Thursday, 9 September 2010

BLACK PANTHER ARTIST - EMORY DOUGLAS - IN NEW ZEALAND

Power of the Panther

NZ Herald, 22 Aug, 2010

One of the first things Emory Douglas had to do in his new
job in January 1967 was to draw the pig. "Huey and Bobby
would come over after organising in the evenings and they
would talk about the pig - how they defined the police as
pigs."

That's Huey Newton and Bobby Seale who had just founded the
Black Panther Party in October 1966 in Oakland, California.
Douglas, then a 23-year-old commercial art student, was
doing his best to take the idea on board. "This is all new
to me. I'm a new kid on the block. This is on-the-job
learning. I'm listening and trying to figure out how I
could express in art form what was requested of me. My
whole experience was interpreting what was being projected
and articulated verbally."

When he talks it's a mix of street and artspeak. Cool. Very
down. What was being projected was point No 7 of the Black
Panther's Ten Point Programme - "an immediate end to police
brutality and murder of black people." It was a programme
born out of socialist and communist doctrines mixed with
black nationalism, militant posture and plenty of
provocative rhetoric.

The party's uniform was blue shirts, black pants, black
leather jackets, black berets, shades and loaded shotguns -
for self defence. The party had reclaimed the American
constitutional right to bear arms - only in this case,
blacks were protecting themselves from the police.

Organised neighbourhood patrols were common - perfectly
legal under Californian law which allowed carrying a loaded
rifle or shotgun in public, as long as it was publicly
displayed and pointed at no one.

This was the new wild west of social change and a tactic
that promoted two very different tellings of history. One
is the story of the Black Panthers as hoodlums and
gun-toting gangsters who terrorised their communities. The
other is the Black Panthers as a legitimate social protest
movement - dedicated young blacks serving the people while
heroically defending themselves against unprovoked attacks
by the racist police.

At the time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called them "the
greatest threat to the internal security of the country"
and ordered via its counter intelligence programme
'COINTELPRO' extensive covert and illegal methods to
"expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise
neutralise" the party's activities.

It's a legacy that lives on. "Even at our 40th anniversary
people were trying to say we were terrorists and that we
were hoodlums and thugs and criminals," says Douglas who is
here as the Elam International Artist in Residence at the
University of Auckland. "Thousands of people came from all
over the world to the 40th celebrations - they showed
different. They tried to say we were racists. The
progressive whites and activists came forward and they
refuted all of that."

The year 1967, when he offered his commercial art skills to
help produce the fledgling Black Panther newspaper, was the
beginning of Douglas' party politicisation. Already a
member of San Francisco City College's Black Student Union
and involved in the Bay area Black Arts movement, he was a
fast learner. He knew about youth correctional facilities
too. "The fact that you understood the bigotry and
hypocrisy of the authorities first hand, those experiences
kind of shaped what I did."

His pig-in-uniform drawings were crude and provocative -
the pig was always fat bellied, with exaggerated snout and
usually with insects swarming around the head. "That came
from seeing pigs and the slime they're eating and they have
the flies flying around them. In American culture that was
a grotesque thing."

The captions were provocative too: "A low-natured beast
that has no regard for law, justice or the rights of
people, a creature that bites the hand that feeds it, a
foul, depraved traducer, usually found masquerading as the
victim of an unprovoked attack."

Newton and Seale liked what they saw and before long
Douglas had a job title like no other - Revolutionary
Artist and Minister of Culture - and a free hand to draw as
he saw fit. "When I first started working, Bobby and Huey
made sure I understood the politics of what the party was
about. Once they saw that I understood that, and could
articulate it in my artwork, I was given the green light."

The green light - the back page of the weekly Black Panther
newspaper published from 1967 through to 1980 - unleashed
Douglas' pent-up talent and a style of drawing that he'd
tried before, but which had been rejected at commercial art
school. At its peak, from 1968-72, the Black Panther sold
about 100,000 copies a week on street corners and college
campuses across the United States.

Douglas' back-page poster image was often reprinted and
pasted on the walls of the street. In tribute to his visit
here, a run of his posters have been plastered around
Symonds St. "It reminds me of what we used to say - our
gallery is the community," says Douglas.

His style began with cartoon-like, thick black outline
drawings which developed to include collage and patterns
from Format, a less expensive version of Letraset. He liked
woodcuts, but found them too time-consuming for the demands
of a weekly deadline. "I tried to mimic woodcuts by using
markers and hard ballpoint pen lines, then using the
prefabricated textured material that you could cut out to
get the tones and the contrasts."

There are three phases that come and go and resurface in
Douglas' drawings. "The pig drawings are the earlier work.
Then there were the self defence drawings, then the ones
that dealt with social programmes."

The comic book style self defence images are the most
confronting - guns in the hands of defiant black men and
women in response to the oppressor that seem like a call to
arms, to rise up and fight. The captions reinforce the
idea: "All power to the people. Death to the pigs." Douglas
says they were about empowering and fighting for freedom.
And effecting change. "It was making them heroes. People
begin to see themselves in the images and they become the
heroes on the stage. They can identify with that."

But while the style is evidence of propaganda and a visual
mythology to give power to the people, it's easy to see how
some might be fearful of such images. Douglas is staunch:
"Those who were frightened were frightened. Those who
admired them weren't."

The social programme drawings, borne out of the Panther's
Ten Point Programme demands for decent housing, education
and employment, are softer, but more confronting in terms
of the predicament and emotion expressed. Here, Douglas
shows the conditions that made the revolution seem
necessary. In one, a woman fights off rats (landlords)
attacking her in her home. "I was trying to show a person
trying to overcome the conditions - exaggerating the
housing situation - but at the same time showing a person
who had politics in their life. Even though they were
struggling they were still concerned with the issues of
that time."

Animals - pigs, rats and vultures - feature often as
representations of not just the police and authority, but
also the entire capitalist military/industrial system. In
one image relating to the New Haven Black Panther trials in
1970 when Seale was imprisoned, the caption reads: "If the
fascist pigs attempt to murder chairman Bobby Seale and the
Connecticut Panthers in the electric chair, there won't be
any lights for days."

They were meant to be provocative, says Douglas. "And some
were meant to be humorous. So this was just saying the
blood sucking vulture is the US Government being choked by
the extension cord and hit on the head with the light
bulb."

Point six in the party's programme was "all black men to be
exempt from military service." Douglas' images relating to
the issue were often about the Vietnam War and the effects
it had on those returning, such as drug addiction. It was
important, he says, to have authentic detail. "There were
people in the party who had been ex-drug addicts. When I
did this drawing [an addict shooting up] I had one brother
pose for me. But I also asked what kind of syringes and
stuff they used and that's there - what they use out on the
street."

Douglas was very aware of other revolutionary propaganda
art of the time. "We were getting posters from Africa,
Latin America, out of Palestine and Vietnam and seeing
Chinese and Russian, plus the American art protest work. I
was mostly inspired by the work that came out of Cuba."

He says those who went there with the Venceremos Brigades
to show solidarity for the Cuban Revolution often came back
saying his drawings had come from there. Douglas insists it
was the other way round. "It was amazing, they remixed some
of my images." It's amazing too how the party's message
spread around the world, including to New Zealand's
Polynesian Panthers.

The party also got considerable support from white America
including the Honkies for Huey campaign and composer
Leonard Bernstein and friends who held fundraising parties.
The latter was lampooned by journalist Tom Wolfe in 1970 as
"radical chic" - the social elite endorsing radical causes
to assuage white guilt.

As Douglas sees it, Wolfe was buying into the
disinformation campaign. "People donate if they want to."

Did it feel like a revolution in America? "We were hopeful.
We had a swagger about ourselves believing that we could
achieve what we set out to achieve. That was overcoming the
obstacles of transforming society. And we were doing that.
It was the ideal that we were changing the mindset of
people."

Douglas, like other Black Panthers, has obtained the file
the FBI had on him showing the level of surveillance that
was going on - the tracking of his travel, his bank account
(which had $64 in it at the time) and the questioning of
his mother and aunt.

He's yet to get his file from Operation CHAOS, the code
name for the domestic espionage project conducted by the
CIA. But the picture emerging as the information becomes
declassified shows the extraordinary measures that were
taken by the authorities to discredit the party - including
letters on forged Black Panther letterhead threatening to
kill donors to the party if they didn't give more. Douglas
agreed there were problems within the party itself that led
to its dissolution in the early 1980s - Newton getting
caught up in drugs and substance abuse and in-fighting
among party factions. But he says the Government's
discrediting campaign also played a big part.

"The fact is what we did is still something people are
inspired by. There is the solidarity and coalition
politics. That's the legacy of what the Black Panther Party
left - kind of like a blueprint that people could be
inspired by."

===========

EXHIBITION

What: Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture, Black Panther
Party exhibition Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74
Shortland St, October 3 On the web:
www.gusfishergallery.auckland.ac.nz Public events: Emory
Douglas and the Art of Revolution - lecture University of
Auckland Engineering Building Monday August 24, 6:30pm; MC5
and the White Panthers - Gus Fisher Gallery, August 29, 1pm

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