Whitehot Magazine

February 2008, Black Panther: Emory Douglas @ MOCA Pacific Design Center

 Emory Douglas, poster from The Black Panther, November 8, 1969,
 offset lithograph, 20 1⁄4 x 14 in.,
 Collection of Alden and Mary Kimbrough,
 Los Angeles, © Emory Douglas

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas
MOCA Pacific Design Center
October 21st, 2007 through February 24th, 2008

Patrick Marcoux, WM LA

At the same time as the pop-heavy Takashi Murakami survey is drawing crowds to MOCA in downtown, Los Angeles, MOCA's satellite location at the Pacific Design Center in Beverly Hills has an exhibit that is not to be missed. Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas collects Douglas's illustrated posters and graphics from Black Panther publications of the late 1960s. If you don't know much about the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), don’t worry – you’ll l catch up quickly at MOCA. The headlines and front page party messages animate the vitrines of BPP newspapers into maps of the turbulence that was the fabric of the Panthers' civil rights activities.

Based in Oakland, California, where the BPP was founded, Emory Douglas joined the revolutionary political activist group in 1968. He was named the party's "revolutionary artist", producing drawings and photographic illustrations of propaganda for the BPP's newspaper and wheat paste poster campaigns. Among Douglas' heavily iconic lithographs of defiant black women, men, and children, are more experimental styles of drawing and photo montage whose affiliations reach from psychedelia to John Heartfield. His anthropomorphic pig and rat illustrations are truly strange in their exaggerations and fascinating in their grotesqueries. Originating the "pig" caricature, these illustrations lampooning police officers and politicians who the BPP considered hostile to black communities engage figuration at a visceral level, and clearly earn a place in the history of art and design.

 Emory Douglas, poster from The Black Panther,
 May 11, 1969, offset lithograph,
 Collection of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics,
 Los Angeles, © Emory Douglas

The BPP propaganda displays such an intense degree of attitude that it is overwhelming to see a collection of these historical documents in relation to our lukewarm contemporary moment in the United States. Emory Douglas's illustrations deftly convey confidence and tightly coiled aggression; harmonizing with BPP pronouncements like "We gonna say to this whole fascist government, 'Stick 'em up, motherfucker. This is a holdup; we come for what's ours.'" This kind of hyperbole leads some of the imagery and slogans into imaginary realms, where the aspirational energy is almost palpable. In addition, the tactical rhetoric is bolstered by ten-point platforms and protest against the draft for the U.S. military action in Vietnam. Perhaps the most utopian and yet most successfully realized information campaigns on display are for the Panther's social programs, such as Free Breakfast for School Children and community medical clinics.

Only the early years of the BPP are covered, here--a period of persecution and execution of Panther leaders, yet clearly a period of great public interest and great momentum in building the party. (This brief timeline is excerpted from the eventual outcome of apparent division, scandal, and dissolution of the party-- which is tackled in a series of film screenings and discussions related to the exhibition.) And so, the overall experience of this exhibition is one of invigoration and hope. To today's viewer, the pure force of the young organization pictured in "Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas" gives the impression of a prototype; something to be built upon. One leaves the exhibition reminded that there can and must be daring and outspoken people, under intolerable conditions.

The exhibition continues at Museum of Contemporary Art, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles, through February 24, 2008.

Exhibition website

More links and bibliography on the topic

Patrick Marcoux


Patrick Marcoux is a birdwatcher in Los Angeles.

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