrelated.
Yes. And because I’m doing larger shows, I can let my imagination just run wild.
I come from a family of storytellers. I love to tell stories in my work, and tell stories from history that I feel that have been left out. I want to put sculptures in the world that I haven’t seen—of people of color.
It looks like there has been a bit of a shift in your work from your first-ever solo show at the Underground Museum, “Sculptures & Photographs,” and second show, “Pain Management,” at Wilding Cran Gallery, which both seemed more personal, to “Muddy Water,” your installation at Frieze Los Angeles, and then this show, which all integrate historical or current events.
Which is personal, too, you know? Most people of color have experienced their encounters with police officers. I think a lot of people can relate to Bobby Seale and what he went through. We saw it all this summer. The world was very angered by everything that went down. It’s everyone’s story.
And with Bobby Seale’s work, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense has definitely inspired Noah and I, and the family with Underground. Their work was about education and uplifting. They were demonized. They were criminalized just because they were trying to feed their people. We’re all about our community and we’re working on getting our education program up and feeding the community. The show is personal in that way.
That’s true even in what you’ve chosen to focus on for this show: the Panthers’ contributions to the community with the bags of groceries as part of the installation. I also read you started the sculpture of Bobby Seale a long time ago—almost two years ago?
It sat in my studio and freaked people out for a long time because they didn’t know what they were looking at. And I would have to tell the story. A lot of people didn’t know the story. Six weeks he was protesting.
It’s obviously something that’s been on your mind for quite some time. Given the confluence of events this summer, I think people still have this misguided impression that that’s why artists are interested in addressing issues like these.
I learned when I was young about Bobby Seale. My dad—he was a young actor, 21 at the time—was hired to play Bobby Seale on this record, and he told me about it. And I would always look for the record. When I found and listened to it, it shocked me how Judge [Julius] Hoffman acted in that courtroom, how he was just so brutal and monstrous. It stuck with me. Then I just made that sculpture. I didn’t know where it was going to land in the world, but I just knew that the story needed to be told. Fast forward to this year, and I was supposed to do a completely differently show.
So what made you pick it back up and create a whole new show around it?
I had the judge and Bobby body-casted. It was just a story I was building. But then COVID happened, and I had to get creative, I had to pivot. And in that pivot, I found more inspiration and it took the show to a different place.
I’d love to talk about your plasterwork. I read that the mummification process for you conveys a historical record through the body.
I have a love for Egypt and the artists of Egypt. They captured a lot of history and culture on their walls and their sarcophagi and tombs.
It’s very ceremonial when I plaster cast. The wrapping of the body feels traditional to me, and when I’m doing my work, sometimes I feel like I’m capturing the person’s spirit or soul—or a portion of it. I’m capturing that moment in time.
Also, [it’s important] for people to see it so it doesn’t get forgotten. A lot of people I’ve talked to don’t even know that [Seale] story. It’s a bit of an excavation. When I was little, I wanted to be either an archaeologist or an astronaut. But I became an artist instead.
I mean, in a way, it’s all about discovery, right?
Yes, it’s all about discovery.
That’s also why it’s very important for you to do things like this. And for other artists who are trying to correct the historical record.
And it’s all happening at the same time. That’s why artists are so important. I think Nina Simone even said that it’s our job to tell the truth, to tell stories of history, to capture these moments. You might not get it in school, but if you walk through a museum or gallery, you’re probably going to get this education. And that’s real.
“Karon Davis: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” is on view at Jeffrey Deitch in New York through April 24.
Correction, 3/15: An earlier version of this article stated that the exhibition included a figure of Huey P. Newton. In fact, it is a second sculpture of Bobby Seale.
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