Emory Douglas

When you’re hanging out with your crew and you think you can drop some big names, think about Emory Douglas. Fresh out of college in the ’60s in San Francisco, he was rolling with two dudes, you’ve probably heard of: Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, co-founders of The Black Panther Party. Douglas worked as their Minister of Culture for the party until it disbanded, providing graphic art that was featured in the party’s newspaper, The Black Panther Today, Emory travels the world, showcasing his powerful political art to inspire revolution in young people across the globe. Douglas’ work is part of an ongoing exhibit at the MOCA Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California, titled “Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas.”

Emory’s propaganda art can currently be seen at STATION 4 (www.station4.co.uk) in San Francisco where the historic prints (“Warning to America”, “Our People’s Army”, “They Should Be Paying My Rent”) originally published by the Panthers newspaper between 1970-1971, are available for limited purchase as signed and numbered reproductions.

“The look that I brought to the Black Panthers was in itself just something that carried over from taking commercial art at City College. A lot of the things I did then weren’t considered to be commercial.”

 
Format: What was the inspiration for the look that you brought to the Black Panthers?
Emory Douglas: Well, the inspiration was an expression of the politics of the time. The look itself was just something that carried over from taking commercial art at City College. A lot of the things I did then weren’t considered to be commercial. When I got involved with the Black Panther party and was doing the newspaper, I was able to fall back on those things, I never gave them up, I just never tried to use them as a presentation for my portfolio while I was in school.

Format: Artistically, who would you say were some of your main influences you drew on for the work you did for the Black Panthers?
Emory Douglas: Well, I drew on more than individuals, I drew on the political art of the time, in particular OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity with People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) who were from Cuba. They put out all these wonderful political posters in solidarity with people’s struggles around the world and from time to time they would remix some of the work I did and they would send it around. But they had a large volume of work that they did that was inspired by social commentary of the work. There was a lot of work that came out of Vietnam during that time, because there was a lot of political posters about the Vietnam War. Then there was stuff here in America and also the artwork that was being done in China during that time.

Format: How did you get involved with The Black Panthers and become the Minister of Culture?
Emory Douglas: Well, that answer comes from evolving out of being a youngster during the ‘60s and feeding on the electronic media. You would see a lot of the things that were going on in the South, and you’d see the human rights violations of the civil rights movement marches and the murders that took place. I was basically wanting to do something, so when I went to City college, students wanted to get involved at the same time all across the country. You had a huge number young African American men being shot and murdered by the police and nothing ever being done. They committed a petty crime and were running from the scene and were shot in the back, no gun, those types of things. There was a high intensity level of young people wanting things to change.

It just so happened that I was doing artwork in the Black art school during that period. Some of the people that were involved in that movement [the Panthers] used to be out of San Francisco State where I used to go out there quite a bit to be involved in the cultural activity. They were planning, along with some people from the community, an event and they wanted me to do the artwork for that event. I went to the meeting and they were planning on bringing Malcolm X with Betty Shabazz to the Bay area to honor her, and they wanted me to do the poster for that event and I agreed. Then they mentioned something about some guys coming over to do security and when they came over next week, it was Huey Newton and Bobby Seal, co-founders of Black Panther Party. They had agreed to do the security and it was thereafter that I asked how I could get involved. Huey and Bobby gave me their phone number. I remember I’d just catch the bus and go over to Huey’s house in the morning and hang out and he’d show me around and we’d go by Bobby’s house. That was my initial involvement with the Black Panther Party

Format: The Black Panthers (active from 1966-1976) are no longer a significant political force, do you still see a place for a similar organizations in today’s world?
Emory Douglas: You have young people that are always wanting to know about it all over the world. I just came back from the UK and the response was overwhelming to what we were about and what we were doing. They’ve been inspired by what we were doing, not that they’re trying to duplicate. You have others call themselves the new Black Panthers but that’s nothing like what we were and there’s no connection to what we were. All over the country and the world, even in Australia. There was a great response from the Aborigines when I had my show there, many young people showed up.

So there are still people who are still knowledgeable, of all ages, who still see the significance of what we represented in that period.

Format: Artistically, are there any younger political artists who are coming in the world who remind you of yourself or are doing something revolutionary?
Emory Douglas: I don’t want to mention names, but there are quite a few. All over the country, when I was travelling for a moment and when I still travel, I’d see a lot of young artists who are inspired and want to do social commentary and they’re inspired by what I’ve done but not necessarily wanting to do it how I did it, but to figure out for themselves how they can apply it.

It is being done, everyday. I mean, you go to any march against the war in Iraq or other things that are going on in the world, you see young artists who contribute visually to those movements.

Format: What is it about political art, compared to traditional art? Would you say it is more valuable because it brings a message?
Emory Douglas: Yes, it has more value. Because it’s about informing, educating, enlightening, inspiring, it’s communicating with the people around issues of concern to the community.

Format: How did you make the jump to revolutionary to career artist?
Emory Douglas: Well, when the book came out, The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, which was co-authored by Sam Durant, a well-known artist himself, other people became aware of the work, who weren’t aware of it in the past. That just opens up for informing and educating more people to what the reality was during that time. The art played into that, being a part of informing, educating and enlightening people.

Format: What are your thoughts on Barack Obama being the first black president of the United States?
Emory Douglas: Well, it’s symbolic to me. It’s a change. Everything is a process and goes through changes and transformations, and this is a part of that process. When we go back to slavery and up to today, he’s there on the backs of many people who have sacrificed in this country for equality and what have you. From that perspective, it’s a positive. At the same time, he’s still a part of a system that doesn’t just change because he becomes President. Perhaps it gives it a more compassionate perspective on the leadership of the country. But what really determines what happens is when we begin to deal with the real issues once he’s established in office.

Connor Boals

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