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Painting Power: Artist shows Black Panther portrait at ‘Fake News’ exhibit

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She paints these prisoners free.

An East New York artist who paints images of imprisoned members of the Black Power Movement on sheets of newspaper will exhibit one of her giant images in the show “Fake News,” opening at the Tabla Rasa Gallery in Sunset Park on Jan. 6. Painter Sophia Dawson says that she uses newspapers as her canvas so that her work can correct the often-incomplete news printed about her subjects.

“ ‘Fake news’ relates to the fact that when I see what was printed about each individual, each case, whether it’s their wanted picture or how they describe a house bombing versus how people who experienced it firsthand talk about it, I think there’s a great discrepancy, and I’m constantly trying to combat that with my work,” Dawson said.

In the show, Dawson will exhibit an oversized portrait of the hand of the late Mondo we Langa, also known as David Rice, a member of the Black Panther Party who was controversially charged and convicted of the 1970 murder of an Omaha, Nebraska police officer. Dawson exchanged letters with we Langa for two years before he died in prison in 2016. He maintained his innocence throughout his 44-year incarceration.

We Langa’s portrait is one of a series in Dawson’s “To Be Free” project, which portrays imprisoned members of the Black Panther movement from the 1970s. Dawson considers them to be political prisoners, and began writing to them in order to get their firsthand accounts of what happened, and to educate younger generations before it is too late, she said.

“The project is pretty urgent because they’re elders, it’s an aging population, and most of the political prisoners have serious health issues,” she said. “The purpose of the work that I’m doing is for people to learn the names of the individuals in my paintings who care about their stories and their plight, and to become advocates for their freedom.”

In addition to newspapers, Dawson adds copies of her handwritten letters with each prisoner to their canvas portraits. Her work aims to remind today’s activists that the political strife and struggle of the present is rooted in the past, she said.

“The stuff that we’re up against is not a new struggle, and there are examples where you can go back and take from the past. It’s important to know that this is not the first time that this has happened,” she said. “Their struggle is so relevant. How can we be in the streets protesting and contributing to activism in any issue without fully understanding the stories of people who came before us?”

The Sunset Park exhibit will also feature a dozen other artists, many of which incorporate newspapers into their work.

“Fake News” at the Tabla Rasa Gallery (224 48th St. between Second and Third avenues in Sunset Park, www.tablarasagallery.com). Opening reception Jan. 6, 2:30–4:30 pm. Open through March 4, Thu–Sat, 1–5 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 5:50 pm, July 9, 2018
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