With the February shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth in Florida, and the passing of Rodney King this summer, the simultaneously blunt and nuanced work of Emory Douglas sadly retains its necessity. If it is no longer a call to action, it continues to insist that the case is far from closed on racial equality.
There has, in recent years, been a resurgence of interest in Douglas. He featured prominently in the groundbreaking touring show ‘For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights’ (2010–11); was included in a 2011 group show about Jean Genet’s relationship to the Black Panthers at Nottingham Contemporary; and was also the subject of a 2009 retrospective at the New Museum in New York. ‘Seize the Time’ at Kendall Koppe was a small solo exhibition which centred on a series of framed pages, dating from 1968–70, which were taken from The Black Panther, the party broadside. Douglas was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until its dissolution in 1980. Though they are deeply political in content, these lithographs on newsprint stand as wondrously coded and moving works of art.
In the selection of prints shown at Kendall Koppe, Douglas’s imagery calls upon young and old, northerner and southerner, male and female, to assume an aggressively defensive posture. In the face of lynchings, assassinations and government-sanctioned subjugation (all of which took place in the US well into the 1960s), the repeated mottos ‘Shoot to Kill’ and ‘Kill the Fascist Pigs’ are understandable expressions of anger and frustration, if not, for some, acceptable as calls to action. In one of this series of vignettes, for example, emblazoned with the words ‘BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY UNLESS YOU GOT SOMETHING BETTER’, a mature black woman, wide-girthed and wearing a headscarf that can only be a reference to the racially deprecating images of Aunt Jemima or Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, pours a green bucket of ‘Lye and Acid’ onto a drooling and fly-ridden troupe of armed ‘fascist pigs’ who chant ‘Nigger Nigger Nigger …’
While the protagonists are black people, the enemy is dehumanized as pigs, but in this dehumanization the line is not drawn strictly with another race but with the establishment as an institution that distorts and twists its adherents. In so doing, Douglas sidesteps the racist rhetoric of his adversaries (and many of his compatriots), seeking unity even while remaining staunchly militant – an impressive balance. By the late 1960s, the Panthers had moved away from militancy and toward wide-ranging social programmes, as did the focus of Douglas’s work, though this show focused predominantly on his confrontational imagery.
On one wall of the gallery, hand-painted on either side of the entrance, was a scaled-up and faithfully reproduced illustration of Douglas’s from The Black Panther: a crowd of men, women and children march forward armed with guns, knives and dynamite; on the other side, pigs are running or falling to the ground riddled with bullets. It is a historical document, a work which directly engages the Panthers’ conflict with the former mayor of San Francisco, Joseph Alioto, and his Tactical Squad (one of the marchers wields a sign ‘Alioto and his Tac squad are gonna fall, the people will kill them all’). Douglas’s work since the early 1970s has been about empowerment and raising awareness of the achievements of the civil rights movement and the Panthers. By returning to his angry and sometimes brutal early work, this exhibition in Glasgow served as a reminder, or even a demand, for increased action at a time of diminished expectations and faltering political activism in the US. The unfortunate fact of the matter, and of the mural on the wall of the gallery, is that some of the pigs still seem to be getting away.