Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965–1985
On ViewJan Shrem And Maria Manetti Shrem Museum Of Art
Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965–1985
January 30–June 25, 2023
University Of California, Davis
The horrific killing of Tyre Nichols is a reminder that, for Black Americans without badges, the nation has always been on fire. This reality is viscerally present in the early figurative works of painter and filmmaker Mike Henderson. Featuring thick, muddled strokes of oil, Mike Henderson’s expressionist paintings depict the gore and violence at the center of the Black American experience. Police brutality, religious fanaticism, and superfluous violence thematically anchor Henderson’s work within a critique of the beliefs and practices that fuel white brutality and police violence. The exhibition Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965–1985, at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, displays works that survived a 1985 fire in Henderson’s studio, which irreparably damaged dozens of his paintings.1
Born in Marshall, Missouri, Henderson moved to the Bay Area in 1965, where he attended the San Francisco Art Institute. By then, Black Americans in the Bay Area were in a full rebellion against the police state. In 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in neighboring Oakland. Henderson’s early paintings in the Bay Area center the anguish and rebellion that young Black people experienced, as well as a deep engagement with Black speculative thought. His expressionist diptych The Scream (1966) depicts three heads screaming in every direction, the figures’ sharpened teeth forming open gates over their bloodied mouths. As Henderson told the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, “With The Scream, I wanted to create a big painting to release a scream that was inside of me. From the news of the Vietnam War to the protests that were going on, and the police brutality — I wanted to express everything that was happening at that moment in the mid-1960s.”2 Henderson’s Self Portrait (1966) similarly depicts the young artist in despair, his mouth aghast, and his eyes covered by an opaque shadow that falls over three quarters of the composition.
Mike Henderson is a pioneer in expressionist painting particularly because of the speculative and futurist nature of his work. Henderson’s early paintings are anchored within revenge fantasies and the ironies and absurdities possible within those. His oil painting Freedom (1968) uses gore and horror to depict a bloody prison uprising, showing a group of incarcerated Black men, clothed in black and white stripes, violently tormenting white officers. Thick red blood oozes out of the mouths of the white officers, who fall to their knees and lay on their backs. The bloody scene in Freedom is anchored within Black speculative thought in the sense that the painting articulates a fantasy that is, by in large, inaccessible to Black oppressed people: it is a revenge fantasy against the carceral state, which ironically, kills Black people with impunity.
Henderson attended to themes of Black rebellion and revenge throughout the late 60s. The horror of the police state is exemplified in his painting Non-Violence (1967), in which a white policeman hurls a bloodied machete at naked, horrified, and unarmed Black figures. The policeman is wearing a swastika armband, and his machete carries the blood from a Black man he has just slashed. The horrified Black figures are almost concealed within a shadow, revealed only through the terror of their expressions and the stark defenselessness of their naked bodies. If Henderson were asked whether he considers this scene violent, perhaps the artist might respond as Angela Davis did when asked in 1972, whether she supports violence: “When someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible, because that means that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through, what Black people have experienced in this country.”3 In 1968, the year of Henderson’s revolutionary painting Freedom, he approached the Black Panther Party to become a Panther himself, but membership was already closed. So, along with having his blues band play for Black Panther events and volunteering for the Free Breakfast Program, the artist bought a 16mm camera and began to take pictures for the Panthers. This was the beginning of his use of film to document and depict Black resistance movements across the country.4
Dissatisfied with the stillness inherent in painting, Henderson began making experimental films in the early 1970s. His 1970 film The Last Supper was an extension of an earlier painting of the same name. The provocative, sacrilegious painting Last Supper (1967) features monstrous figures laughing hysterically, a naked white woman leaning seductively against a racially ambiguous man, a man with long brunette hair (perhaps Jesus), stabbed in the skull and lying unconscious, and a Black man sleeping peacefully over watermelons at the forefront of the painting. Rather than being anti-religion, Last Supper exposes the white American allegiance to the mythology of a pious and pure final gathering between a white Jesus and his white apostles. In the film The Last Supper (1970), Henderson “theatricalizes the scene as hedonistic, with the participants engaged in what is more a depraved party than a holy affair.”5 Through the experimental satire that is The Last Supper, Henderson addresses the selective horror within the white imaginary by depicting scenes that, unlike the killings of Black people, do provoke rage and horror within white American audiences.
Mike Henderson’s solo exhibition at the Manetti Shrem Museum is a powerful confrontation with the political realities of the present moment, compelling us to face how the police state has rebranded itself time and time again. Decades later, the messages within Mike Henderson’s early paintings seem as urgent as ever.
- Some of the burnt pieces were restored by the Manetti Shrem Museum and are displayed within the exhibition, while others that could not be restored are shown on a slideshow.
- Timothy Anglin Burgard, “Acquisition: Mike Henderson’s “The Scream,” Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (October 15, 2020).
- The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Directed by Göran Olsson, (2012).
- Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2023): 61-2.
- From the museum label for the two works in, Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985, at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California, Davis.