By Daniel Serge
The Black Panthers were the revolutionary movement of black America
in the 1960s. They opposed police brutality with armed self-defence,
organized around an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist platform, and
at their height produced a weekly newspaper of over 100,000 copies.
The artist of that newspaper was Emory Douglas. His collages combined
stark images of African-Americans in rebellion, with caricatures of
police and politicians. They came to define not just the Black
Panthers, but the black liberation movement as a whole.
Some of those images are on display until October 11 at the Toronto
Free Gallery, 1277 Bloor Street West, in the show "All Power To The
People! Graphics of the Black Panther Party 1966-1974" [The show is
on tour: SNAP in Edmonton Oct. 23-Nov. 29; Ace Art Inc. in Winnipeg
Jan. 23-Feb. 28 NS]. The exhibit displays a range of Douglas' work,
from his iconic collages to speeches and manifestos of the Black
Panther Party itself. In vivid oranges, the Party discusses the
nature of guerrilla warfare in an interview with revolutionary
theorist Regis Debray. Party leader Huey Newton's face appears iconic
in black silhouette on posters calling for his release from prison.
Douglas' work is striking and innovative, even 40 years on. The
yellowing newsprint – the posters are from original newspapers –
don't diminish the images' power.
The exhibition itself is well-organized, moving from the Panthers'
beginning in self-defence squads, to the zenith of their power as
their influence spread throughout American cities, and the rest of
the New Left; to their decline under pressure from the FBI's
counter-intelligence program, and the centrifugal pressures of the
new left itself. That Douglas could document the Panthers' response
to these trends shows how talented and flexible an artist he is.
The show reveals the Panthers learnt new things too. The exhibition
gives prominence to a position statement by Huey Newton, calling for
an alliance with the lesbian and gay liberation movement. This is a
vital historical piece, given the Panthers are often condemned as
sexist and homophobic, with no recognition of how they shifted to a
broad anti-oppression politic, through cross-pollination with the
rest of the New Left.
In his interview with Fuse Magazine, Douglas – still working as an
artist – reaffirms his commitment to political art, going so far as
to denounce non-political art as serving the oppressor by remaining
silent on injustice. This reviewer disagrees: liberal politics may
justify the status quo, but art is not politics and deserves space to
be autonomous. However, Douglas has earned the right to his opinion.
Whether the gallery has earned the right to show his work is another
matter. The gallery is located at one of the centres of drug use in
Toronto, Bloor and Lansdowne. Cheek by jowl with the poor and
marginalized – communities the Panthers tried to mobilize – the
gallery ignores them. Opening night was filled with well-dressed
hipsters, many of whom appeared far more concerned with each other
than the revolutionary politics on the wall.
It may be an inevitable that once art is hung in a gallery, it loses
its immediacy. Certainly, the Free Gallery isn't responsible for the
lack of housing and social welfare policy that pushed drug users to
Bloor & Lansdowne, nor the creeping gentrification that is pushing
them out again. But the gallery made no attempt to stay true to the
political vision of the Black Panthers. It could have featured
activist literature from OCAP, No One Is Illegal or other campaigns
of the dispossessed in Toronto. Better yet, it could have featured a
talk about the Black Panthers and their relevance to today. Instead
it just hung the art on the wall and provided no explanation, leaving
today's context to dictate how the art would be received: as pretty
pictures, exercises in aesthetic rebellion, but not the calls to arms
they were meant to be.
The organizers of "All Power To The People" can be commended for
bringing Douglas' beautiful, timely work to the public eye. They can
be chastised for failing to see that Douglas' art demands more than
appreciation: it needs action.
Daniel Serge is a Converse/skinny jean/cardigan-wearing hipster
kickin' it to ya in Toronto.