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“Defending Democracy” at the Station

Panther art by Emory Douglas

“All Power to the People!”  Emory Douglas created the Black Panthers newspaper illustrations and posters in the 60s and 70s. Grenade carrying, afro-ed guerillas, women holding machetes and babies, raised Black Power fists and satirical law enforcement “pig” imagery, his fearless and fluent expression brought him acclaim as one of America’s great political artists.  Douglas’s Panther art can be seen at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art through September 21 in Defending Democracy, an exhibition that includes ASARO, or the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca, and Houston’s Otabenga Jones & Associates. Douglas, ASARO and OJ&A were chosen for the show, asserts Station’s Jim Harithas, because they express a “commitment to participatory democracy” through their art.

Some people nearly shit when you mention Black Panthers. This might be because they were maligned in the media as weapons-hoarding thugs out to destroy society. It’s true that the more radical Panthers believed armed resistance was preferable to death by police brutality, but keep in mind that they had a constitutional right to carry weapons and were regularly beaten and killed by police officers. Since that time, it has also come to light that Hoover was a bigot who illegally targeted political enemies. J. Edgar called the Panthers “the greatest threat to U.S. security.”   Most Americans were unaware of the food, education and medical care Panthers provided for indigent African Americans through donor underwritten programs based on the philosophy that hungry and inadequately housed people were incapable of fully participating in democracy.

Panther art by Emory Douglas

The Station’s original Panther art is displayed in a glass case because of its fragile condition, but surrounding it are 12 digitally enlarged, wall mounted works. These larger reproductions give the viewer a heightened sense of Douglas’s programmatically directed construction. Panther art was empowerment symbolism. To psychologically and economically liberate, art had to be in-your-face and mythic. Weapons carrying bad-ass figures rendered in black outline and strong colors were potent representations of strength and survival.

Some armed resistance motifs were humorous.  Douglas’s cartoony badge-wearing pig is an iconic example. The artist recently gave me the party line on that pig’s emergence.

“Huey and Eldridge wanted me to draw this pig for the front of the paper and put a badge on him,” said Douglas. “There was a guy in the community who was bad and was violating peoples’ human rights, so I drew him standing on two hooves with pants and a snout and badge, and it all took off from there. It seemed to resonate with people all over the world.”

Amiri Baraka in Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas called that pig “ruthlessly funny, but at the same time functional as the .45 slugs pouring out of that weapon. Emory’s pig was a nasty scrawny filthy creature with the projected sensibility that was mostly slime lover and animal slacker, if you will. The bravura touch was the flies that always circled the creature’s nasty self. Whatever one thought of the Panther philosophy as a whole, I did not meet anyone among any sector of the Movement that did not dig that pig, just looking at it would crack you up in a mixture of merriment and contempt.”

Panther art by Emory Douglas

That pig was comic relief among outrageous resistance symbolism. Douglas used another style, also less confrontational, to communicate Panther programs. His mixed media works combined beautifully executed cartoons with poignant photo collages and text announcing Panther services such as free food and healthcare. The photos are jarring: dead men, Jemima-dressed destitute old women, sick and distressed children and rat infested squalor. Ghetto photography overlaid with text articulates Panther community assistance as well as scathing commentary on economic and political disenfranchisement.

Panthers photographically documented their history, and the black and white photos of Panther activity displayed next to Douglas’s art add a very cool history lesson component to the exhibition. In one, a young Maya Angelou teaches grammar in a Panther classroom. In another, a clinic nurse checks blood pressure. We see Huey Newton flashing the peace sign behind jail bars. A moving photo depicts an elderly woman registering to vote. 

“That was 1969,” said a former Panther in Station’s gallery. “We registered over 100,000.  Can you imagine they had never voted?”

Panther documentary photographs nicely compliment Douglas’s graphic art, except for one dumb picture of Huey Newton. Wearing a beret and Shaft era leather jacket, he sits in a wicker chair holding a spear in one hand and a rifle in another. Newton’s potentate pose amidst decorative African tribal shields and a zebra rug makes him look Idi Amin squirrely. The photo’s enthronement composition seems better suited to beer commercial aesthetics than to galvanizing people and counteracting oppression.

ASARO mural

In 2006, Mexican police attacked a teachers’ protest in Oaxaca. Citizens, fed up with injustice and oppression, joined the teachers in erecting barricades and commandeering radio stations. Artists participated in the uprising by creating public artworks. Aware that their art had inspired resistance, over thirty mural, stencil, graffiti, graphic and video artists organized the collective ASARO to create art that would challenge injustice and demand social change. The collective operates by consensus with members agreeing on all aspects of artistic production and exhibition. ASARO is now establishing community workshops.

ASARO covered the Station’s walls with stencil and graffiti murals. One mural replicates the 2006 teacher slaughter with scenes of a radio tower, barricades and police killing. Addressing immigration, a second depicts border arrests. Its frieze of young faces alludes to future immigrants.  Striking religious pieta imagery is the focus of a third, with the faces of Madonna and crucified men covered by guerilla bandanas. Near the murals are 40 woodcuts, their subjects ranging from Vicente to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The largest of these narratives denotes sandal-footed campesinos attacking ghoulish, skeleton-faced personifications of the Mexican and US governments. The exhibition also includes a sculptural shopping cart containing rocks, Molotov cocktails and burned tires, its three-dimensionality juxtaposing the flat wall art.

Contrasting Douglas’s and ASARO’s somewhat straightforward approach is the blurred artistic language of Otabenga Jones & Associates’ D. Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans and Robert Pruitt. This is not the first time I have been baffled by OJ&A’s post-modernist allegories.  Everything they do seems funny and dead serious. Their name is a perfect example — they took it from Ota Benga, a Congolese African displayed in a cage at the Bronx Zoo in 1904.

At the Station, they designed a basketball court installation complete with professional Spaulding net, goal lines, scoreboard and bleachers.  Its various elements parody the Panthers. “El Shabazz High School” (Malcolm X’s Shabazz) is painted mid-court on the blonde wood gym floor next to a panther head mascot titled “Ferocious Kats.” Black Power movement themed films such as The Spook Who Sat by the Door are screened on the wall opposite the court bleachers, a Panther style service called “Free Community Film Program.”

According to wall text, this free film program furthers OJ&A’s educational mission. So here you have education presented in a basketball court with its connotations of inadequate schooling and gazillion dollar professional salaries. This irony calls to mind the group’s 2007 Menil installation also based on the theme of education. OJ&A turned a Menil gallery and its “colonial” objects into a teaching classroom. Commanding museum space and artifacts, the pedagogical nature of which they disapproved, they taught the “truth,” established “tiny pockets of resistance” and liberated.  Their Menil mission statement which seems to nod to the Panthers was to “teach the truth to young black youth, to extend the parameters of the transatlantic Afro-diasporic aesthetic and to mess wit’ whitey.”

Like the Panthers, OJ&A created posters. One cites the 1977 police shooting death of Houston Panther Carl Hampton. Its Panther style text states, “Carl Lives! Dec 1977” and “You Can Kill a Revolutionary but You Can’t Kill the Revolution.” Another poster features a prissy young girl with text announcing the film program, but I don’t “get” the meaning of Miss Thing in that poster.  A Station staff member said OJ&A’s posters had “coded language.”  It doesn’t matter — the basketball court is splendid.

Defending Democracy

Station Museum of Contemporary Arts

June 7-September 14, 2008 

Virginia Billeaud Anderson is an artist and writer currently living in Houston.

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3 Responses

  1. Camille Olsen

    When I think back on the Panther movement and what I see as its real message to white America, I’m reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, where the chaplain addresses God and merely requests to be spared the usual abuses….

    Chaplain, Congregation: [singing]
    Oh, Lord, please don’t burn us,
    Don’t grill or toast your flock.
    Don’t put us on the barbecue,
    Or simmer us in stock.
    Don’t braise or bake or boil us,
    Or stir-fry us in a wok.
    Oh please don’t lightly poach us,
    Or baste us with hot fat,
    Don’t fricassee or roast us,
    Or boil us in a vat,
    And please don’t stick thy servants Lord,
    In a Rotissomat…

    The Panthers were just saying… let us live like human beings, we’ve had enough abuse.

    Thanks for the article, the art was courageous.

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