It’s 1967, and you’re starting a newspaper for a grassroots organization. Problem is, your readership isn’t, as Bobby Seale puts it, really “a reading community.” How do you get the word out?
Along comes Emory Douglas, a self-professed former juvenile delinquent who has been drawing since childhood and got directed to art school. He has had some training in commercial art at the City College of San Francisco, has worked in a print shop, and knows how to do layout and paste-up. More important, he’s into the message. A great artist is born.
If you haven’t heard of Douglas, that’s because he hasn’t been on the radar in what artist Adrian Piper has called the “Euroethnic” (read: predominately white) art world for long. In 2002, Los Angeles–based Sam Durant, a white artist whose work often cites upheavals of the 1960s, asked Douglas to lecture in conjunction with one of his shows. Durant subsequently put together a monograph and curated a show at the MOCA Pacific Design Center in L.A., and now this one, the New Museum’s “Emory Douglas: Black Panther.”
The other reason that Douglas isn’t familiar is because he’s an example of something you hear about, but rarely encounter: a true revolutionary artist. Douglas signed on as Revolutionary Artist of the Black Panther Party and later became the Party’s Minister of Culture. The New Museum show covers Douglas’s efforts from 1966 to 1977, when the paper, The Black Panther, ceased publication. But what makes Douglas’s work “revolutionary” is that it was first and foremost about its connection with the community and the evolving concerns of the Party rather than being a solely personal aesthetic agenda.
The spare offset lithographs hung on the wall and the editions of The Black Panther housed in vitrines from the early days, 1966 and 1967, show iconic images of Panthers in black berets, toting guns. Throughout the show, it’s stressed that the impetus for forming the party was to protect the black community—initially of Oakland, California—from police brutality. The Panthers were about defense rather than offense—inspired by Malcolm X’s decree, “By any means necessary.” Co-founder Huey Newton described the panther as an animal that never attacks unprovoked, but “defends itself to death.” (The Party was originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, but the “self-defense” part was later dropped.)
Along with images that have the same bold, iconic quality as Alberto Korda’s photograph of Che Guevara, Douglas’s other big contribution to the language of ’60s insurgency was to call the police “pigs.” He wasn’t the first to do it, of course, but his images of hanging pigs, pigs in police uniforms, and greedy imperialist pigs made a stunning graphic representation.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Party moved into its social-program phase, and Douglas’s images correspond with that. Breakfast programs for children; shoe and clothing drives; rides for people to visit family members in prison or for the elderly to pick up their Social Security checks—Douglas provided accompanying images, although the show at the New Museum focuses more on the cinematic aspects of the Party, like the arrests and benefits to free “political” prisoners. (Panthers stress that they won over 90 percent of the cases brought to court.)
The Panthers didn’t have much in the way of resources, and Douglas wasn’t equipped with an MFA or a circle of friends versed in art theory. When pressed in an interview in the catalog, he provides one name of an artist who influenced him: Charles White, who did the illustrations for the calendar that his aunt got from her insurance company. And yet, his work parallels 1920s Soviet constructivism, German artists like John Heartfield and George Grosz, Mexican painting and graphic artists like José Guadalupe Posada and Manuel Manilla. (Durant also suggests affinities with black artists like Ruth Waddy, Sargent Johnson, and Elizabeth Catlett.)
What’s instructive about this show extends beyond the history lesson, however—art history or otherwise. One striking element is the number of women in Douglas’s images, both high-profile Panthers like Kathleen Cleaver and Ericka Huggins and ordinary grandmothers, mothers, and working women. It’s a potent reminder of why second-wave feminism was deemed a “white women’s” movement: For black women, men were the partners in struggle, instead of the oppressors.
Similarly, what this show offers is an example of a different mode of art-making, where a “career” might be imagined as something other than one forged in a gallery or institutional setting. When asked if he ever made his “own” work, Douglas replied that he didn’t have any time because he was “not only doing the art,” but “also designing the flyers, also designing booklets, banners for events.” His work—there were poster-centerfolds in many editions of the paper—was wheat-pasted on walls and hung in people’s kitchens and living rooms. It’s a stark contrast from, say, Ad Reinhardt, an engaged midcentury artist whose political cartoons bear a striking resemblance to some of Douglas’s, but who kept his painting practice separate—and claimed that art and politics should be kept apart.
Douglas’s near invisibility in the mainstream art world can be explained by the fact that art that’s deemed “political” has been effectively quarantined. The reigning art ideology in the ’60s and ’70s was a formalism that rid art of referents to the “real” world. In Douglas’s work, the real world is evident everywhere, from Vietnam to Algiers to Nixon to what’s happening on the streets of Oakland.
Durant relates that Douglas seemed ambivalent about showing his work in a museum context. No mystery there: Museums are notoriously good at ridding art objects of sticky contextual references. This exhibit makes selections that shape the context, but does a good job of attempting to translate a holistic version of Douglas’s vision. It also brings us back to Douglas’s work and the Panthers’ original raison d’être: racism. For, with all its left-leaning liberalism, the art world is as racist as the rest of the culture. Galleries are wastelands when it comes to exhibiting or employing people of color.
The Panthers’ ultimate struggle transcended racism, however. It was against oppression and capitalism and imperialism—spurred on by Marx and Frantz Fanon. For all its lip service, the commercial art world is funded by the classes skewered in Douglas’s work. It’s no wonder why, after 30 years, Douglas is getting his first major museum showing.