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Emory Douglas at Urbis

Natalie Bradbury stalks the Black Panthers though glass towers

Published on November 24th 2008.

Emory Douglas at Urbis

What, where, when?
'Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution', Urbis, until March 9.

Emory Douglas, Minister for Culture of the Black Panther Movement. Born in Michigan, he studied advertising design in California in the 1960s, then a hotbed of student activism. He became involved in the Black Panther party and used his design skills to further their messages.

The Black Panther Party?
The Black Panther Party was formed in California in 1966 by Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale, following the assassination of Malcolm X. It was a grass roots organisation, influenced by Marx and Lenin, that fought against the institutionalised racism, rife in America at that time.

African-Americans often had no basic healthcare, education or jobs. The Black Panthers aimed to provide housing, schools, food, healthcare and legal aid for the needy. Although they started off an an armed, uniformed organisation, the Black Panthers also focused on improving education.

They were seen as a real threat to national security, as is evidenced by the display of Douglas' FBI file. The US government endorsed the imprisonment, torture and assassinations of Black Panther members.

Why now, and why Manchester?
The exhibition, which documents the struggle for black power and voting rights for African-Americans, opened just days before Americans went to the polls and elected the country's first black president. This ties in with Manchester's long radical history. For instance Manchester broadly supported the abolition of slavery from the moment in 1788 when it welcomed campaigner Thomas Clarkson to speak in the Cathedral.

What could you really achieve with a few pictures?
Douglas turned the city into a gallery, plastered with posters on buildings and fences, and inside shops and hairdressing salons. He realised the importance of a single image, such as that of the Black Panther raised fist salute which got two American athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, banned from the Olympic Games for life after they used it at the 1968 Mexican games.

He perpetuated the Black Panther 'brand' – the image of beret clad military style revolutionaries that terrified middle class America. Douglas produced the Black Panther Newsletter- a weekly newspaper that carried local, national and international news. However, because of the high levels of illiteracy in the black population, Douglas ensured people could understand all the Black Panthers stood for in a single, mass produced image.

Poster campaigns such as those aiming to Free Huey affected real change, after Huey P Newton was imprisoned for life for shooting and killing an Oakland policeman. His conviction was reversed in 1970.

The Black Panthers' horizons went beyond America and black rights: they wanted to end the oppression of everyone, and worked together with other organisations across the US and Cuba, China and Africa. The exhibition explores how Douglas influenced, and was influenced by poster campaigns from around the world, including protest movements in Latin America and Cuba.

The politics and the art are inseparable, then?
Yes, here it is. Douglas' works often take the form of a collage, incorporating images and photos of contemporary events, for example Stephen Shames' photos of lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as iconic occasions from US history like the moon landing. The artworks are multi-layered to deal with complex issues. Many are inset with Panther slogans such as 'Each Teach One' and 'Revolution in Our Lifetime' and lyrics from old slave songs. Satirical cartoons and comic strips criticise the government, for example the US government continuing to give money to the South African government in the 1970s, despite apartheid.

Douglas' striking posters are characterised by bold lines and bright, block colours, as well as stylised patterns influenced by African design. They often incorporate sun-like rays, and depict a single figure, with the effect that the person portrayed is elevated to an almost religious importance. It's not all aggressive looking men brandishing guns- there are portraits of ordinary people, such as women and children pictured in the fight against sickle cell anaemia.

Douglas' art attempted to redress the negative cultural portrayal of black people, and aimed to some way give them back their voice, identity and pride. Importantly, it helped educate the black population, for example warning against drugs and publicising rallies to get African-Americans to register and use their vote. Douglas also created bold obituaries for murdered panthers.

What else is there to see and do?
Visitors can sit down at a desk and browse books by black authors, including Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Frantz Fanon and Manchester's Lemn Sissay, whilst the speaker system plays hip-hop, reggae and Latin music. The exhibition is also showing films and archive footage of civil rights protests and the assassination of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and JFK.

Is it all in the past?
No – Douglas continues to publicise campaigns against AIDS, war, gangs and black-on-black violence, as well as producing pictures supporting the Angola 3 campaign. Nowadays, his illustrations are simple enough that children can understand them. Douglas' influence lives on in artists like Banksy.

You like it then?
Yes, go, it's an important show.

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