emory dougas, minister of culture, black panther party

Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland
21 August - 3 October 2009

Artist’s talks in Auckland rarely pack out a venue. But it was standing room only for the crowds that filed into lecture theatres in August to hear Black Panther artist Emory Douglas talk about his work. A diverse mixture of politically motivated groups made up the audience. Grey Lynn’s Polynesian Panthers, young Anarchist-leaning hippies and others of a Green persuasion sat with students, academics, artists and graphic designers. With no empty seats available, people squatted in the isles. It felt like another time.

 Douglas was Black Panther Minister of Culture during the1960s and ’70s when the revolutionary group struggled with authorities to raise both political consciousness and basic living standards in America’s poor black urban communities. Trained as a commercial artist, he designed the party’s Black Panther newspaper as well as posters, illustrations, cards and other ephemeral material that offered information and supported the cause. A collection of these original materials was exhibited at Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery along with large reproductions of posters plastered on the gallery’s pristine walls.

Douglas’s posters and designs have the persuasive visual simplicity of advertising. Images of black people stuck in unrelenting poverty, claiming civil rights or boldly defying the ‘Pigs’ (fat, fly-infested portraits of corrupt police) are rendered in a clear-cut graphic style. Douglas’s starkly defined figures drawn against flat blocks of colour offer an immediate visual punch. It is not hard to imagine the impact they must have had on both street corners and in American university campuses. A call to action is explicit—if not an incitement to militant action (as the prevalence of guns in Douglas’s imagery suggests), then a demand to develop a sense of political agency amongst poor black communities.

It is also not hard to recognise the broader effect Douglas’s designs had as a means of consolidating the Black Panther Party’s visual identity. His illustrations motivated specific political change in American communities of the ’60s and ’70s, but today they offer a more general symbolic manifestation of the Black Panther movement. Much like the bold graphics of the Cuban and Vietnamese political posters from which Douglas took inspiration, his Black Panther designs are now emblematic of counter-cultural revolutions, movements of dissent and times past. For better or worse, this material has a retro appeal.

Certainly, a glimmer of sentimental reflection was evident in Douglas’s exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery. The cynical might suggest that this show plays its part in the commodification of revolutionary images. The fashionable prevalence of Che Guevara T-shirts and Palestinian keffiyeh scarves suggests that potent political imagery can be emptied of its original intent and context, leaving a stylish image to be easily consumed by the masses. Bearing in mind the Panther’s anti-capitalist position, I’m not sure that Douglas’s designs have made it to T-shirts yet. But there is one element of his work that does not allow for such a glossy reflection on political struggles. I blanched at the prominence of well-armed people in many of Douglas’s posters. The guns are a snag in any effort to build a glorified historical image of revolutionary activities. They remind us of the very real urgency of the Panther’s plight and, by today’s standards, they also remain provocatively aggressive.

Perhaps it this aggressive element that makes it a little odd to view Douglas’s imagery in the cool, marble-floored spaces of the Gus Fisher Gallery. An attentive viewer noted that this neo-Romanesque building was built in the 1930s to house New Zealand’s state broadcaster of radio and television. Given the anti-authoritarian sentiment of much of the Panther’s statements and their successful dissemination of information through underground networks, a potential to develop an interesting critique was missed here. The irony of the situation went unrecognised.

The Gus Fisher exhibition offered a perfunctory snapshot of Douglas’s significant body of work and was not as extensive as his other showings on this side of the globe, such as his inclusion in the 2008 Sydney Biennale, ‘Revolutions–Forms That Turn’. What were far more interesting were the events and activities that took place outside the small gallery. Connections between different political groups in New Zealand were explored. Links between the Polynesian Panthers, who took their name and incentive for social change from the American party, were rearticulated. Douglas was also hosted by members of the Tūhoe iwi whose experience of the police ‘Terror Raids’ of 2007 bear an uneasy likeness to the Panther’s battle with state prosecution. Pertinent to these events, and a real treat, was the screening of Annie Goldson’s early series of counter-terror documentaries including Framing the Panthers (1991). These examined the criminalisation of political dissent in communities in the United States and Ireland through the ideological rhetoric of ‘terrorism’. It is in these surrounding discussions and activities that Douglas’s designs and imagery held the most potential. His illustrations, although distanced from the original events they both elicited and depicted, still delivered, providing a point of coalescence for a diverse range of consciousness raising activities. The Panther phrase ‘All power to the people!’ remains on the tip of my tongue.