Paul Benedek, Brisbane
10 October 2009
Emory Douglas, former "Minister for Culture" in the US Black Panther
Party, spoke at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art on October 1.
Douglas is now a part of the Artist Rights Society, and remains a
committed activist artist and campaigner for social justice and empowerment.
Indigenous activist Sam Watson, a founder of the Australian chapter
of the Black Panthers, introduced Douglas. Watson described how the
writings of Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and other Panther
leaders helped Aboriginal activists also fighting racism.
"My art is in your face, without apology", Douglas told the 50 people
gathered at the gallery, as he displayed 170 images of his work.
For each image, Douglas recounted a political struggle that the
Panthers were engaged in from the struggle against the brutal
police (always portrayed as pigs in his art) and for community
control of police, through to campaigning against the Vietnam War.
Much of Douglas' art was featured in the newspaper The Black Panther,
which had a circulation up to 250,000 a week in 1971.
Crucially, Douglas used his images to incite the disenfranchised to
action. He portrayed the oppressed with real empathy, not as
victimised but as angry, unapologetic and ready to fight.
His art played two roles illustrating the conditions that made
revolution necessary, and visually showing the potential power of the
people that were victimised.
Douglas paraphrased Muhammad Ali to describe the Panther's opposition
to the Vietnam War: "We were opposed to the war, the Vietnamese
didn't call us nigger, didn't provide substandard education, didn't
make us live in poor housing."
Douglas also spoke of the community programs the Panthers had run.
"The free breakfast meals for children [provided by the Panthers]
were crucial to empowerment. How can they learn if they are hungry?"
Other community programs included a Panther ambulance, Panther health
clinics, and Panther buses to prisons so families could visit
imprisoned loved ones.
Much of Douglas' art still resonates as true today as when it was created.
Douglas still paints and recently created a work entitled "as much as
things change they stay the same", showing a handcuffed young black
man shot in the back. It was inspired by the point-blank police
shooting of a handcuffed, black man in Oakland in January.
[The "All Power to the People" exhibition is at Milani Gallery until
October 17. Visit www.milanigallery.com.au.]