“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.”
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.
Oct 12, 2021
Gordon Parks: Seeing Color in Black and White
The groundbreaking photographer compels us to look beyond easy categories.
Jul 14, 2020