Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Hippie Modernism, the ongoing series Counter Currents invites a range of individuals and collectives—from writer Geoff Manaugh and artist-archivist Josh MacPhee to Are.na and Experimental Jetset—to share how countercultural artists and designers of the 1960s and ’70s have influenced their work and thinking today. Here, artist Dread Scott discusses the influence of Black Panthers artist Emory Douglas.
In 1966, the world was much the horror that humanity faces today. Black people were catching hell in America, and Huey Newton and Bobby Seal formed the Black Panther Party to end this. The BPP was revolutionary and there was nothing like them in America at the time. They had their black leather jackets and looked badass. They were armed and defended the people against police violence and brutality. And they were attempting to apply Mao’s “little red book” to making revolution in America and putting revolution in the air in a big way. They were truly radical. Soon after the Panthers formed Emory Douglas became their Minister of Culture and was designing their newspaper, The Black Panther, including many of its covers.
Emory is a giant. He made visual what the BPP was about. It helped sell their newspaper—more than 125,000 copies per week nationally—and connect the people to the Panther’s program and mission. In doing so, he invented a whole new visual language and style. His art was sophisticated and visually strong, which is even more amazing given the relatively low quality two-color printing the Panther newspaper used. But what was really pathbreaking was the way he made heroic images of Panther leaders and ordinary people alike fighting the power. Those he foregrounded, poor Black people, were rarely the subject of art, and if ever they were, they were even less frequently shown as the agents of social change and emancipation. Even more tradition-breaking, many of his works presented women as armed leaders.
His work drew on imagery and iconography from the Cultural Revolution in China. With this, he created a powerful new visual culture in its own right but one that also linked the struggle that Panthers were waging with revolutions around the world. While a main theme of his work was to show people as responsible for their own liberation, he also depicted the police as pigs, complete with flies. The powerful graphics often were paired with text like, “All power to the people. Death to the pigs.” His art encouraged people to have confidence in the the masses and utter contempt for oppressors. This certitude, vision, and lack of cynicism is something I wish more people exhibited today.
The BPP’s bold vision of revolution, armed revolution, was a breath of fresh air. It was inspiring, challenging, and welcomed by many from the ghettos to the college campuses. Emory’s symbolism of all manner of armed and defiant Black people was a profound rupture with how people had conceived of radical change. To young rebels in the 1960s putting a final nail in Jim Crow’s coffin and setting their sights on even more substantive change, Emory’s art must have been truly electrifying. Though the tendency of his work to concentrate the totality of revolutionary change as armed resistance reflected a still developing BPP strategy that could not successfully lead millions of people to overthrow US imperialism, Emory’s art is very deep and very inspiring.
As a young artist and revolutionary in the mid-1980s, I was searching for how to make art that served the people. The revolutionary movement of the ’60s had ebbed, but there was still a crying need for revolution. Discovering radical artists like Leon Golub, Hans Haacke, Roy DeCarava, and John Heartfield was critical for my development. But how did you make work that connected people with the need for revolution, in America, specifically one that included poor Black people?
Some of my art history books had works from the Soviet Avant Garde and a little on the Mexican muralists. I sought out peoples’ art and discovered Rent Collection Courtyard and peasant paintings from socialist China. I grew up in Chicago and lived with remnants of the Black Arts Movement on the walls of my neighborhood, but this was limited and fading. I was inspired by Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panther Party, but this was in the ’80s and you couldn’t just Google “Black Panther art.” Then a friend showed me a couple of old and tattered copies of the Black Panther newspaper. Seeing Emory’s covers was liberating. I knew of Emory, but I had never seen anything like this, and seeing the actual paper was truly exhilarating, but it was like seeing a unicorn. The history, politics, and art of the Panthers was buried. This shit was banned and unfortunately these few beat-up copies of the paper were almost all I would see of his art until a monograph of his work was published two decades later.
Emory was who he was because of Huey and the BPP. The political ideas that they were grappling with, applying, and leading hundreds of thousands of people to take up, were crucial for developing his thinking and art. This was not art in a vacuum. Much like Aleksandr Rodchenko, Sergei Eisenstein, and the Stenberg Brothers in the Soviet Union, this was art in the service of, and developed in the context of, revolution, and it was inspired by the revolutionary theory of the day.
People should be inspired by Emory’s art and the BPP, and they should deeply study his work. There is a lot that is pathbreaking here. And to really be on the mission that Emory was part of blazing a trail for, I would encourage people to engage the talks and writing of Bob Avakian. Initially radicalized by the uncompromising revolutionary ideals of the BPP, Avakian, leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, has gone on to develop a new synthesis of communism. This New Synthesis is a vision of a world without without classes and without exploitation, complete with a strategy of how to get there. In 2011, on the occasion of the publication of BAsics, a collection of Avakian’s writings, Emory wrote a short statement of support that recalled meeting Avakian back in the day and the influence that conversations with Eldridge Cleaver had on the young Avakian. From his statement, it’s clear that Emory also has not given up on revolutionary ideals of his youth.
The world is still a horror and still cries out for fundamental change. We are at a moment. For the first time in decades, people are really starting to lift their heads and fight back; meanwhile, powerful forces are trying to drag the people through all manner of suffering. The hour is late and there is an urgent need for a movement for revolution and a real need for a revolutionary new culture to be in the mix. With this in mind, there is a lot to learn from Emory’s art and his confidence that the people can make a radically different world.
All power to the people.
Dread Scott “makes revolutionary art to propel history forward.” In 1989, the US Senate denounced his artwork for its use of the American flag, and President Bush declared the work “disgraceful.” His art has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, and at the Walker Art Center, where his work I Am Not a Man was featured in the 2014 exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. A contributor to the Walker’s Artist Op-Ed series, where he addressed the police killing of Michael Brown, his latest performance work, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (2014), features the artist attempting to walk forward while being repeatedly battered and occasionally knocked down by a water jet from a fire hose.