"Black Panther Orixas" 2014
Digital Photo-montages © 2014 by J Michael Walker,
Printed on glass and cotton rag paper
Away back in the Summer of Love, a number of iconic images sprouted up as posters in college dorm rooms: Janis Joplin on a Harley; Allen Ginsberg in Uncle Sam’s top hat; Jimi Hendrix doing almost anything.... But two icons conveyed something more than freedom of expression; they conveyed freedom borne of hard struggle: Angela Davis’ face, framed by her perfectly spherical Afro, accompanying the demand “Free Angela”; and Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, seated on a large rattan throne, flanked by African shields, holding a rifle and an African spear in either hand, his feet resting on a zebra skin rug.
It was this latter image, and its explicit connection between the community-liberating goals of the Black Panthers and the cultures and struggles of “the Mother Continent,” that recently drew my interest.
A few years ago I was awarded a Sacatar Foundation fellowship, to spend two months in Bahia, Brazil, the center of the African Diaspora for South America, where I was introduced into the beautifully profound religion of Candomblé, the Brazilian flowering of the Ifá religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa. In Candomblé one seeks protection and guidance from its deities, known as Orishas. These Orishas lead one to a life of self-fulfillment and self-knowledge, in a community that is mutually supportive. Whatever the personal failings or complications of individual members of the Black Panther Party, there could be, it seemed to me, no question but that the Panthers offered just such benefits – protection, guidance, self-awareness and self-fulfillment – to its hard-pressed community in the 1960’s and 1970s. I spoke with several people with greater knowledge than I possess about Candomblé, and how one might relate – or even if one should relate – the Orishas with the Panthers (Fortunately, each correspondent replied with an enthusiastic yes!); and therefore, which Orishas best associate with individual Black Panthers.
Because writer Amiri Baraka just passed away, and because he helped found the Black Power Movement, aesthetically connected with the Panthers, I decided to portray him as well: He became Exú, trickster and agent provocateur.
I balanced the provocative nature of Baraka-Exú with fellow writer James Baldwin, as Omolú or Babalú, the plague spirit, both shunned and revered, who can either bring misfortune or wave it away, as in Baldwin's great, powerful book The Fire Next Time....