Emory Douglas' art takes him from Black Panthers to the Walker

Poster by Emory Douglas
Emory Douglas shared some of his work, including this poster, as part of a panel discussion at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.
Courtesy of Emory Douglas

Artist Emory Douglas has been called the "Norman Rockwell of the ghetto."

Douglas was the Black Panther Party's "minister of culture" for 13 years, during which time he oversaw the art for the movement's official weekly newspaper. He used his graphic design skills to create provocative images that criticized the police and the government while drawing attention to the poor and oppressed.

This week Douglas was in the Twin Cities for a talk at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, and his work is currently on display at the Walker Art Center as part of "Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia."

Douglas said for him, the measure of success was simply being able to continue what he was doing.

"It wasn't about being patted on the back," he said. "It was about continuing to share and inform, enlighten and educate about issues. That's what the work's about. ... we did it under some strenuous circumstances, but it had to be done."

Emory Douglas
Emory Douglas served as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 to 1980.
Courtesy Sean Roberts

Formed in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., the Black Panther Party (originally the "Black Panther Party for Self-Defense") was created to monitor police behavior in response to growing police brutality. Soon the party added other programs to its mission; it offered community health clinics and free breakfasts for children. Articles in the Panthers' newspaper discussed sickle-cell anemia and other community issues. At the height of its success it was printing 400,000 copies every week.

The FBI labeled the Black Panthers a threat to national security.

"What's really fascinating to me is to think about the language and the rhetoric that was attempting to define the Black Panthers as militant, as violent. The 'thug' word emerged then as well," said Sarah Bellamy, artistic co-director of Penumbra. "Those are coded messages when we're thinking about people that are feeding children, and creating programs for people to have babysitters so that they can go to work."

For young activists, the paper was food for the soul.

"We couldn't wait to see an issue of the Black Panther party paper," said artist Seitu Jones. "It was bold and audacious and we would talk about the articles and the artwork ... 'Did you see that? Did you see that?!' It was this point of information and inspiration to all of us. And it served as a point of inspiration to artists like myself."

Douglas' art strived to represent the black community in Oakland and to demean the police by portraying them as pigs. Activists and artists today worry about how such work might be co-opted for profit. One audience member observed that peace signs are now ubiquitous.

I Gerald Ford
I Gerald Ford Am the 38th Puppet of the United States, September 21, 1974
Courtesy of Emory Douglas

"I think that there is a lot of co-opting when you start to look at how developers or city entities use artists to misrepresent [their intentions]," said Roger Cummings, founder and artistic director of Juxtaposition Arts. "A lot of the place-making movement — you're seeing them go into communities and do some little motions that are really laying the path for gentrification and for development. ... Just because you're an artist does not mean you're a good person. You need to be able to always check an artist's intentions."

Another audience member wanted to know how Emory Douglas had managed to stay an "outsider" artist-activist for close to 50 years.

"When you're an outsider, you can be provocative and do what you do to try to correct injustice," responded Douglas. "It's no problem to be outside of the context of exploitation, outside of the context of bigotry, outside of a system of institutionalized racism. That's the best place to be."

Douglas' work has gained increasing appreciation from the more mainstream arts world over the years. He is a 2015 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Graphic Art. (He's only the second black man ever to receive the award.) His work can be seen at the Walker Art Center through February.

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