Before the Fire: Mike Henderson’s Manetti Shrem Museum Exhibit

By Jessica Diggs

The Manetti Shrem Museum, located on the UC Davis campus, is currently exhibiting art by multimedia and contemporary Bay Area artist, Mike Henderson. This exhibit, which officially opened on January 30, is Henderson’s first solo venture in 20 years and features work by the artist previously thought lost in a 1980s fire.


Henderson has long been known for work that explores race, politics, and California. The showing of the artist’s pioneering work has caused excitement in the art world, with the event having been covered in a wide array of media outlets from the local Sacramento Bee to The Guardian in the UK.


The campus museum is a fitting venue for the pioneer artist, who retired from his role as a professor in the UCD Art department in 2012 after 43 years of teaching. Hired in 1970, Henderson was only the second Black instructor at the institution at the time. 


With a creative career that began in San Francisco in the 1960s, Henderson’s style has been described as “abstract” and known to explore themes of activism centered around the Black experience. In his later years, the artist has also experimented with Afro-futurism (an art form that uniquely blends Black culture and history with science fiction) and surrealism.


Some of Henderson’s best-known works include his 1966 oil painting, The Scream, and Love it or Leave it, I Will Love it if You Leave it, an example of the artist’s use of mixed media. Both reflect the influence of the civil rights decade on his work. In a piece written for Forbes magazine, Chat Scott declared that Love it or Leave it could “easily have been painted in the last month,” emphasizing Henderson’s timeless critiques of American culture. 


This current exhibit, titled “Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985,” is a collection of the artist’s paintings that were previously unseen by the public. It was revealed that the name of the exhibit is not merely an artistic flourish, but a reference to a real and tragic event in Henderson’s artistic life.


After a fire broke out in Henderson’s studio in 1985, it was assumed to have destroyed a significant portion of the painter’s work. In an interview with Frieze in February, Henderson said that when he thought he had lost years of his work to the fire, his confidence to carry on as a Black artist suffered. But ultimately, he found a way to keep himself focused on creating.


“I told myself that I’m going to bounce back,” Henderson said. “There were two phrases that came to mind every morning: ‘No expectations, one day at a time,’ and don’t worry about where the tracks are going, enjoy the ride.’ They became my mantras.”


Fortunately, some of these paintings were later found and restored thanks to the collaborative effort between the Manetti Shrem Museum and Preservation Arts in San Francisco. Now, the public can gain a glimpse into a previously lost era in Henderson’s artistry. Speaking to The Aggie back in January, curator Sampada Aranke also shared the artist’s novel use of fire in producing some of the works now on display at the museum, saying, “Henderson would create burn tracks and marks on his canvases, further highlighting the vigor and experimentation that underlies his art.”


The museum’s founding director, Rachel Teagle, said that this exhibit represents one of the core missions of its work “to recuperate the art of a major California artist who is central to UC Davis’ legacy.” The exhibit, which is free to the public, will run until June 25th. For more information on this or other current or future exhibits, visit the Manetti Shrem Museum’s website

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