It was not about keeping the stuff as document...it was just it being part of the struggle. – Black Panther Emory Douglas at galleria Laveronica Arte Contemporanea
- Emory Douglas
His smile comes first before any words, and exhaustion does not interfere with Emory Douglas’ schedule, in spite of his 74 years of life and the jet lag from his flight from San Francisco. Emory Douglas has prepared a breakfast for kids at a monastery in Scicli and will give a talk on his role in the Black Panther Party today after the opening of his solo exhibition at the gallery Laveronica in Modica, Sicilia.
Douglas, clear as a bell, produced the militant and uncompromising images that would shape the visual language of the uprisings and the struggles of African Americans for justice. Folksily beautiful, the artworks that inspired people to identify with self-empowerment in the 1960’s, are now shown as a reinterpretation of what they once achieved. Now more than ever they need to be re-activated for a new wave of activists to have a strong bond to history.
Laveronica Arte Contemporanea, known for a fiercely political program and a faithful connection to the purposes of the artists they represent, celebrates its tenth anniversary with this show, which not only shows the roots of their intentions of keeping arts and politics as a one single instance, but also engaging with the entire town - meaning fair-trade-chocolatiers, nuns and children - in their activities.
In the correspondence of Laveronica with Douglas, Corrado Gugliotta and Sveva D’Antonio suggested Douglas entitle the show "Where is Freedom?". The gallerists felt it was important to ask this question in the midst of ideological radicalization in the world. Emory Douglas responded "Freedom is a constant struggle" and decided to call the exhibition as such.
Which struggle keeps you busy these days?
Down to the fact that the administration in power has brought a lot of folks together to fight against it, I would say the whole activism happening right now around the country. The present situation has inspired people to get more determined, principally the rhetoric used to criticize Trump once he got elected.
What kind of inspiration?
It led a fire in activism. The urgency of things that need to be done is something that I myself have talked about many times. People were in denial of the existing racism in the country, those kind of things. But now they see it.
Can we talk about an awakening then?
We could talk about a broad American revolution. But you gotta understand something: it is just the peak of an ongoing repression through white supremacism. Even during the Obama administration, millions of youngsters got disappointed about the fact that the president wouldn’t address the discrimination issues. Also the economic situation wasn’t getting any better. The illusion of things getting better actually hid a reality full of frustration.
Has your role changed among activist collectives over the past decades?
My role has been always to do provocative artworks to bring attention to exactly the issues and ideas not being discussed. Ideas around the Guantanamo Bay, around the fact that Obama signed a Kill Bill that would decide, who is going to be killed in the world, those kind of things. At an international level, on the war measures being taken, and at a domestic level, about the mix of racism that the broad majority of African Americans are still confronted with.
What is the aim of such provocations you mention?
In the current context, I compare Trump to Nixon, for example.
This is a clear comparison between two specific political moments. Where do you find the differences and similarities?
Both political situations turn around the 1%. Racism and bigotry hasn’t changed in the past fifty years. In the early days of the Black Panther movement Huey Newton and Bobby Seale would ask me to draw the picture of the pig. During a conversation about confrontations they had with the police that day they called them pigs. You know, animals that bite the hands that feeds them, not caring about the rights from the others surrounding them, taking everything to their advantage.
Your enrollment in the party was almost instant. How did it come for you to shift your engagement with the Black Arts Movement into the political party?
"You just come right on time!", said Danny Glover when I manifested my desire to join the party. They knew already the work I was producing after my studies in the art college. But the first commission I received from the Black Panthers wasn’t for the newspaper, but for the graphics needed for the day Malcom X was giving a speech to the community.
Does that poster still exist?
No. It was only thought for the event. A lot of stuff done by that time by the Black Arts Movement doesn’t exist anymore. Back then it was not about keeping the stuff as document. People today look back and think about it as part of "then", but it is about it being part of the struggle.
Was it a big shift between being part of the Black Arts Movement and joining the Black Panthers?
A lot of people from the Black Arts Movement joined the party; but the Black Panthers was based on what Huey Newton and Bobby Seale thought was right. They wanted a call into action and not only in the cultural sector. Initially, for me it wasn’t important which my role was. It was just being part of the movement. I started actually to work on the second issue, in 1967. That is when I began to use my skills as an artist. Before that, to join the party was about commitment shown in gestures, in the way you could.
Were your drawings for the newspaper mainly the ones giving the party its iconicity?
Newton and Seale had a vision of the paper. The "Pigs" turned into an international icon, letting the people define the oppressor themselves. It was an image the community identified with. It got a quick response from the different chapters and branches from all over the country. 139,000 copies would be distributed, and it reached until 400,000— starting at a irregular, limited basis and turning consistently into a weekly newspaper. Governmental pressure on the Black Panthers produced internal conflicts, leading the newspaper to its end in 1977. After that I joined the black press, a company called Sun Reporter Publishing from 1984 until 2004.
Did provocation kept the same tone in your work?
My work responded to the same issues. Sun Reporter Publishing, in Oackland, California, were also supporters of the Black Panther Party. Provocation is not an isolating thing. And for it to work you have to hear what the people are talking about. Provocation is about interpreting the needs of the others in a more offensive way. It is their language put into the artwork. It is the about their expressions and their feelings in it. It can’t be separated from what I am sharing.
Did you see yourself involved in conflicts due to the conscious provocation you spread?
What I do is in the context of freedom of speech. When freedom of speech gets repressed that’s another thing. But as long as I work in this context, some may like it, some may don’t, but I keep doing it.
How would you define freedom?
Freedom is the right to make choices. Freedom as a constant struggle means the pursuit of having just employments, quality of education, equal measurements in justice for all.
Freedom of speech has been put into question in the context of fine art many times this year. One example would be about the placement of Sam Durant’s public installation called "Scaffold" in Minneapolis, by invitation of the Walker Art Center. The work, whether it is a good piece of art or not, seems to fall into the classical taboo debate of wether a white artist can do work about minorities or not.
When you do a symbolic gesture towards a certain cultural group, but you don’t confront them about it, you put yourself in a questionable position. I mean, in the context of what he did, first nation folks were justifiably offended, as they were not consulted about the art works were supposed to be about.
Sam Durant, as well as the Walker Art Center asked for apologies. Is it still now the right of the Dakotas to decide whether the artwork should be destroyed or not?
It goes both ways. The institution itself along with the artist were the ones to make a decision first. The institution may want to exhibit it as part of its collection, and that would was clearly provoking the protests.
When he was a young artist, I worked together with Sam Durant. He was the one who invited me to the MoCA in LA to talk about my work, leading the awareness of the presentation not only to be centered in the context of the arts, but also letting it also be of interest for other social groups. We had around 300 guests, many of them activists who never visit the museums of the city. Thereafter the museum asked me to do an exhibition there. Thanks to Sam, who also was interested in doing a book about my artwork, it was resolved wonderfully.
Durant seems to have been aware of the fragility of the case. The artwork itself is clearly an intentional denunciation and not an execution field.
There are just some things that are not there to represent nothing else but what they are. The same happened with Dana Schutz and her painting that used Emmett Till’s open casket for I don’t know what purpose. Both gestures are gross. They are not to be read it the context of arts but in the context of the massacre and abuse.
Why are both artworks not working as what their authors claim them to be, namely a protest against exactly what this images are?
That is when the purpose of art and social engagement can not be separated. The artworks have been created for the sake of art and its medium, sculpture and painting, but they do not reach out the communities they are willing to speak for. They have made a choice and you see now the consequences.
Is this the product of the detachment of artists from history?
This is a question to be answered not through the artwork but first in conversation with the people supposed to be addressed with it. Because of that, it doesn't matter what aesthetic decisions have been made, or if the author is black or white. If the artwork does not represent the reality, it does not have meaning to exist. I think both artworks ("Scaffold" and "Open Casket") are unacceptable. But this is not the people saying to the institution or to the artists what they should do, this the people saying - ´Hey, if you gonna keep doing things like this, we ain’t gonna support you!´
How was it to go back from doing works as an ephemeral instance of political propaganda to producing artworks in the frame of art as representation?
Some things stay the same, and there still is a struggle that matters to me. There is still police abuse on the black people, a high rate of unemployment, a lack of inferior education, harassment all over the country. Within all these dynamics, art can still be the stimulating fruit for thought.
I work a lot in collaboration, and that is also why I travel a lot. There is for example the aboriginal artist called Richard Bell, with whom I’ve collaborated about four times in Australia, where I’ve also worked together with some young Maori folks. I’m coming back there next April to discuss the role of history in arts with students.
Laveronica has made a remix of your artwork for a mural in their space in Modica. They came together creating a certain narrative between the graphics that you did separately. Is there a shift of your work itself by presenting it as a reinterpretation?
Wherever it is, it opens up another avenue to inform, to educate people about the work itself. Wherever the graphics are the ones that were chosen, it is clearly a new audience being confronted with it. It is the gallery who asked me for this collaboration, but there are also galleries and institutions to which I may say "No, thank you".
What are these decisions based on?
I just say "Thank you" and "No, thank you". (Laughs)
So it is not about you, but the context?
As long as there is consciousness about the purpose of the work, as long there is a connection to social concerns and issues that relates people of a broad scale, the aspects of the collaboration are the right ones. The work transcends its context now. Even then. Because even though there may have been differences and splints among the movement, there were people identify with the images, even though some would not agree with the political perspective it served. For some reason, people identify with the images, no matter if they were radical or conservative. You have to understand, the works were supposed to be there for the people. Art should also communicate as a basic language.
Newspapers and posters are a documentary medium themselves. They inscribe history as a document of reality. But collages, they are something more than what for example photography and journalistic material could do for a social phenomena. Was it relevant for you to work in a more abstract level, so people could understand you better?
You may see it from a theoretical point of view - what is metaphorically and what is directly real - but it is about the practical form of its appearance. It is about what the people see, and how they respond to it. That is a complete different dynamic system.
So what we see is not your visual language, but the language of the community?
I say it’s both. Together is the feeling of what could be right, to send a message across. I say this also to students. For example at CalArts, and I try to do constructive evaluation of what they do, because you know, artists can be sentimental. They have to realize how they want their artwork to get evolved. I pick and choose what keeps me busy, so I tell them also to do so. I studied advertisement not fine arts, but I have been my own basic training ever since.
Proof-read by Sarah Lewiecki.