“Unite” (1971) by Barbara Jones-Hugu, from the exhibit “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”
“Unite” (1971) by Barbara Jones-Hugu, from the exhibit “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”

Revisiting 1968 at the de Young; art, booze and sacred words in East Bay

“Something old, something new” is a phrase usually associated with wedding dresses. But it applies also to the cycle of creation, to wit, these two enticing arts events – one giving new context to an archival body of photographic work, the other using ancient Jewish texts to spark new artistic production.

Ruth-Marion Baruch’s 1968 exhibition returns to the de Young

When the traveling exhibit “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-1983” opened at the de Young Museum on Nov. 9, visitors were greeted by something unique to the San Francisco venue: a throwback to a famous photography show from 50 years ago.

In 1968 and 1969, photographer Ruth-Marion Baruch and her husband, Pirkle Jones, exhibited their “Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers,” remembered half a century later as one of the most popular — and controversial — shows in the museum’s history.

So, in conjunction with the new “Soul of a Nation” exhibit, which celebrates art made by African American artists, the de Young is offering a sampling of 18 key images from Baruch’s earlier show. For some, it might be a trip down memory lane, but for many, it will be the first time they’ll have a chance to see these photos.

Baruch, who died in 1997 in San Rafael, was a photographer known mainly for her pictures taken in San Francisco and the Bay Area in the 1960s.

Born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1922, she immigrated with her family to New York in 1927, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s in photography.

Portrait of Eldridge Cleaver by Ruth-Marion Baruch. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
Portrait of Eldridge Cleaver by Ruth-Marion Baruch. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

She migrated west in the 1940s to study at the California School of Fine Arts (now the S.F. Art Institute). Baruch was part of the first class in the school’s fine art photography department, which was founded in 1945 by Ansel Adams. She learned from the likes of Adams and a faculty that included Minor White, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston. In the 1960s, she began photographing the hippies of Haight-Ashbury and also gained access to the Black Panthers after connecting with Kathleen Cleaver, the movement’s communications secretary.

Baruch told Jack McGregor, then the director of the de Young, about her desire to do a photo essay about the Panthers “to show the feeling of the people.” He enthusiastically agreed, and the resulting show attracted record crowds and then traveled to New York City, where it was the first photography show at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

“Was this the beginning?” Baruch mused in “The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers,” her monograph published in 1970. “Perhaps it all came about because I am Jewish and have experienced much prejudice myself. I remember that as a student at the University of Missouri I was often forbidden housing and evicted from several places because I was Jewish. These experiences made me feel deeply about anyone who may be treated unjustly for whatever reason.”

Baruch’s respectful, sympathetic black-and-white portraits of the men, women and children of the Black Panther movement at its peak in 1968 offer a fitting complement to the expansive and interesting main exhibit.

Eighteen original images by Baruch and Jones, taken at Black Panthers events, meetings and other activities in the summer of 1968, will be displayed in the Hellman Hallway leading to the entrance of the main exhibit. There will also be some pictures of visitors viewing the 1968-69 exhibit.

“Soul of a Nation,” which was organized by the Tate Modern art gallery in London, features more than 150 paintings, sculptures, photographs and prints by 60 African American artists, many of them closely connected to San Francisco and the Bay Area.

“The artists featured in ‘Soul of a Nation’ were on the front lines of creating social and political change,” Thomas Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco said in a press release. “Their work changed the course of the art historical canon, and with this exhibition we continue to tell a truer, more holistic story of what American art is. The work is as relevant today as it was when created.”

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983.” Through March 20, 2020 at de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, S.F. $10-$25. Free Saturdays on Dec. 14, Jan. 11 and Feb. 8.

Get ‘drunk’ on Jewish texts

“There is wine and there is wine, so also there is a cup and there is a cup, and all is, this for good and this for evil.”

So it is written in the Zohar — and that’s as good an excuse as any for the inaugural bash of the new arts incubator, LABA East Bay. The introductory event is titled “Drunk,” and it’ll be a sampling of Jewish texts paired with appropriate wines.

A program of the JCC East Bay in Berkeley, LABA comes to us from New York City, where it was formed as a “Laboratory of Jewish Culture” out of the 14th Street Y in 2007. Each year since, organizers have chosen a small group of writers and artists to mix it up around a particular theme, sparking a creative interpretation of Jewish texts and nurturing a great deal of new Jewish culture.

“We’re not religious, and we’re not anti-religious, either,” said Elissa Strauss, a journalist involved in the New York group who moved to the Bay Area three years ago in part to bring LABA west. “But if you let artists have room to play, they’re bound to create something.”

With a seed grant from Anne Germanacos, who also sponsors J.’s books coverage, East Bay LABA selected its first cohort over the past summer, and — lucky them! — the chosen theme is “humor.”

The Nov. 23 “Drunk” event is open to the public and will feature four courses of wines (from co-sponsor Covenant Wines of Berkeley) and nibbles paired with four short Jewish texts. A local sommelier will be on hand.

The readings will be introduced and parsed by Shalom Hartman Institute educator Rabbi Joshua Ladon. In between, some LABA artists will perform or present, and then there will be shmoozing all around. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

“Honestly, nobody has to get drunk,” Strauss stressed.

Also: Our own David A.M. Wilensky AKA The Jew in the Pew will be there. Say hi!

DRUNK: LABA East Bay Taster.” 7-10 p.m. Nov. 23 at JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $25-$30.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.