Emory Douglas & The Saliency of the Black Panther’s Poster Art

Emory Douglas

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For decades, graphic artwork has shaped how issues are received in society. Advertisers hone in on art that captures and translates the desired message to the masses in a succinct and captivating way. But poster artists Emory Douglas’ work did not just deliver a message; it revolutionized a movement.

Born May 24th, 1943, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Douglas has been commonly referred to as the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto, seeing as he was no stranger to the oppression of the black community. He moved to the San Francisco Bay area when he was young, and it was there when he began a to run into trouble with the law. As a teenager, he was incarcerated

in the Youth Training School in Ontario, California, where he spent 15 months. It was during this time that Douglas began to dabble in graphic art, working in the prison’s print shop.

After his release, Douglas attended the City College of San Francisco where he became immediately drawn to and involved in the college’s Black Student Union. His upbringing as a young black male in the ghetto of the Bay Area had given Douglas a deeply harbored passion for social change, and it was his involvement with the Black Student Union that honPic2ed his energy on the oppression of African Americans. He made the decision to major in commercial art, his hope being to bridge his new passion for art with his desire to partake in social activism.

Over the course of his college career, Douglas quickly created artwork that had a style particular to himself. He combined elements of printmaking, collage work, and high art to produce easily recognizable prints that spoke to the topics of  social injustice, the thing he was passionate about eradicating. It was this distinct style that caught the eye of Bobby Seale,Pic3 who was one of the co-founders of the emergent Black Panther Party.

Seale was looking for a person to manage the creative campaign of the activist group’s newspaper, and Douglas was the man for the job. In 1967, Douglas was appointed to be the Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers where he was responsible for developing the activist group’s brand. He began creating ad artwork that he referred to as “militant-chic”and created propaganda campaign art that would be able to attract new members. The newspaper quickly became one of the most popular black newspapers with circulation eventually breaking into the 200,000s. This prominence and popularity of the newspaper gave Douglas a very notable position within the party, and with his platform, he transformed the group’s newspaper into a site of artistic visualization that depicted the oppression and disenfranchisement of the black community.

His work quickly became something transcendent, perfectly combining technical aspects of branding and advertising with aspects of art all serving the purpose of political activism for a cause Douglas was passionate about. The poster art he began creating, therefore, was not just art, nor was it just propaganda; it was something much larger.

Colette Gaiter, a professor who currently teaches graphic design at the University of Delaware and who has studied Douglas’ work in depth, says that the artist “profoundly understood the power of images in communicating ideas”. She said his work did

twoPic4 things; it “illustrated the conditions that made revolution seem necessary” and “constructed a visual mythology of power for people who felt powerless and victimized”.

His work featured figures that were distinct and recognizable to be his by his signature thick black outlines. The images he produced for the Black Panther newspaper typically reflected the “militant-chic” look he was going for, displaying African American men and women holding guns or pigs that symbolized police and the justice system on a larger scale. He utilized key points of black power fashion, clothing his figures in traditional African garbs and giving them bushy afros. He would also utilize catching headlines meant to motivate and inspire the black community to take action. He was able to formulate profound messages in just a couple of words that, when paired with his moving artwork, had an earth shattering effect. His work was raw and unfiltered as he allowed his own personal experiences to influence what he created. It had all the technical aspects of effective propaganda art, but exemplified a deeper sense of understanding for the frustration of the African American people.

It was this understanding that Douglas had that has given his art saliency over the years, where it has transformed from representation for the Blank Panthers to representation for the Black Lives Matter movement. 50 years after the fact, Douglas’ black power art has remained profound and gives a material form to black pride, linking him to many other black artists of the time who sought to bring light to the the lives of the oppressed. In this way, his art has a processual memory to it; Douglas obviously did not realize the issues he was combating at the time would still be so topical in the years to come. The art he created for the Black Panther’s confronts topics such as protest, powerful black women, justice, and generally giving power to a disenfranchised people, all topics which are still relevant today. It was Douglas’ “profound understanding” of these topics that allowed him the ability to create such salient work that is representative not of a time or of an activist group, but of a people.

His work revolutionized what the New York Times referred to as a marriage between art and activism, exemplifying how propaganda poster art has the power to not just be propaganda poster art. It can become a vessel for change and provide strength to a community who has otherwise been denied it.

Douglas’ art was and continues to be a testament of hope to black power, therefore making it something so much larger than mere poster art.

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Final Thoughts: 

One thing I did not focus on when creating my site was if Douglas continues to make work now specifically geared towards the Black Lives Matter movement. His work created in the 60s is still relevant to the cause, but I would be interested to know if he is currently making new work.

Sources: 

“Emory Douglas.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

“Emory.” South Atlantic Bulletin 31.4 (1966): 16. PDF Document. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

Russonello, Angelica Mckinley and Giovanni. “Fifty Years Later, Black Panthers’ Art Still Resonates.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Oct. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

“The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, Black Panther.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 Oct. 2008. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

 

Image Sources: 

Biography by Pitchaya Sudbanthad  September 01, 2008. “Emory Douglas’ Design Journey.” AIGA | the Professional Association for Design. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

“The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, Black Panther.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 Oct. 2008. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

 

One thought on “Emory Douglas & The Saliency of the Black Panther’s Poster Art”

  1. Emory Douglas’s art was very interesting and helped create iconic images for the BPP. She took the idea of the uniform of the BPP (my topic) and helped the BPP create their own specific aesthetic to put out into the community at large. Her work created their specific image of “black power” and I think thats really interesting.

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