The use of the visual to propagate ideas has been utilized for centuries in many historical contexts. Art can transcend words; it is this inherent ability that makes it so potent. Every social or political movement has incorporated imagery that makes it immediately identifiable. For the Black Panther Party, it was and continues to be the artistic vision and work of Emory Douglas.
In 1967, Douglas met Black Panther co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton at a student organized event at San Francisco State for which Douglas had done the publicity artwork. After expressing the desire to get involved with the Black Panther cause, Douglas was invited to meet with Seale and Newton. It was at this meeting that the first issue of The Black Panther magazine was conceived. Douglas, seeing the only available materials to be marker and a typewriter, offered his skills and materials (acquired from commercial art courses at San Francisco City College) to the production of the magazine. Leaving and returning within an hour, Seale was so impressed with his commitment, he asked Douglas to be the Party’s Revolutionary Artist, or Minister of Culture, and oversee the production of the magazine.
Until the Party was disbanded in the early 1980s, Douglas created a myriad of images for the magazine that acted as a visual interpretation of and catalyst for the goals of the Black Panther movement. Rather than merely depicting the victimized, Douglas set himself apart by empowering his subject with the use of bold, thick lines, saturated local color, graphic prints and an engaging, intentional gaze. The faces represented the oppressed but in a way that rendered them capable and in control of the future, not helplessly complicit. Participation, rather than sympathy, was implored. Combined with compelling statements that spoke to the core beliefs of the Party, Douglas’ artwork mobilized a generation to take an active role in the shaping of their lives and communities. His work serves as a visual record of a pivotal civil rights movement. “The art reflected the transitions the Party went through, that inner process . . . visually, from militant self defense to a more politically engaged approach,” says Douglas. It is a testament to the power of art for social change. Undeniably relevant in both today’s domestic and global political climate, Douglas’ legacy is one of unwavering determination and passion for social justice.
In collaboration with Station 4 Gallery and Chuck Sperry of the Oakland-based Firehouse Kustom Rockart Company, Douglas has created three (out of an eventual series of 12) historic, limited edition, silk-screened art prints of images first seen and published in the 1970-71 issues of The Black Panther.
Read the full story to learn more about the prints, where to get them and to hear about my meeting with Emory Douglas.
Available now through Station 4 Gallery’s website, each print is hand signed and numbered by
Douglas. So go ahead, treat yourself to a gorgeous, progressive piece of history!
Each piece speaks to a different message. “Warning to America” encourages self determination through self defense, and refers to psychological warfare and rhetoric; “Our People’s Army” stresses the need for preparedness and action; and “They Should Be Paying My Rent” addresses housing inequalities and exploitation.
I had the opportunity to meet Douglas on Thursday night at Babylon Falling, where fellow former Panther Billy X Jennings has opened up his personal archive of radical underground newspapers for exhibition. Both spoke about their involvement with the Black Panther Party, the impact it has had on their lives, the trials and tribulations of revolutionary journalism, and traveling the world sharing their passion for community activism. It was truly inspiring to see such dedication, very much alive and kicking almost 40 years later.
Douglas’ advice for future generations and on art as social commentary? “You need to be informed: struggle is always evolving and always changing. Be aware of that.”
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