Located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University, the Zimmerli Art Museum offers world-class, rotating exhibitions and a robust permanent collection of more than 60,000 objects. On view now, the Angela Davis—Seize the Time exhibit documents the image, influence, and activism of Angela Y. Davis.
With 220+ objects – including archival materials, interviews, and contemporary art – Seize the Time tells the story of Davis’ arrest, incarceration, trial, the national and international campaigns to free her, and her subsequent work on prison abolition.
Accused of involvement in a shootout at California’s Marin County Courthouse in 1969 that resulted in the deaths of four men, Davis went into hiding and was placed on the FBI's most wanted list. Arrested on January 13, 1970, she spent more than a year in jail, eventually acquitted of murder and kidnapping charges. As a movement arose to free her and free all political prisoners, she became a world-recognized activist and icon.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “Wanted by the FBI,” August 19, 1970. Poster, Lisbet Tellefsen Archive
After her release in 1972, Davis resumed her academic career, becoming one of the most influential scholars on topics related to intersectional feminism. Her time in jail motivated her to work to abolish the prison system.
Co-curators Donna Gustafson and Gerry Beegan started planning this exhibition nearly five years ago in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Davis’ imprisonment and liberation. While the exhibition was delayed a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels timely and relevant now.
“We wanted to make people aware of this story. It’s a complicated story and there is more than one way of looking at it,” says Gustafson, who is curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs at the Zimmerli.
Seize the Time centers around the private archive of Lisbet Tellefsen, an archivist and curator based in Oakland, Ca. For decades, Tellefsen has collected and preserved the posters, press, photographs, court sketches, pamphlets, correspondence, and other media showcased here. Specifically for the exhibition, Tellefsen developed binders of archival materials that are presented on tables alongside Davis’ writings. Visitors are invited to browse the binders and books on their own and explore the intersections of art, design, and social justice.
A timeline on the gallery walls guides visitors through the story of Davis’ journey from incarceration to freedom, highlighting many details of Davis' life.
“We tend to see her as a historical figure, but she was born in 1944. She was only 26 when she was arrested,” says Beegan, who is a professor of Art & Design at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts.
Beginning prior to the birth of Davis on January 26, 1944, and ending in the present time, the timeline demonstrates how her story intertwines with the story of Black power, racial oppression, and social justice.
The timeline notes the establishment of the Black Panthers in the early 1960s.
“What inspired the Black Panthers was a police shooting in the back of a young Black man in Richmond, Ca,” Beegan explains. “Now, we have circled back around. In a sense, these problems never really go away. They rise up at certain times. Now with the Black Lives Matter movement, Davis has once again had become a figurehead for the moment.”
The contemporary art works exhibited are inspired by Davis’ story, her image, and relevant themes using a range of materials and techniques.
“Art involves the imagination,” says Davis in a video interview produced especially for the exhibition. “And if we believe that revolutions are possible, then we have to be able to imagine different modes of being, different ways of existing in society, different social relations.
“In this sense, art is crucial. Art is at the forefront of social change. Art often allows us to grasp what we cannot yet understand.”
The interview, A Question of Memory: A Conversation with Angela Y. Davis, created by renown Oakland Museum of California curator Rene de Guzman, is viewable in the gallery.
Four black and white photographs by Stephen Tourlentes depict actual prisons in residential communities, including Camden State Prison in New Jersey. These haunting streetscapes were taken at night with a large format camera in 2003.
Installation view of Stephen Tourlentes photos, above archival materials and below the timeline. Photo by Rachel Fawn Alban.
“The prisons are omnipresent yet impossible to enter. They show how the threat of incarceration is present in these communities and set the emotional tone for the exhibition,” observes Gustafson.
Some artworks explore different ways of memorializing a legacy and life. Philadelphia-based Roberto Lugo, who calls himself the Ghetto Potter, creates graffiti-adorned ceramics that honor people of color – including civil rights leaders and cultural figures, as well as those who have been historically underrepresented in traditional art portraiture and craft.
Roberto Lugo, “To Disarm Angela Davis Harriet Tubman,” 2020. Collection Zimmerli Art Museum. Photo by Rachel Fawn Alban.
Featured here is his hand-thrown, ceramic teapot, paying homage to Angela Davis on one side and Harriet Tubman on the other. To Disarm: Angela Davis / Harriet Tubman was recently acquired by the Zimmerli. The image of Davis he used is an altered version of her mugshot, and the handle and spout of the ceramic teapot are fashioned from gun parts.
A visual motif throughout the entire exhibition is Davis' afro hairstyle. In the 1960s, her afro became a loaded symbol of her involvement in the Black Panthers and the civil rights movement. Over time, her iconic image became reproduced so frequently in fashion and design that the afro eventually lost its “shock value.” This idea is explored in Renée Green’s Partially Buried Triptych.
“As a philosophy professor who became an activist and role model, Davis is likely someone who wants to resist this sort of sanctification,” says Beegan.
New Jersey-based Terry Bodie’s large-scale, skillfully crafted cyanotypes reference 18th century slave ships and integrate a bar code as seen on commercially produced products.
“For me, these two cyanotypes are a perfect encapsulation of Angela Davis’ thinking,” says Gustafson. “All of these factors together – economic and racial exploitations, the legacy of slavery, the mass incarceration systems – demonstrate Angela Davis’ intersectional understanding that leads to her call to abolish all prisons.”
Another theme of the exhibit is how history is passed to the next generation, embodied in photographs by Carrie Schneider from her Reading Women series. These images depict younger women reading the books of Angela Davis, honoring her life and legacy.
Angela Davis—Seize the Time is on view until June 15, 2022, and will then travel to Oakland, Ca. The Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street in New Brunswick, is free and open to the public. Visitors must wear face coverings and maintain a safe distance from each other while inside the museum. Before visiting, check the website for the most current details.
Images in header (clockwise from top left): 1) Installation view photo by Rachel Fawn Alban. 2) Juan Sanchez, "Para Angela," 2011. Mixed media collage. Photo by Rachel Fawn Alban. 3) “Sister: You Are Welcome in This House,” The Second Coming, October 5-19, 1970. 4) ?Elizabeth Catlett, Angela Libre, 1972. Screenprint on foil. Lisbet Tellefsen Archive. © 2020 Catlett Mora Family Trust / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. 5) Specifically for the exhibition, Tellefsen developed binders of archival materials that are presented on tables alongside Davis’ writings. Photo by Rachel Fawn Alban.