The Cardi B, Lil Jon, and Steve Carell “Is Pepsi OK?” Super Bowl ad may have ruined the fun of “Okurrr” as a catchphrase, but the real highlight was the blinged-out soda can that looked as though it had been studded with precious gems. From disco balls (and skulls) to the sequin-taxidermy art of San Francisco’s Emily Madigan, it’s hard not to be transfixed by ordinary objects bedecked in shiny adornments.
In December, The New York Times got a peek inside a New Jersey glitter factory that’s almost as heavily guarded as a North Korean missile site, a controlled release of information that only served to augment glitter’s mystery. Capitalizing on this fascination is a new exhibit at the Museum of the African Diaspora, “Sadie Barnette: Phone Home” (through April 14). With its crushed aluminum cans spackled with pink glitter, it conveys the decadence of a party that went too late and the exaltation of the ordinary to unnecessary heights. (This, you might say, is the definition of fabulous.)
They’re not just cans, either. In one piece, they sit at either end of a glittered 1990s stereo, complete with dual tape decks for the lost art of recording songs from the radio and sharing them with friends — a once-harmless pastime that now has a whiff of danger as the forerunner to the early-2000s download-a-thon that almost killed the music industry. It’s almost as if they were wallpapered in a stereogram magic-eye poster.
Repurposing E.T.’s catchphrase, Barnette’s MoAD show runs concurrently with “Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem,” an institution where she was at one time an artist in residence. For her, the idea of phoning home has resonances greater than a friendly alien who likes Reese’s Pieces. Her father, Rodney Ellis Barnette, founded the Black Panther Party’s Compton chapter in 1968, which led the FBI to surveil him under J. Edgar Hoover’s unconstitutional surveillance program COINTELPRO. The phones in his home were tapped.
Barnette, an Oakland native in her mid-30s who lives and works in Los Angeles, has returned to crystals, glitter, and the color pink again and again in her work. The use of aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate — which is to say, glitter — is particularly resonant as a mode of disruption, of making the everyday totems of Black cultural life shine with a hey-look-at-me insistence. Andy Warhol famously said that Coca-Cola was the great equalizer because everyone knows their Coke is just as good as Elizabeth Taylor’s Coke, but Sadie upends that slightly smug analysis, as if to say, “Not so fast.”
In her Untitled (Calculator) she sticks craft-store gems on the buttons of a Lifelong brand solar-powered calculator, rendering it functionally unusable — but in a defiant way, because it’s anything but static or dead. The act of repurposing is the act of instilling joy. On this particular calculator, the only key that remains uncovered is the off button, which is to say that a machine that can’t add or subtract the way it’s intended is nonetheless “on.”
Sadie Barnette: Phone Home, through April 14, at the Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., moadsf.org