Black Power in Art: Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter

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It Takes a Nation: Art for Social Justice with Emory Douglas and the Black Panther Party, AFRICOBRA, and Contemporary Washington Artists at the American University Museum
By Brendan L. Smith

During the Summer of Love when hippies were smoking dope and wearing flowers in their hair, there was blood in the streets across black America. In 1967, riots raged from Harlem to Watts in response to police brutality, and entire neighborhoods were looted or burned to the ground.

Against that fiery backdrop, the Black Panthers emerged with tactics ranging the full gamut from armed resistance to free breakfast programs for poor children. But the indelible image of proud black men and women armed with rifles, even though a small number of members carried guns and they complied with local “open carry” laws, terrified polite white society, so the FBI harassed and infiltrated the organization.

unspecified-1Prints and Posters by Emory Douglas

Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers’ former minister of culture, grew up in the San Francisco area and worked in a print shop as a juvenile offender. He became a graphic designer and boiled the racial injustices of the day into a potent mix of wheat-pasted posters and cover illustrations for The Black Panther weekly newspaper, which reached 400,000 readers at its height before it ceased publication in 1979.

His work is featured in a timely exhibition at American University Museum that explores his connection to black artists who followed him. It Takes a Nation: Art for Social Justice with Emory Douglas and the Black Panther Party, AFRICOBRA, and Contemporary Washington Artists will be on view until Oct. 23.

Douglas’s stark, bold graphic style created striking images of defiance and protest that could be immediately understood. In one poster, a black woman with an Afro holds a spear, reminiscent of her African heritage, and a rifle slung over her shoulder beneath text reading, “Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world.” The cover of a 1969 issue of The Black Panther shows a crying black soldier whose helmet is filled with a collage of photos of brutal police beatings and lynchings of black Americans. A sign above the soldier’s head states, “OUR FIGHT IS NOT IN VIETMAN.”


Emory Douglas “Revolution in Our Lifetime”

Douglas also popularized the controversial depiction of police as pigs, with one illustration showing three identical pigs walking on their hind feet armed with mace, tear gas, and napalm. The pigs are labeled Local Police, National Guard, and Marines under text reading, “IT’S ALL THE SAME.” Other posters showed oppressed women and children, some receiving free groceries from the Black Panthers while others are dark silhouettes behind prison bars, alternating between images of hope for future generations and despair about the physical and psychological scars they have endured.

In a recent interview, Douglas said his work was designed to be understood even by an illiterate audience. “We were creating a culture of resistance and defiance and self-determination,” he said. “You’re transforming mindsets and thinking so therefore you become Public Enemy #1.”

unspecified-5Jae Jarrell, “Revolutionary Suit”, 2010 (replica of the 1970 original for AFRICOBRA). Salt and pepper wool tweed and lemon yellow suede with bandolier of cool ade color faux bullets.

The exhibition also includes work by AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, founded by black artists in Chicago in the 1960s. They created their own brand of social protest art that was more nuanced but just as powerful.

In “Revolutionary”, Wadsworth Jarrell uses an explosion of psychedelic, contrasting colors and interlocking balloon text in a portrait of Angela Davis, a fierce civil rights organizer and Communist Party leader. Another painting from the 1970s called Liberation Soldiers lionizes Black Panther leaders who were despised by many whites. The trio of men emerge from a field of colored circles that echo Gustav Klimt’s dreamlike portraits.

unspecified-3“Harriet Tubman’s Railroad” by Akili Ron Anderson

“Harriet Tubman’s Railroad” by AfriCOBRA artist and Howard University art professor Akili Ron Anderson is still a work in progress, but it fails in execution rather than subject matter. Tubman, who is depicted with her mouth open and right arm raised with a fist, is surrounded by a strange assortment of disembodied heads inside boxes in the roughly hewn fiberglass sculpture.

If the heads represent slaves who Tubman freed, it’s a strangely dismissive way of treating their oppression. The wall text doesn’t offer any enlightenment and is filled with incomprehensible artspeak about “asymmetrical balance” and “textural, architectonic, and biomorphic relationships.”


Sixteen local artists whose work was inspired by Douglas and the revolutionary spirit of the Black Panthers is the most uneven part of the exhibition. If their work serves as social protest, most artists missed an obvious link between police brutality faced by the Black Panthers and the unrelenting killing of unarmed black men by police today, which galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.

An exhibition that starts with the Black Panthers and whose title references Public Enemy’s most incendiary album has to deliver a punch, and most of the contemporary artwork falls short of a knockout. Unlike Douglas’s illustrations, most of the contemporary work doesn’t challenge viewers to confront their own prejudices or envision the struggle inside someone else’s skin. Can art be esoteric or puzzling in its message? Of course. But protest art fails if it doesn’t convey the reason for the protest with a clear voice and the weight of a cudgel.


Wesley Clark “Target 456”

In”Target 456″, Wesley Clark painted the red circles of a target on two pieces of jagged, shellacked plywood that hang at different angles. The work, created in 2011, conjures such strong images of Jasper Johns’s target paintings that it’s difficult to think about the piece in any other context. According to the wall text, the piece examines “the psyche of young black males feeling like a target and being targeted.” While the work is high caliber, that message isn’t effectively conveyed in the piece, present in the words next to it.

In a similar vein, Larry Cook’s untitled three-minute video installation shows a black man standing in an alley with a lit flare. Not much else happens. There could be a few different interpretations, but this piece seems too subtle for protest art.


Njena Surae Jarvis, “E, Gun Gun”, 2016. Leather, rubber, wool, felt, gypsum, and glass

On the flip side, Njena Jarvis breaks the mold with “E, Gun Gun”, a large sculpture where shapes of eerie faces and menacing assault rifles have been pressed through a towering drape of black rubber and leather. The indistinguishable faces, which resemble death masks, are juxtaposed with weapons of mass violence in a disturbing and powerful sculpture that fills a small room with a sense of menace.

A 2014 bronze sculpture called “Raise Up” by Hank Willis Thomas also hits the mark with the torsos of a row of men with their hands raised, echoing the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” chant from the Ferguson protests and others following police shootings of unarmed black men. The male figures in the sculpture are facing the wall with their identities concealed, a row of anonymous bodies defined by their forced submission rather than their shared humanity.


Brendan L. Smith is a freelance writer and mixed-media artist in Washington, D.C.    

It Takes a Nation: Art for Social Justice with Emory Douglas and the Black Panther Party, AFRICOBRA, and Contemporary Washington Artists will be on view at the Katzen Art Center at American University through October 23, 2016.

Additional Programming:

October 8, 2-3:30 pm: Panel Discussion: The Creative Process of Bringing Truth to Power: The Art of the Black Panthers and AFRICOBRA. RSVP required.  

October 15, 2-3:30 pm: Panel Discussion: Riffing on the Legacy of the Black Arts Movement. RSVP required. 

Photos from Rebecca Basu (AU Media)

Top Image: Hank Willis Thomas, “Raise Up”, 2013. Bronze, 112 x 10 x 4 in.

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