Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Emory Douglas: Seize The Time


Kendall Koppe, Glasgow International 2012
April 12th-May 7th

'In Revolution one wins, or one dies.' When this slogan appeared aloft 
Emory Douglas' image of a couple of beret-clad African-American 
guerillas on a big-screen back-drop at major concert halls around the 
world, it was a far cry from the roots of Douglas' work thirty years 
before. Then, such visual provocations were on the front-line of the 
American black power movement via the pages of The Black Panther 
Party's weekly newspaper, which regularly sold more than 250,000 copies.

In the current climate of born-again activism, the archive of Douglas' 
newspaper images, collages, posters and lithographs that visits GI is 
especially pertinent. Fusing the iconic immediacy of poster art with a 
loaded polemical intent, the images by the Black Panthers Minister of 
Culture up until the party's demise in 1980 are a living record of one 
of the most turbulent times of American history that neither preaches 
nor patronises.

“To me it's about sharing the ideals,” says Douglas today, “It's about 
getting information out there and enlightening people. Art is something 
that people observe and learn through, whether it's subliminal or very 
provocative. It's communication. Once you understand that, you can 
learn to get your message across in a broader way. I see some young 
artists trying to do that, but it looks coded. If you learn that it's 
about communication, art can become a profound tool for change.”

The man dubbed by critic Colette Gaiter as the Norman Rockwell of the 
ghetto fell in with the Panthers while making props for plays by 
radical black writer LeRoi Jones, (who would later change his name to 
Amiri Baraka), who was presenting his work in San Francisco campuses, 
community centres and shop-front spaces. After attending a meeting he'd 
designed the poster for, Douglas visited the Panther patronised 
political/cultural centre The Black House, where the likes of Jones and 
the Art Ensemble of Chicago were regulars. Here he found Panther 
Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver poring over the first issue of 
the party's rather dry-looking tabloid weekly, and told him he could 
make it look better. It was the beginning of a great, if somewhat 
stormy, adventure.

“We were in coalition politics,” says Douglas. “We weren't in 
isolation. We had solidarity with groups in Vietnam and Korea. In 
America the latinos formed the Brown Berets inspired by us, and there 
were other groups. That whole period changed how the dialogue in this 
country worked, with young people beginning to define things for 
themselves.”

After four decades working on socially and politically aware 
community-based projects, it was only in 2007 that the world 
rediscovered Douglas via the publication of Black Panther: The 
Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas. The concerts, featuring  the likes 
of proto-Rap street-gurus The Last Poets, latter-day hip-hop troupe The 
Roots and free-jazz saxophonist David Murray, were a form of 
pop-cultural entryism rather than what Tom Wolfe dubbed in a famous 
1970 essay as radical chic.

Similarly, Douglas quite correctly points out that mainstream exposure 
of his work in museums is down to “open-minded people who open the work 
up to a new audience, where in the past it would've been black-listed, 
and that's a plus. The pictures are fine in themselves, but once you 
get the history behind them, you see it's not just art, but art with a 
meaning.”

The List, March 2012

ends

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