Emory Douglas - Creator of iconic imagery behind Black Panther Party
GI show from American Black Power movement linchpin
As Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party Emory Douglas created some of the movement’s most iconic imagery in the 1960s and 70s, harnessing the power or art to communicate ideas. He talks to Neil Cooper about his political and artistic journey
‘In Revolution one wins, or one dies.’ When this slogan appeared aloft Emory Douglas’ image of a couple of beret-clad African-American guerrillas on a big-screen back-drop at major concert halls around the world, it was a far cry from the roots of Douglas’ work 30 years before. Then, such visual provocations were on the front-line of the American Black Power movement via the pages of The Black Panther Party’s weekly newspaper, which regularly sold more than 250,000 copies.
In the current climate of born-again activism, the archive of Douglas’ newspaper images, collages, posters and lithographs that visits GI is especially pertinent. Fusing the iconic immediacy of poster art with a loaded polemical intent, the images by the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture up until the party’s demise in 1980 are a living record of one of the most turbulent times of American history that neither preaches nor patronises.
‘To me it’s about sharing the ideals,’ says Douglas today. ‘It’s about getting information out there and enlightening people. Art is something that people observe and learn through, whether it’s subliminal or very provocative. It’s communication. Once you understand that, you can learn to get your message across in a broader way. I see some young artists trying to do that, but it looks coded. If you learn that it’s about communication, art can become a profound tool for change.’
The man dubbed by critic Colette Gaiter as the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto fell in with the Panthers while making props for plays by radical black writer LeRoi Jones, (who would later change his name to Amiri Baraka), who was presenting his work in San Francisco campuses, community centres and shop-front spaces. After attending a meeting he’d designed the poster for, Douglas visited the Panther-patronised political/cultural centre The Black House, where the likes of Jones and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were regulars. Here he found Panther Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver poring over the first issue of the party’s rather dry-looking tabloid weekly, and told him he could make it look better. It was the beginning of a great, if somewhat stormy, adventure.
‘We were in coalition politics,’ says Douglas. ‘We weren’t in isolation. We had solidarity with groups in Vietnam and Korea. In America the Latinos formed the Brown Berets inspired by us, and there were other groups. That whole period changed how the dialogue in this country worked, with young people beginning to define things for themselves.’
After four decades working on socially and politically aware community-based projects, it was only in 2007 that the world rediscovered Douglas via the publication of The Black Panther Party for Self Defense: The Protest Art of Emory Douglas. The concerts, featuring the likes of proto-Rap street-gurus The Last Poets, latter-day hip hop troupe The Roots and free-jazz saxophonist David Murray, were a form of pop-cultural entryism rather than what Tom Wolfe dubbed in a famous 1970 essay ‘radical chic’.
Similarly, Douglas quite correctly points out that mainstream exposure of his work in museums is down to ‘open-minded people who open the work up to a new audience, where in the past it would’ve been black-listed, and that’s a plus. The pictures are fine in themselves, but once you get the history behind them, you see it’s not just art, but art with a meaning.’
Emory Douglas, Kendall Koppe, Glasgow, Thu 12 Apr–Mon 7 May.