As the arts and culture officer for the Black Panthers from 1967 to 1980 Emory Douglas effectively created the visual branding for the civil rights movement. His uniquely stylised illustrations for their leaflets, posters and newspapers depicted black people in a way that hadn’t previously been seen in mainstream media. By utilising an aesthetic that borrowed from the right-wing advertising images of the day to communicate the Black Panther’s left-wing ideals, Douglas’ work provoked empathy and understanding without being exploitative.
On August 18th a retrospective of Douglas’s work will open at The Outsiders on London’s Greek Street, with the man himself giving a talk on the historical context of his work the following evening. To coincide with this planned visit, Dazed Digital spoke to the artist about the continued relevance of his work and what he makes of the current unrest in the United Kingdom.
Dazed Digital: Your work for The Black Panthers utilized typically right wing, typically mainstream advertising-style imagery to communicate a left-wing agenda – how important was that?
Emory Douglas: I was trying to appeal to an ideal for a constructive purpose instead of exploitation. I took that same commercial framework and applied it to race to raise people’s awareness of the situation that they lived in.
DD: Your work reads like an advertising campaign for the issues of concern.
Emory Douglas: It is like an advertising campaign in some ways – to inform, enlighten and educate people – to inspire them. The artwork gave a visual interpretation of the struggle so it complemented what was going on during that time. It also helped make a lot of the issues clearer, particularly when you had a lot of folks who weren’t into reading a lot of material but learned through observation and participation; they could get the jist of what was going on and what we were saying through the artwork itself.
DD: Does it help a cause if it has recognisable visual branding?
Emory Douglas: Of course, but that is something that would have to evolve out of the movement. This was manufactured but it was created at a time and out of that particular time evolved artwork that caught the attention of the people and became symbolic and transcended our wildest imaginations. You see it all the time in social movements with political art, but symbolically having an art form that people gravitate to has to come out of the movement itself.
Art is very powerful at creating change because it’s everywhere, it’s very subliminal – it can have a very powerful impact. Sometimes art can just be there but it can have some impact on the individual, it can give some insight, it can be inspiring.
DD: What issues do you find yourself exploring in your current work?
Emory Douglas: I’m dealing with the issues of HIV AIDS, health, the prison industrial complex, I deal with the black on black endangered species violence that’s taking place – so I deal with those issues in my artwork. Today, I deal with war and the devastations of war, and issues of peace.
DD: What do you make of the situation in the United Kingdom?
Emory Douglas: I’ve been keeping up with the news and checking on my computer and I can see that there are some of the same things going on. Some things change but some things stay the same – you still have high rates of unemployment and young people see that and there is frustration. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that when you have a collapse of worldwide systems – bank systems, economic systems – and you spend billions of dollars to prop them up and the average person can’t make ends meet, people can become very frustrated at what they see. In situations of not having the respect of the police or authorities, all those things build up and those things are like a spark that lights the fire.
DD What do you think about the riots?
Emory Douglas: Well, the Black Panther Party was never involved like that, they always said to be organised in protests and demonstrations. You have to be organised with what you’re going to do because what you’re really doing here is destroying your home and your community and you create more fear in people who may support you than support, even though they understand and feel the same way living under the same circumstances that you do. Once things settle down and the dust is clear hopefully these folks will come to realise that. Perhaps in the future they can learn from that and come together as a more powerful force to demand justice and equality.
Emory Douglas, The Outsiders, 8 Greek Street, London, August 18 - September 10, 2011