On ViewInstitute for Contemporary Art
September 29, 2019 – January 26, 2020
Rodney Barnette, San Francisco bar owner and father of the artist Sadie Barnette, once spoke of the safe space he created with the bar New Eagle Creek Saloon: “[here], Black gays know they can come here and never have to deal with the hassles they have traditionally faced at other gay establishments.”1 From 1990 to 1993 Rodney Barnette owned and operated San Francisco’s first black-owned gay bar on Market Street. For The New Eagle Creek at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Sadie Barnette’s first solo museum exhibition, the artist has reimagined her father’s historic bar with a glittering fictional patina. The installation, a version of which originally debuted at The Lab in San Francisco, functions as both a physical archive of the bar as well as a space to be activated by visitors, where coming together in each other’s company is foregrounded as something to be celebrated.
Comprising of a horseshoe shaped, pink, glittery bar where visitors can have a seat, Barnette’s The New Eagle Creek Saloon is like stepping into Barnette’s memory of her father’s bar. It sits in a dream-like pink hued state, shrouded in shimmering sparkles, as Barnette celebrates her father's many contributions to activism around LGBTQ and Black rights. The bar itself, like a memory, is not an exact replica of the original. In fact, the only original fixtures of the bar present are three distinctly shaped mirrors which are hung across the gallery from the bar, reflecting its image and suggesting its enduring impact. The mirrors, which had been safeguarded by the Oakland-based artist Brontez Purnell, were discovered by Sadie Barnette after the initial presentation of The New Eagle Creek; Purnell generously loaned them for her presentation at the ICA, a further testament to the Saloon’s significant impact.
Rodney Barnette took over the Eagle Creek Saloon in 1990, seeing the opportunity to own a bar as a way to counteract the racial profiling rampant in gay bars, which at the time often required non-white patrons to provide multiple forms of ID to enter. Barnette’s bar exemplified the possibilities and potential of a community coming together to serve its needs in the face of racism and homophobia. The exhibition also takes the form of a zine, copies of which are on the bar top, an informal archive of the Eagle Creek’s history and happenings. A handwritten note in the zine, titled “why Black owned made a difference,” affirms the significance of Barnette’s act. It reads, “to practice our own culture/ our customs- how we socialized/our music—celebrating our history/to be relaxed from white supremacy/recognizing our heroes/sharing our experiences—contributions and talent/reflect on our own life experiences.” Rodney Barnette’s bar was not only a place where his community could safely socialize, but it also became a community center for activist events and organizing. As the zine documents, The New Eagle Creek Saloon hosted such events as the Lesbian and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action Fundraiser, performances and art exhibitions of local talent from the community, benefits to sponsor a Gay Day Parade Float, and even experimental activism, such as an interactive video game sponsored by The Brothers Network that served as an educational tool for HIV prevention.
Sadie Barnette’s homage to her father’s achievements is also activated through museum programming. On their shared birthday in October, the museum presented the father and daughter in conversation; a demonstration of familial archiving, sharing memories of the bar, and recanting its history. The bar was activated and signature cocktails were served by the Bay Area-based bartender Redwood Hill, while D.J. Jihaari spun vinyl records and Global Street Dance Masquerade, also based in the Bay Area, performed. On this night, the essence of the Saloon came to life as visitors and family members of the Barnettes’ came to celebrate, drink, and eat cake.
The past reflects the future, and Barnette’s bar enacts what the late José Esteban Muñoz described in his 1996 essay “Ephemera as Evidence,” as the ephemeral: “traces, glimmers, residues, and specks of things,” as material evidence of queer acts.2 The bar itself functions as a reliquary for images from Sadie Barnette’s family archive of photographs taken at the Eagle Creek; moments of tenderness, community, and reverie encased in the bar, now encrusted in the shimmer of nostalgia. Sadie Barnette’s imaginative iteration of her father’s establishment, created the year of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, serves as a commemorative installation, documenting and sharing knowledge of a significant aspect of queer history as well as another glittering example of the power of Rodney Barnette’s activism. The Eagle Creek’s legacy lives on as its slogan proclaims “A friendly place, with a funky bass, for every race.”
- Klevin Fincher, “Rodney Barnette, ‘Part of the Solution’”, Alternative, p. 26 (date missing), republished in Sadie Barnette’s New Eagle Creek Saloon Zine, 2019.
- Jose Esteban Munoz, “Ephemera as Evidence,” Women & Performance, January 1, 1996, p. 10