One of the unique aspects of the Black Panthers as a political project was their emphasis on the cultural component of revolutionary work. In addition to community-based education and social programs for both children and adults, the Panthers had a house band (The Lumpen—check them out), and a Minister of Culture, the groundbreaking Emory Douglas, whose art for The Black Panther newspaper created a visual context for black liberation. Douglas’ political art came honest. His own impoverished childhood in the Bay Area was interrupted by a spell in a juvenile detention center, where he found a niche in the prison print shop. He later studied commercial art at San Francisco City College, which is where he joined the Black Students Union before being appointed Minister of Culture.
Douglas’ work is incredibly distinctive, often produced with very little budget or time. He favored bold, organic lines, thoughtful collage-work and saturated colors, creating imagery of both dignified black people and cartoonish political antagonists (often soldiers, cops or politicians depicted as rats or pigs). You’ll notice a lot of weapons—remember, the original name was “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense,” and much of the original intent was protecting black communities from police harassment—but Douglas was also invested in producing joyful or righteous images of hope. Douglas struck a perfect balance between optimism and realism, a negotiation that produced an enormous and varied body of work that still bore his unmistakable style.
Though Douglas continued producing art well after the Panther’s dissolution (most notably for the black-oriented newspaper, The San Francisco Sun Reporter) the work below is all from his tenure as Minister of Culture (between 1967 and the 1980s, though the dates for individual works are often unavailable or contested.). It’s only been since the 2000’s that Emory Douglas’ work has been curated into larger retrospective exhibits, and only since 2014 that his work has been collected into a (fantastic) book, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas—Dangerous Minds
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, formed in the aftermath of the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, remains one of the most controversial movements of the 20th-century. Founded by the charismatic Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the party sounded a defiant cry for an end to the institutionalized subjugation of African Americans. The Black Panther newspaper was founded to articulate the party's message and artist Emory Douglas became the paper's art director and later the party's Minister of Culture. Douglas's artistic talents and experience proved a powerful combination: his striking collages of photographs and his own drawings combined to create some of the era's most iconic images, like that of Newton with his signature beret and large gun set against a background of a blood-red star, which could be found blanketing neighborhoods during the 12 years the paper existed. This landmark book brings together a remarkable lineup of party insiders who detail the crafting of the party's visual identity.—Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas