Series: My current work explores, through portraiture, the stories of the 30+ remaining US held political prisoners who were jailed for their political activism in the black liberation movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Titled, To Be Free, the project seeks to call attention to the continued imprisonment of former members of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army and to document how they have made sense of the expansion of racialized incarceration in post-civil rights movement era. While today, US society honors political figures like the late Nelson Mandela who engaged in dissent similar to that of US held political prisoners, the stories of living US imprisoned activists remain absent from public discourse. My work seeks to shine light in the shadows by opening up a dialogue about the reasons for these silences. The To Be Free will carry political prisoners into mainstream institutions such as museums, galleries, schools and universities in order to introduce their stories to new audiences. Brief Historical Background Celebrated as Freedom Fighters by some and denigrated as cop-killers by the state, sixties era political prisoners were jailed for challenging the prevailing ideas of society and advocating the right to self-defense among people of color. Their goals were outlined in the ten-point platform of the Black Panther Party, which included, among other demands, the right to equal housing, full employment, education, peace, and an immediate end to police brutality—all issues echoed in the historical and current struggles for justice in the United States. Because their ideas resonated with a significant minority of black youth in urban communities across the nation, the Black Panther Party was victim to a coordinated campaign of state-sponsored repression. Through its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the FBI collaborated with local police and undercover agents to infiltrate and destabilize the organization and arrest, incarcerate, and murder its leaders. COINTELPRO’s political persecution of the Black Panther Party distorted, criminalized and stigmatized the activism and politics of these black radicals and of the broader Black Power movement. Goals of the project To Be Free captures, through art, the life-stories and experiences of Black political prisoners who were imprisoned because of their sixties era political affiliations. The project features at least three pieces on each political prisoner. The project seeks 1) to raise the profile of each individual political prisoner in the mainstream 2) highlight their social justice commitments and organizing efforts around issues that still plague American society today 3) humanize them in the eye of the viewer through larger than life portraiture. The captivating portraits of Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas are some of my influences.
Image rights: Sophia Dawson
Panther Cubs is inspired by a documentary by the same name being developed by Ksisay Sadiki. Ksisay is the daughter of Kamau Sadiki, current US held political prisoner currently serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. Kamau was Assata Shakur's co-defendant and is the father of her child. He won his case back in the 1980's and lived a free life until Assata Shakur was placed on the FBI's most wanted list with a $1,000,000 bounty on her head. Because Kamau did not cooperate with the FBI to bring Assata back from Cuba, he was arrested and charged with a crime from the 1970s. Ksisay's "Panther Cubs" documentary aims to share her story and the story of other Panther children whose parents have similar experiences.
About Sophia Dawson
Jamaican, b. 1981, Brooklyn, NY, United States, based in Brooklyn, NY, United States