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Radical art of the Black Panther Party

Review by Sarah Macaraeg | May 11, 2007 | Page 11

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, edited by Sam Durant. Rizzoli, 2007, 208 pages, $35.

FORGED IN the fires of a radicalizing civil rights movement, widespread police violence, criminally substandard living conditions and international resistance to imperialism, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) was founded in 1966 and rocked the landscape of U.S. politics.

While the government considered the BPP "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," its revolutionary politics of racial equality, solidarity with all oppressed and militant self-defense became a source of inspiration to thousands. Just as the Panthers' social programs, including health clinics and a free breakfast program, have been overlooked in comparison to its guns, the role of party member Emory Douglas, whose weapon of choice was art, has been overshadowed by the party's more famous members.

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas is a powerful book that literally presents a picture of the full breadth of the party's politics over time and serves as a testament to the potential relationship between artists and movements.

At 22 years old with a background in commercial art and the ideas of the Black Arts Movement, Douglas took on the overall design and weekly production of the BPP's newspaper, Black Panther, until it ceased in 1979. Given that Black Panther reached a circulation of 400,000 a week, this is a large contribution on its own. But Douglas's primary role was as the Party's Revolutionary Artist, creating political art that made the paper as visually stunning as it was verbally provocative.

While featuring the expected, and thoroughly amusing, scathing depictions of police and politicians as pigs, the rich collection of images in the book offers much more. As Collette Gaiter, one of the book's contributors, says of Douglas, "He showed as much versatility with different styles and techniques as a musician who can play several instruments as well as write music."

Douglas' work abounds with innovations in collage and textural techniques that ranges from flat, simple figures to finely detailed drawings, to charcoal renderings. But as Gaiter goes on to say, "The work's power is in its integrity of purpose; to make life better for all disenfranchised people of the world."

Some of the most powerful pieces--one of which sets the images of a Black soldier in Vietnam, crying children and drug abuse in the backdrop of the American flag--speak to the deep anguish felt by everyday Americans. But most of the pieces also speak to the Panthers' ideas on changing the world.

Despite whatever political limitations the BPP had, unrelenting critiques of Black capitalism, proud expressions of solidarity with other struggles for liberation and the portrayal of women as equal partners in the struggle for revolutionary change set them apart from other Black nationalist organizations--and are given many vivid expressions in Douglas' art.

Best of all, his work is essentially hopeful. While harsh conditions are never hidden from view, they are also infused with dignity, militancy, and the certainty of fundamental change. And as Douglas was shaped by the politics around him, he in turn shaped them. From Boots Riley to Danny Glover, essay after essay in the book speaks to the impact in consciousness his images helped foster. As Douglas explained in an interview, "no such thing as art for art's sake. All art was a reflection of a class outlook. Which is true, even today...I feel art should serve a purpose by doing social commentary...all of it is whether it's positive, negative, mainstream...it has some social commentary to it."

Interestingly, Douglas, who is still active on behalf of political prisoners, says he is most proud of his organizing. While we certainly need more activists on the ground, one can't also help but hope to see more art in the same tradition as Emory Douglas as well.

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