“Art Is a Powerful Tool”: Emory Douglas and the Language of Revolution
Douglas’s signature drawings—using techniques influenced by generations of politically active artists—continue to inspire.
Esther Adler, Andrew Gardner
Oct 5, 2021
You know Emory Douglas’s work when you see it. Bold in outline and subject matter, it’s immediately recognizable, as is its message: All Power to the People. A talented artist who studied commercial illustration and graphic design at the City College of San Francisco, Douglas was named Minister of Culture and Revolutionary Artist of the Black Panther Party when he was in his early twenties. The Party, founded in 1966 in nearby Oakland, advocated for civil rights and Black self-determination, immediately positioning itself as a crusader against the oppression of minority communities across the country and around the world. Douglas acquired his position within the Party by attending local political and cultural events organized by the Black community, and by showing a willingness to use his considerable graphic talents to serve the Party’s goals, as laid out clearly in their platform and published in every issue of the newspaper: “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.”
Douglas’s art was uniquely suited to communicate this message—generally figurative, with faces and bodies heavily outlined in black and set against boldly colored backgrounds, his images are legible even before you read their captions. While the visual style of his work was shaped in part by budgetary constraints and the tools he had access to, he was aiming for a “woodcut look.” This is no surprise given the long tradition of artists using woodcut and linocut prints to address the issues of their time—like Käthe Kollwitz and Leopoldo Mendez, who created wrenching images of death and mourning linked to the horrors of war. (For a broad historical sampling of works like these, see our colleagues’ current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Douglas also used collage and photomontage, incorporating ready-made images from a variety of photographic sources into his drawings.
Emory Douglas. Cover of The Black Panther Newspaper, vol. 4, no.13 (Our main purpose). 1970
Emory Douglas. Back cover of The Black Panther Newspaper, vol. 3, no. 29 (An unarmed people are slaves or subjected to slavery at any given time). 1969
The 20th century is full of artists who similarly found these techniques particularly suited to revolutionary times: MoMA’s recent exhibition Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented highlighted the persuasive possibilities of photomontage specifically, including compelling works by Natalia Pinus. Her image of a woman worker is accessible even to those of us who don’t read Russian, with the groups of well-tended, happy kids in sunny outdoor spaces reassuring us while the smiling textile worker focuses on her job. Douglas’s inclusion of a baby photo pinned to the coat of his drawn fighter (at left) is very different in tone, but nonetheless delivers as clear a message about taking care of the kids. The Panthers were fighting for the future: “We always talked about that, the children are the ones who make the revolution, as an ongoing process,” Douglas said in a recent interview.
The growing popularity of lithographic printing in the late 19th century made the distribution of politically engaged art possible on a mass scale all over the world. But in the 1960s it was the art of his own time that most immediately inspired Douglas, who looked to artists in Cuba and elsewhere as collaborators and fellow Revolutionary Artists: “You had a whole movement of posters to be in spirit with, and to be inspired by.” The Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, known as OSPAAAL) encouraged shared support for liberation movements across the world, a message that Douglas promoted by allowing his drawings and designs to be copied and remixed by OSPAAAL artists (“which was not plagiarizing at that time,” Douglas says, “because it was in solidarity, in that context”). The Black Panthers supported them further through newspaper articles as well. Closer to home, they shared pages of several 1969 issues with Basta Ya, a newspaper published by Los Siete de la Raza, a group fighting for Latinx rights in San Francisco. The visual language of protest—figurative, a combination of photos and drawings with strong messages, and bold block text—allowed for stylistic solidarity among the many different groups fighting for equality across the US and the world. Douglas was a critical voice in developing that language in ways that spoke to his own Black community, and continues to influence artists to the present day.
Elena Serrano. Day of the Heroic Guerrilla. 1968
Front and back cover, The Black Panther Newspaper, vol. 3, no. 20 (Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale). 1969
Nowhere is Douglas’s language more available, and more impressive, than in the pages of the Black Panther newspaper. His art on the front and back cover of each issue entices the reader into the packed interior pages, sometimes punctuated by a single color (another budgetary restriction that resulted in a signature visual style) and smaller drawings. The experience of reading the newspaper, and of encountering his images among a broad range of texts, is mirrored in the contemporary artist Bouchra Khalili’s publication The Radical Ally, produced for her exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2019. Khalili’s research and film Twenty-Two Hours explores the Black Panther Party in New England and the French poet Jean Genet’s support for its cause, but the publication she produced for it hearkens back to Douglas’s work, complete with the Black Panther Party platform printed on the first page.
Spread from The Black Panther Newspaper, vol. 3, no. 17 (Eldridge Cleaver’s new baby), 1969, including the Black Panther Party Platform and Program
The Panthers’ platform, known as the Ten Point Program (see above), called for an end to racialized oppression and human suffering in the US and around the world. It appeared in every issue of the newspaper and inspired Douglas to write his own Political Artist Manifesto. Number four on Douglas’s list: “Recognize that art is a powerful tool, a language that can be used to enlighten, inform and guide to action.” Number eight: “Make an effort not to create political art dealing with social issues just because it’s a fun, cool thing to do. Create art that challenges the colonization of the imagination.” And, finally, number 12: “Don’t lose sight of what the goals are.” Indeed, throughout his career and beyond his time working on the Black Panther newspaper, Douglas has remained relentlessly on-message, aware that art has always had the power to challenge the status quo.
Emory Douglas will join curators on Thursday, October 14, at 7:00 p.m. EST for a live-streamed discussion of his work. He will also hold a workshop with emerging artists as part of MoMA’s Art and Practice series, moderated by Professor Colette Gaiter, on Wednesday, November 3. You can further explore the printed legacy of the Black Panther Party and the Black Power movement through the Museum of Fine Art, Boston’s Black Power in Print project, launching October 15.
Black Power in Print: The Black Panther Newspapers at MoMA
Rescued from a storage closet, a dusty box contained a trove of Emory Douglas’s iconic graphic work for the Black Panther Party.
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