Emory Douglas, former "Minister for Culture" in the US Black Panther Party, spoke at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art on October 1. Douglas is now a part of the Artist Rights Society, and remains a committed activist artist and campaigner for social justice and empowerment.
Indigenous activist Sam Watson, a founder of the Australian chapter of the Black Panthers, introduced Douglas. Watson described how the writings of Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and other Panther leaders helped Aboriginal activists also fighting racism.
"My art is in your face, without apology", Douglas told the 50 people gathered at the gallery, as he displayed 170 images of his work.
For each image, Douglas recounted a political struggle that the Panthers were engaged in — from the struggle against the brutal police (always portrayed as pigs in his art) and for community control of police, through to campaigning against the Vietnam War.
Much of Douglas' art was featured in the newspaper The Black Panther, which had a circulation up to 250,000 a week in 1971.
Crucially, Douglas used his images to incite the disenfranchised to action. He portrayed the oppressed with real empathy, not as victimised but as angry, unapologetic and ready to fight.
His art played two roles — illustrating the conditions that made revolution necessary, and visually showing the potential power of the people that were victimised.
Douglas paraphrased Muhammad Ali to describe the Panther's opposition to the Vietnam War: "We were opposed to the war, the Vietnamese didn't call us nigger, didn't provide substandard education, didn't make us live in poor housing."
Douglas also spoke of the community programs the Panthers had run. "The free breakfast meals for children [provided by the Panthers] were crucial to empowerment. How can they learn if they are hungry?"
Other community programs included a Panther ambulance, Panther health clinics, and Panther buses to prisons so families could visit imprisoned loved ones.
Much of Douglas' art still resonates as true today as when it was created.
Douglas still paints and recently created a work entitled "as much as things change they stay the same", showing a handcuffed young black man shot in the back. It was inspired by the point-blank police shooting of a handcuffed, black man in Oakland in January.
[The "All Power to the People" exhibition is at Milani Gallery until October 17. Visit www.milanigallery.com.au.]