“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
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
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
Some armed resistance motifs were humorous.
“Huey and Eldridge wanted me to draw this pig for the front of the paper and put a badge on him,” said
Amiri Baraka in Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory
That pig was comic relief among outrageous resistance symbolism.
Panthers photographically documented their history, and the black and white photos of Panther activity displayed next to
“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
In 2006, Mexican police attacked a teachers’ protest in
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.
Station Museum of Contemporary Arts
June 7-September 14, 2008
Virginia Billeaud Anderson is an artist and writer currently living in Houston.