Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Black Struggle for Self Assertion and Dignity: Graphic Art from the Front Line

Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture, Black Panther Party
Gus Fisher
21 August - 3 October 2009

One of the more unusual exhibitions for a university gallery, this show is part of the Elam International Artist in Residence programme currently hosting the Black PantherParty's Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas. Douglas is a graphic artist who in the sixties and seventies, when designing posters and literature for his local Oakland black community, also helped educate a hostile white audience, and later influence poster-design in Cuba and other countries. He is considered an important global propagandist for early Black Pride.

In an art gallery or museum setting like the Gus Fisher these works often look unsubtle and crude. However it must be remembered they were made during a state of war with the American police and American government, and so were primarily created for community newspapers, poster walls and flyers. Their message of counteracting racial hatred and poverty, and of raising self-esteem, needed to be understood quickly - and be an effective method of winning support.

In the small Gus Fisher exhibiting space Douglas’ muted coloured newspaper images look impressive as a total arrangement. One wall has a single huge glued–up work that is a hybrid of several other smaller posters; another has 12 printed mounted pages (image with text, often with smaller min-images inserted within badges or spectacle lenses); and a third has 5 big posters (each 9 times the size of a standard page). Most of the time the printed faces and figures look like they are from the sixties, having the flattened heavy contours that you get with a lot of, say, Beatles or Haight-Ashbury posters. A few look as though they come from fifties book illustration by Social Realist artists like Ben Shahn.

Many images have radiating sun-beams as backdrops, a reference perhaps to Russian Communist images of farm labourers toiling out in the open fields. Often Douglas has taken images of singing women from books on negro spirituals and combined them with hard–hitting texts from political theorists or sayings from Panther leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Searle or Eldridge Cleaver. On other occasions his images pour scorn on the police as murderous ‘pigs’, attack poisonous pesticides, greedy slum landlords, or American foreign policy – ideas which though radical forty years ago are commonplace now.

If the show has a weakness it is that it doesn’t tell us enough about Douglas’ pre-Panther art training, and how he acquired his graphic skills. It also doesn’t provide a twentieth century art historical context, comparing him with other related activist artists, like Heartfield or Grosz for example. A fascinating (inspiring and disturbing) time capsule nonetheless.


artfromspace said...

Hi John, thanks for your comments on the show. There is some discussion of Emory's work from an art-historical point of view in this Village Voice article: As the writer states, Western Art History (and even being placed in a museum) is not a context necessarily relevant for Douglas. Although it is hard for those of us with that background to resist the temptation to try and absorb his work into those narratives.


John Hurrell said...

I wonder if someone like John Heartfield would have said the same thing. It is one thing to be caught up in the urgent political requirements of the moment, but years later artists tend to think about art history and their possible place within it.

artfromspace said...

Do you think (most) artists really care about their place in art history, especially those of Emory's ilk? What about their audience? Or is that something we curators and critics are more concerned with?

BTW, Emory participating in the exhibition and residency doesn't entirely confirm an increased need for that sort of validation, as you comment in the other comments thread suggests. A significant aspect of Emory's visit to New Zealand is spending time with iwi and community groups, such as the Polynesian Panthers, who have been directly influenced by his work and that of the Black Panther Party, and in many cases still have a very real need to continue the work of empowerment and liberation.


John Hurrell said...

It is a bit of both isn't it? The community work drives the motor, but support by other artists like Sam Durant (resulting in books)doesn't go amiss either.