Interview With Revolutionary Artist Emory Douglas

Fol­low­ing my present­a­tion on Emory Douglas’s art at the “Strike The Empire Back” event on the 14th of June 2014 in Lad­broke Grove I was able to inter­view Emory and dis­cuss his insights and exper­i­ences dur­ing his time as Revolu­tion­ary Artist and Min­is­ter Cul­ture of the Black Pan­ther Party for Self Defense.

So yes­ter­day, we had an event, which was organ­ised by the Mal­colm X Move­ment, which is launch­ing next year – in the sum­mer of next year. I gave a present­a­tion on your work dur­ing your time with the Black Pan­ther Party for Self Defense. I wanted to inter­view today as a kind of fol­low up to the presentation.

Q. So I wanted to know – what was the role art and cul­ture played in the Black Pan­ther Party of Self Defense and your role as first Revolu­tion­ary Artist and then Min­is­ter of Culture.

Well the role that art and cul­ture played in the Black Pan­ther Party was an ongo­ing pro­cess and a reflec­tion of the polit­ics of the Black Pan­ther Party itself, of the 10-point pro­gram and what we believed in. Also our ideo­logy and philo­soph­ic­al per­spect­ives and it also reflec­ted the expres­sions and con­cerns of the com­munity at a loc­al, nation­al, inter­na­tion­al level. So art was one that was in line with the ideo­logy of the Black Pan­ther Party.


Q. What made you want to join the party ini­tially and when you did, did it affect your rela­tion­ship with your fam­ily and friends. What was their reac­tion to you join­ing the Black Pan­ther Party?

Well ini­tially like many young people in the inner city and dur­ing that peri­od in time, early 1960s – mid 1960s, 1966. 1964, 1965, 1966 on up until that time, I wanted to join because there was a high level of abuse – police abuse all over the coun­try which people were aware of and there was the Civil Rights Move­ment going on dur­ing that time. High levels of frus­tra­tion because of what was being done to civil rights marches, par­tic­u­larly in the south. The lynch­ings, the beat­ings, the water hos­ing of the marches; all those things just to thwart to have the right to basic human rights. To drink out of a water foun­tain that you chose to without being beaten and you see all those things pro­jec­ted on tele­vi­sion and you heard about in the news and then you could see from time to time on the elec­tron­ic media – you would see South Africa and what was going on in South Africa – Apartheid South Africa then and it was the same identic­al kinds of things, the abuses, dogs attack­ing the protest­ors and being beaten up and hosed by the water hoses, the same polit­ic­al things. So sub­con­sciously in played into my mind but at the same time it was basic­ally like many young people dur­ing that time; high level of frus­tra­tion because of the police abuse and murders across the coun­try back then as now with it always being justified.

So when the Black Pan­ther Party came on the scene I knew that was what I wanted to be a part of but I didn’t know about it ini­tially. I found out about the Black Pan­ther Party when I would go to a meet­ings where act­iv­ists invited me to a meet­ing to do a poster for this event that they were plan­ning to bring Mal­colm X’s wid­ow, Betty Shabazz, to the area to hon­our her and they said some broth­ers were com­ing over to do secur­ity.  When they came over, that was Huey New­ton and Bobby Seale and after that meet­ing they agreed to do the secur­ity for her. So after that meet­ing, after I decided to join, that was Janu­ary 1967, 3 months after the party had already star­ted. That was Octo­ber 1966. So it was about 3 — 3 and a half months after that because it was the lat­ter part of Janu­ary when the plan­ning of the pro­gram to bring Mal­colm X’s wid­ow to the area and so they gave me their address when I actu­ally called Huey and Bobby. I didn’t have a car so I took the bus over from San Fran­cisco to Oak­land, con­nect with Huey and then from there he would take me around, show me the com­munity. We would go by Bobby’s house and that was my first ini­tial involve­ment with the Black Pan­ther Party.

Q. At the “Strike The Empire Back” event there was a pan­el dis­cus­sion and Akala, who’s a Hip Hop artist from over here, he talked about how imper­i­al­ist pro­pa­ganda is driv­en in to the minds of people from a very young age. So I wanted to ask you what kind of work did you and oth­er artists in the party do to counter that pro­pa­ganda aimed at young people?

Well our art was anti-imper­i­al­ist art. Our art was a reflec­tion of our polit­ics so it was about devel­op­ing our story through the art and reflec­ted from our per­spect­ive, from our world view and from that it was able to cap­ture the atten­tion of the masses who began to see what we were doing and got an altern­at­ive – anoth­er per­spect­ive that was in their interests in rela­tion­ship to solv­ing and mov­ing for­ward with a move­ment of lib­er­a­tion and res­ist­ance to the oppress­or at that time. We were coun­ter­ing it with in fact using very pro­voc­at­ive art, very straight for­ward, point­ing out the con­tra­dic­tions and not in a very snide way in most cases.

Q. Which revolu­tion­ar­ies would you say influ­enced you the most in devel­op­ing your own ideology?

Emory: Well Huey and Bobby and them were inspired by many many aspects of what was going on in the world. It was they them­selves because they were the founders and co-founders of the Black Pan­ther Party so it was they who laid the found­a­tions and you know they were inspired by the people’s revolu­tion­ar­ies and the Viet­namese and what was going on in China and dif­fer­ent parts of the world dur­ing that time because….the Afric­an lib­er­a­tion move­ment. All those things, Patrice Lum­umba, all you know the great lead­ers dur­ing that time. We used to read…and one of the books we used to have was the red book and a read­ing list, a required read­ing list of the Black Pan­ther Party. Then there was Robert Wil­li­ams who was an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an who wrote the book called “Negroes With Guns” and it was one of the books Huey and them – first books they would read and sell to raise funds. There were many many many freedom…revolutions and Viet­namese — all those things – all those lib­er­a­tion move­ments and res­ist­ance move­ments through­out the world that were part of the inspir­a­tion for the Black Pan­ther Party.

reading list

Q. In terms of the aes­thet­ics of your art­work, how would you describe it and its role in pro­pa­gand­ising the ideas of the Black Pan­ther Party?

Well the aes­thet­ics of it was that – tried to reflect the people and the com­mon aver­age every­day people in the art­work itself. We talk about the every­day with the cari­ca­tures  — one that took the people on the stage and made them the her­oes of them­selves in the art­work there­fore they became on stage the her­oes in the art­work itself.  They could identi­fy with that in many ways because they could identi­fy with there being a pres­ence of fam­ily or someone like that and so it became an inspir­a­tion – to look for­ward to see­ing the images dur­ing that time. I think we also we defined the nature of the pigs, the police, in Amer­ic­an cul­ture. See­ing them as very low down nasty creatures, with blood and filth and slop and the whole busi­ness. Of course, that may not be the case in oth­er cul­tures but that was the way it was defined here. So that’s how Huey and Bobby, par­tic­u­larly Huey came up with the idea at that time to do the cari­ca­tures of the pigs.

Q. The Black Pan­ther Party sought to inter­na­tion­al­ise the cause of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and also con­nect them to the rest of the Afric­an Dia­spora. Why do you think anti-imper­i­al­ist inter­na­tion­al­ism and Pan-Afric­an­ism is so important?

Well it was import­ant to us because it was a world struggle. We under­stood that back then and that it was part of the ongo­ing devel­op­ment of ideo­lo­gic­al-philo­soph­ic­al per­spect­ive and know­ing that the world was inter­con­nec­ted and that you could get any­where in the world just in 20 minutes so it was more like a news read than it was just sep­ar­a­tion. The pos­i­tion at that time was about fram­ing the co-depend­ence and the depend­ence of each com­munity around the world of each oth­er for sur­viv­al in many ways. So there­fore, the repres­sion and the oppres­sion that was tak­ing place, it was always under­stood to be deplor­able of the people’s basic human rights who were viol­ated around the world – in Africa, in Asia, in Lat­in Amer­ica. So that was an import­ant part of the Black Pan­ther Party in show­ing that solidarity.

Q. You also worked with artists from OSPAAAL, The Organ­isa­tion of Solid­ar­ity With Africa, Asia and Lat­in Amer­ica. How did this rela­tion­ship come about and what did you learn dur­ing your time while work­ing with those artists?

Well basic­ally I didn’t work dir­ectly with them. Our news­pa­per would came out, a con­sist­ent paper. Our first paper was April 2nd of 1967 and there after I’d say in the begin­ning it came out very sporad­ic­ally but there was very great excite­ment behind this paper because here you have a young organ­isa­tion of young people who put out a paper, a revolu­tion­ary paper. You had lib­er­a­tion move­ments from all around the world who took the news­pa­per and Cuba was one of them. So what happened is they used to remix them with the images that I did and send them back out into the world in solid­ar­ity with the people’s struggle around the world. So in that con­text we were in linked togeth­er by our solid­ar­ity in rela­tion­ship to fight­ing against the oppres­sion that was going on around the world in our very dif­fer­ent ways. So that was the con­nec­tion, not that of one dir­ectly work­ing with them in any way that what would be con­sidered a form­al way but in a more like indir­ect inform­al way where they would see art  that I’d done in the paper and they would remix them into posters and redesign them and send them out to the world. We used to get them in the news­pa­per back in the day. We used to get them in the mail and stuff like that so it was a good thing then; it wasn’t like pla­gi­ar­ising because it was solid­ar­ity in the con­text of the struggle and high­light­ing the con­tra­dic­tions in the struggle and shar­ing those kinds of images. So in that con­nec­tion the art­work was linked and there was that connection.


Q. Could you name some of the artists that have influ­enced you the most?

Well I was influ­enced more not by artists but more by revolu­tion­ary art of that time like the polit­ic­al art that came out of Viet­nam and Cuba, amaz­ing polit­ic­al posters by — Tri-Con­tin­ent­al posters, OSPAAAL posters out of Cuba. And the art­work you would see com­ing out of revolu­tion­ary Viet­nam, China, Rus­sia and all folks that were attrib­uted around that time kind of caught – cap­tured my atten­tion par­tic­u­larly the Cuban ones and the Viet­namese ones dur­ing that time. Also, some of the art I used to see from time to time here dealt with the anti-war and stuff like that. But I need to say as a young­ster I was intrigued by a black artist named Charles White because dur­ing that time I didn’t come up in an envir­on­ment where there was a lot of black art. Maybe I would have been dif­fer­ent if I lived on the east coast – Har­lem Renais­sance – in Har­lem where you had revolu­tion­ary cul­ture inside in the south what have you. Being on the west coast and my moth­er being leg­ally blind, I wasn’t brought up with a lot of – exposed to a lot of art but I used to go my auntie’s house and each year she used to get this cal­en­dar from her insur­ance com­pany which had this cal­en­dar and they used to have this black art each year on these cal­en­dars. She had it in her house and it was the art­work of Charles White and I think that kind of impacted me sub­con­sciously in a way in rela­tion­ship to art­work itself because I always used to look for­ward to see­ing those cal­en­dars and I always used to look at the cal­en­dars all the time. He became well known through his art­work as well.

Q. Can you talk about a bit about your time in Alger­ia when you were invited to the Pan-Afric­an Cul­tur­al Fest­iv­al as part of a del­eg­a­tion of the Black Pan­ther Party?

Yes, well I was trav­el­ling with Kath­leen Cleav­er there to con­nect with Eldridge Cleav­er who was com­ing from Cuba to Alger­ia to estab­lish his res­id­ency there and from there we were asked to be a part of the first Pan-Afric­an Cul­ture Fest­iv­al in Alger­ia and so we were offered to be a part of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an del­eg­a­tion that was com­ing from the United States and they gave us a lot on the main aven­ue where we could dis­play mater­i­al and art­work and since no oth­er del­eg­a­tion from the United States – basic­ally just came and had noth­ing to put any kind of items or mater­i­als to put into the build­ing lot that they gave us then we began to bring tons and tons of news­pa­pers, posters, art­work and all these things and dis­play them and give them out to the people who came from all over the world dur­ing that time to that fest­iv­al. And so that was a great exper­i­ence. We were giv­en spaces for tal­ent – art and cul­ture — as well as Eldridge Cleav­er and Kath­leen Cleav­er and then Kwame Ture – Stokely Car­mi­chael as he was known then also was there, many many people. We had musi­cians, Arch­ie Shepp, all kinds of folk. Maya Angelou, many many Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans from a part of that sec­tor but we are able to cap­ture the atten­tion because of the rep­res­ent­a­tion of the police force but also the fact that we were able to bring our own mater­i­al which we could print at this time. Our news­pa­per, our posters, we couldn’t print our news­pa­pers so we got them prin­ted. We brought thou­sands and thou­sands of news preps, tons of paper, news­pa­pers and posters to give away. We just gave it away. So that was a great exper­i­ence in rela­tion­ship to shar­ing and insem­in­at­ing what we were about to people from all over the world. And we used to meet with Afric­an lib­er­a­tion move­ments and we would doc­u­ment when used to meet with the Afric­an lib­er­a­tion move­ments while we were there in Algeria.


Q. Since the Black Pan­ther Party was viol­ently dis­mantled by the state, what work have you been involved in since and what kind of work are involved in at the moment?

Well, I’m still involved in all art­work that deals with res­ist­ance and expos­ing human rights – viol­a­tions in rela­tion­ship to human rights and the com­munity and I feel that is reflec­ted in my art­work and that’s an ongo­ing pro­cess. For many years though pri­or to that there were always some space from up into the 80s into the 90s – late 80s mid 90s – for me to do present­a­tions but of course I had to focus on things that were in front of me. I had fam­ily so you know, I had Eldridge so I had to take care of that for about 1314 years up until 2004/2005 before I began to really do a lot of trav­el­ling for present­a­tions with the art­work. There has been a lot of interest still in the art­work itself and also people wanted to know what I had been doing so they really had the chance to see some of the art that I had done since the Black Pan­ther Party up until recently.

Q. What advice would you give to young revolu­tion­ary artists?

Well to be a revolu­tion­ary artist you need to have basic know­ledge of what it is you reflect in your art — the cul­tur­al pro­jec­tions that you are shar­ing with the world. You have to be know­ledge­able and integ­rate that into your art. You have to have strong con­vic­tions, be able to defend what you believe and what you say and be able to com­mu­nic­ate it in a way that even a child can under­stand it — if he can most of the time — and you have to be able to be on prin­ciple. Not to do it just because it’s the cool thing to do, you know like it’s a fad. It’s an art. It’s a life. Plan it. You have to under­stand that you basic­ally — artists a lot of the time stop being artists because they think they want to make money so they stop being artists but they want to get a job. But at the same time you ain’t neces­sar­ily gonna get rich doing pro­gress­ive revolu­tion­ary art­work. So you have to enjoy your­self, have fun to as you’re doing it know­ing that it’s an ongo­ing struggle and that and that you have to have strong con­vic­tions over what you do. Basic­ally be insight­ful and eval­u­at­ing things that you see and doing work that’s always in solid­ar­ity with the oppressed people around the world.

Dhruv Shah

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About Dhruv Shah

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