Karon Davis: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
On ViewDeitch Projects
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
March 6 – April 24, 2021
Enter Karon Davis’ show No Good Deed Goes Unpunished at Jeffery Deitch to find the co-founding member of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale greeting you, surrounded by 50 bags of food. In the two introductory plaster sculptures placed at the forefront of the gallery, Bobby Seale (2020-2021) and The People’s Free Food Program, (2020-21), Seale stands humbly, head cast down with eyes fixed on the “garden of golden fruit,” as Davis describes them in the press release. With a cornerstone of the party’s politics on full display, Davis brings our focus to the grassroots community organizing Seale and the Black Panthers were known for. Half a century later, lies perpetuated by the US government still surround the activist organization whose free breakfast programs fed school children in dozens of cities across America. In her newest work, Davis sets the record straight.
50 plaster grocery bags hold an assortment of objects, from apples to milk cartons, painted in gold acrylic. Life-sized constructions of Seale—standing tall amidst the groceries and later seen gagged and bound to a chair depicting the courtroom trial of the Chicago 8 in October of 1969—harness the spirit of the 84-year-old political activist and author. In In God We Trust (2018 ), the imposing sculpture of Judge Julius Hoffman hovers over a bound and gagged Seale from his 12-foot-high bench. The trial—though not the image, as no photo was ever taken—has become legend, revealing the rife inequities Black Americans— in this case, Black men—face in the criminal justice system.
In the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, Davis recenters our gaze on the racism in our government, prejudice in our legal systems, and the enduring legacy the Black Panthers left behind to uplift Black communities across America. Davis does not shy away from the tactile, gut-wrenching stories of human life: death, pain, and ultimately, survival. Interestingly, Davis’ father, a 21-year-old actor at the time, voiced Bobby Seale for a vinyl record of the trial in 1970. With several other actors, a full transcript of the trial was recorded, the racialized violence against Seale inflicted by Judge Hoffman on display. Though she never heard it growing up, Davis discovered the record years later in an antique shop in Los Angeles. Her closeness to the trial and Judge Hoffman’s inhumane treatment of Seale lies close to home.
The red, white, and blue color palette of the jury figures hint to the beginning of a bold conversation regarding ideas of American liberty, who it serves to protect, and who it excludes through our judicial system. In 12 vitrines alternating in red and blue, 12 jurors stare out at Seale from atop a high platform. In the original trial 10 of the jurors were women, 8 of whom were white. Davis leans into this, hinting at the ways in which white women in particular can exert the power of their whiteness over and at the expense of Black men.
Sculpturally, Davis takes a cue from the Egyptian traditions of mummification, using plaster strips to wrap limbs methodically, piece by piece. Using her own techniques influenced by this ancient process, Davis infuses the essence of her subjects into life-sized sculptures eerily accurate in their depictions. Sculptures take root in storytelling as she injects personal memories into her practice. Davis began her art career in film, not sculpture; but, encouraged to explore the nuanced depths of her creative talents by her late husband, the prolific artist Noah Davis, her sculptures have now taken on a life of their own.
Centered on truth telling and not the misinformation and “fake news” narratives we have become accustomed to, Davis elucidates that if the events of the distant past and the past year are any indication in the search for justice, equality and the uprooting of racial violence in America as a nation, we still have a long way to go. In recent years, the untold stories of the Black Panther Party have reemerged once again on the big screen, in art and in the press. In Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), directed by Shaka King, the illegal COINTELPRO FBI operations reveal how far the American government went in its mission to obliterate the Panthers. In a recent interview in the Washington Post, Bobby Seale reflects on the fight against racism, “you cannot fight racism with racism. You have to fight it with solidarity.’2
Nearly 60 years after the Black Panthers were established, the ideologies of the Civil Rights Era political party are still shrouded in a cloud of misleading information in media and popular culture. In No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, Davis reiterates the truths of the party’s radical vision for a self-sustaining Black community. She challenges the viewer to face the violent injustices of our criminal justice system—as well as how white women, often depicted as fragile and innocent, can also be powerful proponents of racism—while illuminating the legacy of the Black Panthers as “the most effective Black revolutionary organization in the 20th century.”3
- Karon Davis: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Press Release, Jeffery Deitch, New York.
- “Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/bobby-seale-of-the-black-panthers-you-cannot-fight-racism-with-racism-you-have-to-fight-it-with-solidarity/2020/07/27/c4042aec-bfa6-11ea-9fdd-b7ac6b051dc8_story.html.
- Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale, Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers (New York: Abrams Books, 2016).