Artists Emory Douglas and Andrea Bowers discuss how activism influences art and artists in this talk from December 12, 2018. This conversation was presented in association with the exhibition West by Midwest.
Andrea Bowers and Emory Douglas Transcript
Hi, everyone. Welcome. We have a casual, intimate group tonight, which is really nice for us. Welcome to the MCA Chicago. I am January Parkos Arnall, and I'm the curator for the public program here. Tonight, we're thrilled to host a conversation between two incredible artists, Emory Douglas and Andrea Bowers. This is part of our programming related to the exhibition on the fourth floor called West by Midwest. So I hope you all have been up to see it, and, if not, you'll definitely want to after this talk.
Tonight's conversation—West by Midwest focuses on artists with roots in the Midwest whose lives and work brought them westward. And in doing so, it really illuminates the ways that contemporary art practices spread and develop through a set of social, political, artistic, and intellectual networks. So tonight's conversation, we're focusing on the activist networks that have informed and continue to inform the work of our two speakers.
Before we begin, one quick note of housekeeping, which is that we love to communicate with you on social media through our hashtag, #MCAChicago. But we ask you to turn off your cell phones now. So tonight's program, as you know, is Andrea Bowers and Emory Douglas. I'm going to keep these introductions very brief, because you'd all much rather hear from them about their practice than from me reading a bio. So. That's why they're very brief.
Emory Douglas has worked as the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the party disbanded in the 1980s. His graphic art was featured in most issues of the newspaper, the Black Panther, which had peak circulation of 139,000 per week in 1970. As the art director, designer, and main illustrator for the Black Panther newspaper, Douglas created images that became icons representing black American struggles during the 1960s and 1970s and this work of course has influenced generations of artists. His work is actually also up right now at the Stony Island Arts Bank, so [I’d] encourage any of you who haven't been down there to see that as well.
Andrea Bowers is a Los Angeles-based artist, originally from Ohio, working in a variety of media including video, drawing, and installation. Her work has been exhibited around the world, including in museums and galleries in Germany, Greece, and Tokyo. As a feminist and a social activist, Bowers's work often invokes contemporary political issues, American history, and protest, and she's very interested in the work of Emory Douglas, and really considers it to be formative in her own career. Her work was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial and the 2008 California Biennial. So, please help me in welcoming Emory Douglas and Andrea Bowers.
Hello, thank you all for coming. Can you hear me? Yeah. I want to thank everyone here. January, for inviting us. And it's such an honor to be speaking with Emory tonight.
Glad to be here in conversation.
You want me to start?
Okay. So. I'm actually—I printed a paper and left it back there, so I'm just going to read it off my phone, a little paragraph. So this is probably really hard for Emory to believe, but when I was in grad school at CalArts, I was told that it was immoral to make art, or it was unethical to make art about activism. Because art was representational and activism was real. And so like you were just taking advantage of those activists for the success of your art practice and that was just like really upsetting to me. And so I was looking for a way to think about art differently.
And I ran across this speech that you gave. Called Revolutionary Art. And maybe you can talk about that. But first I thought I would read the ending paragraph, because I think it's so important. Is that okay?
Do you want me to hand it to you and you can read it?
No, it's fine, go ahead.
Okay. “Art is subordinate to politics since at this time we are fighting in a struggle for our national liberation. Therefore, politics must be the paramount thing to anything that we have going. So when we say that we want decent housing, we must have pictures that reflect how we're going to get decent housing. When we say that we want an immediate end to the murder and brutality of black people, then we must show how we can deal with that. All the art must reflect the politics of the day, as exposed by the vanguard party. You have to understand also that politics and art go hand in hand. Politics is the engine and the art is a part of that engine. It may be a screw on that engine, but it's a screw that if it is lost, the struggle and the politics of the struggle will be weakened. Because every revolutionary movement that I know of has some type of revolutionary art.” So just even that—the whole text, the whole speech is amazing. But that one paragraph is like, really, you kind of verbalized what I was thinking about kind of like intuitively. So maybe you can talk about giving that speech, and what you were thinking, and why you were asked to give it, and that sort of thing.
Well, the speech comes out of the context of the social justice at the time that I was involved in and that was the Black Panther Party. And so it was a reflection of the politics of that period. The ten-point platform and program. Our involvement with the community. Hearing their pain and suffering. The joy and all that. Becomes a part of the art itself. So the art is a reflection of all of those—of that context.
So, okay, let me turn on my notes here. I think everybody like—I asked everyone what I should ask you, and everybody wants—so we should just get it out of the way—everybody wants to know about your early years, and how you got involved in the Black Panther Party. And then they want to hear about the newspaper, and how the newspaper evolved over time, and how you first started making it.
I'll take it one at a time, because I may have to ask you again. But that's quite all right. That's all right. Well, I came to San Francisco, California in 1951. I had asthma as a kid. I was born in Grand Rapid[s], Michigan in 1943. So that tells you I'm 75. And so I came to California, 1971 because my aunt, my mother had a sister, lived in San Francisco. And they thought the weather would be better. The doctor did. And so we came to San Francisco. And I recall my mother was legally blind. She could see something. She had—but she was still considered legally blind. So she ran—worked in one of the concession stands they had, the government had, where you could sell candies and all those things.
And cigarettes and what have you. And she worked at the one at the juvenile center in San Francisco, for the handicapped. So during that period, I think my auntie, my first trip was to the South was in about when I was about 10 years old, 10 or 11 years old. And we had to—we caught the bus from San Francisco, the Greyhound bus. And when we got to – oh, we got to Oklahoma City. We were going to Tulsa, Oklahoma. And when we got to the bus stop in—the transfer from the bus in Oklahoma City to go to Tulsa, she took my hand as we went into the bus station, and she explained that, “We have to sit over here.”
And it was a small area. And, “This is what we have to eat.” They say you can't use the bathroom out here. And it was a sign in the bathroom, and where we were. And on the bathroom there, it said, For Negros Only. So that became my actual physical encounter with the racism at that time. Thereafter, I remember as a youngster living in the Fillmore District, which was then—now they call it the Western Addition, all these other uppity names they're giving it. And during that time, I used to, as a youngster, at one point, I was about seventh or eighth grade, they had a curfew, for young people my age in that neighborhood.
And I believe, I don't know if it was in other parts of the city as well—We had to wear dog tags with our name and age on them. And if we were caught out after night, they'd catch us and take us to a juvenile center. But we were—we knew how to get away and hang out and all that, so never got arrested. I remember what you call “profiling” today, back then you had young blacks, all the guys who hanging out at the stores on the corner, and police would come by, if they caught them on the store in the corner, and they didn't, and they asked them for their ID, and they didn't have their ID, they'd arrest them.
If they didn't have any money in their pocket, they arrested them for vagrancy. So it was a cat and mouse game. Profiling back in— during that time. I also remember there used to be these two black men that used to come to town all the time. And they would always every time they'd come, I just so happen to see them on the news, and they would always interview them. And I couldn't understand, because you never would see any blacks on the TV. Only had three stations then. Except for maybe the Nat King Cole Show, which is only about 15 minutes, during that time.
And I remember later on, when I went to work for the Black Press, and it came back to me: that was W. E. B. DuBois and Paul Rosen. Every time they used to come to town, they would always interview them and I remember one time they interviewed W. E. B. DuBois, because he had came to town. He had an office around two, three blocks from where I'd lived at and it had been firebombed. So he had came out for that purpose during that time. Then there were the civil rights movements that were going on in the late ’50s, because blacks could not get jobs, or stay at the hotels downtown in San Francisco.
So there were a lot of protests around those things, and sit-ins by the NAACP. I also recall I used to watch the TV during the late ’50s. And watched the—then that's when the gangsters used to run Cuba. And you see the filers and the dancers and all that on the weekends. That'd be the late channel, would stay on all night. And the baseball games where you had the different American teams would be playing against the Latin teams, in Cuba and what have you. But all of a sudden, there was this blackout.
That was the beginning of the Cuban Revolution during that time. Then you go into the ’60s. I recall observing on the TV you would see—
What was the propaganda about the Cuban Revolution at that time?
Well, I was naïve to that. I was just—I observed where I recall seeing how what happened, and then it flashed on me later on, that's what that was. As I became more aware in what was taking place. But at the time, I wasn't—I was just going to watch the filers and the dancing and stuff that took place on the weekends. Because it was the only TV station that was on, up until maybe 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. And so I remember in the '60s, in the early '60s, you would see the civil rights marches being beaten, beaten down, and being hosed and what have you.
Then on the international news from time to time, you'd see the same thing in South Africa. You'd see the beat down with the water hose. The tanks. All those things. And then you'd begin to formulate in your mind what was possibly going on. Then I remember when Fanny Lou Haymer and the all black democratic representatives from Mississippi, when they went to the Democratic Convention, and they were refused to accept them to sit at the delegation for Mississippi because it was all black. I recall that during that period in time. And the many rebellions that began to take place in the 1960s of young blacks being murdered, and always being justified during that period. Over 300 or 400 rebellions in the inner cities. So all those kind of things, psychologically I began to form my desire to want to do something. And it was about 1960 I went to City College of San Francisco. I was in and out of the youth detention centers as a youngster, just being bad and incorrigible at that time.
But you studied commercial arts there. You did some sort of graphics?
Yes, when I went there, it was suggested that I take up commercial art, because if I would have took up fine art, I wouldn't have been able to do the production work that I did on The Black Panther paper. Maybe been good at fine art but not at production aspect of—the graphic aspect of it. And I went to city college and I took up commercial art. That was my only basic training, my real formal training, other than self-taught in the context of what I do. And so when I went there, I developed my skills to the point that they used to send me out on job assignments.
I did silkscreen factory. I did illustrations that came into the departments that for doing technical illustrations like for chromosomes and doc medical students and stuff needs those things. You get—and the fact that the teacher would observe what you do to see how well you were. They would ask you if you want the job, you get paid for it. And those kinds of things. So I also worked at downtown at a store that did fine wine goblets and silverware displays and those kinds of things. And did work in the production department for the ads for the newspapers.
So all those things. All that plays into when I get into the Black Panther Party. I, as well, was in the Black Arts Movement during that time, which was a national movement, which is also on the West Coast. Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, was in the Bay Area and he had been brought to San Francisco State University to do some community theater and what have you.
Was the Black House in San Francisco?
Yes, the Black House came around that same time, when the Panthers had started—
Can you describe what the—does everybody know what the Black House is? Should he describe that?
Well, the Black House was the cultural location where—it was a house where Eldridge Cleaver lived upstairs and the cultural activity went on downstairs. That was Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Ed Bullins, all—and then local playwrights and artists and stuff you come to performances and what have you. And so it was called the Black House. And that was during that period of time when Eldridge Cleaver had initially got out of prison and he was working for Ramparts Magazine, a progressive magazine. And because he was on parole, he wasn't allowed to hang around the Black Panther Party, because he could have been in violated, sent back to prison.
But Rampart, being a progressive magazine, allowed him to be a reporter for them to report on the Black Panther Party. So he was always connected—Huey and them—Huey Newton and Bobby Seale knew of his writings in prison. And but they never knew how to get in touch with him until this whole thing came together to bring Sister Betty Shabazz to the Bay Area. And they were trying to get in touch and they were able to. And so they used to come to the Black House to go upstairs and talk to him quite a bit, trying to pick his brain. At the same time, had the whole vision about starting The Black Panther newspaper. And they wanted him to be the editor or write for the paper during that time. And Huey and them had the vision of the paper to tell our story from our perspective. They’d be like a double edged sword: could praise you on the one hand and it could criticize you on the other. I recall when I went to the Black House one evening, Huey and Bobby and Eldridge was sitting downstairs and there was nothing happening, nothing cultural events going on.
And I seen Bobby working on the first paper, which was a legal sized sheet of paper, had been typed on a typewriter, and had used markers for the heading of it. And had the panther on it. And it was about the young man who had been murdered in Richmond, California. His name was Denzil Dowell. He was mentally challenged and he had been murdered by the Richmond Police. So that's what that issue was about. But I seen him working and I tell him I still had materials from city college that I could help them improve the quality of the work.
So it took me about a half an hour to go home and half an hour to come back. And when I came back, Huey and Bobby said, “Well, we finished with that, but you been coming around.” Because I had began to come around at the end of January of 1967, about three and a half months after the organization had started. And they said, “You seem to be committed, so we going to start the paper and we want you to be the revolutionary artist.” That was my first title. Would eventually become the minister of culture, but I'd be the revolutionary artist. And so they said—like I said, it said the paper would be about telling our story from our perspective and the whole bit. They say, “But we want to have a lot of pictures in it, and artwork as well.” Because the reading—basically the community, black community then wasn't a reading community, they say. But they learned through observation and participation. So they would get the gist of the story if they seen these photographs, or they seen the artwork. And for they had the whole idea of seniors, when they read the paper, to have big titles and stuff, so the seniors could be able to read the captions and what have you for the paper.
So that became—I say I think about going fast forward, from January to May was the first tabloid paper that came out. The one that Bobby was working on. That was the first issue. That—this is 1967. That was the first one, what I described, the tabloid, came out in April. But then the second one came out when we went to Sacramento, California, when a lot of people may be aware of when we went to observe the laws in relationship to—they're trying to change the local gun ordinance.
Because Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and Panthers were patrolling the community with the guns, legally, had the right, Second Amendment to the Constitution, gave the right to bear arms. And doing it legally and doing it in relationship to the law, standing a proper distance away from the arrest, but educating those who were being arrested about their legal rights when they were being arrested. All they had to do is give their name, age, or they had to take the fifth and say nothing.
Then we'd talk about going down and bailing them out and those kinds of things. So it was during that period that the first paper came out. When we went to Sacramento. Because they got this right wing assemblyman named Mulford to change the local gun ordinance, because the police were frustrated because they didn't know how to deal with Huey and the Panthers patrolling the community then, based on—and doing it based on the law.
Because Huey and them understood the law. They had worked in a law office. And so they understood and had access to legal books and what have you. So they understood the basic law, so when they were patrolling, explained they had the constitutional right, and all those things. And so the police was so frustrated that they wanted to change the gun laws. So they got this right wing assemblyman, named Mulford to change the gun laws. So and that's when we went to Sacramento to observe the—chambers, representative chambers, in relationship to these laws.
Now, when we—how I got involved in going to Sacramento is I just went by the Black House one night and wasn't nothing happening. And just when I was leaving, Eldridge Cleaver say—he say, “We're going to Sacramento tomorrow, do you want to go?” I say, “Yeah.” He say, “Well, you got to be here at 7:45, because we got to go to Oakland.” And I say, “Okay.” And so we go to Oakland. Then when we get to Oakland—
So there was like no sensitivity, like, “Hey, you might be arrested, or we might get in a little trouble?” He was just like, “Hey, you want to go to—”
Yeah, yeah. But when we went to Oakland the next morning to connect with everybody, that's when everything was laid out. It was explained. And they were not just Panthers. A lot of people think it was just Panthers. It was Panthers and non-Panthers. There were men and there were women who were a part of this delegation. And there were family members of the Denzil Dowell, the young man who got murdered, some of his family, sisters and brothers were a part of that delegation that went to Sacramento. But it was explained to everybody that there was not to be—it wasn't about gunplay, none of that.
That the guns were going to be in the trunk. When we go to the capital we take them out, because it was legal. And then we would carry them into the chamber. But it was explained that we were going there for two things. One, was for to read what we called “Executive Mandate Number One,” which was about the concentration camps USA, which today you call the prison industrial complex. It was talk about that and how that was being planned for black folks during that time.
It was also explained why Bobby was going and Huey Newton was staying behind, because they felt it would be what we call a colossal event. It would be picked up by a lot of the news and media and what have you. Therefore, they needed somebody to stay behind to deal with the press and what have you. This is the early phase. This is—the party is only about six, seven, eight, nine months old during that time. So when we get to Sacramento, and we get on the lawn, you have then the governor of the state of California, Ronald Reagan, who became the president of the United States, was standing about from here to that podium.
And he was holding a press conference with some parochial white school kids. And the press. The kids and the press thought we were a gun club. The press gravitated over to where we were and Bobby Seale, leading the delegation, explained what we were there for and also read the “Executive Mandate Number One.” Thereafter, we left and went into the capital. They opened the doors and allowed us in. Wasn't against the law. We weren't violating no laws. It was within legal rights.
But we didn't know where the chamber—where all the laws were being passed. So the newsmen were in front. And they trying to find out. And they got directions that it was upstairs on the second floor. And we following the newsmen. And the newsmen go into the chamber where the laws are being discussed and legislated. And the first thing they say is, “Get the cameras out of here.” Thereafter, we follow right in, they say, “Well, get those guns out of here.” And we turn around and leave. And we go back outside on the lawn, talk about ten minutes.
And we leave and go to a filling station about maybe two or three blocks, four blocks away. All of a sudden, you see this motorcycle cop come by, seeing all these black men at the filling station with these guns. He gets on his thing, all of a sudden they swooping down on us. When they swooped down on us, they take the guns. They jam them and jack them up so that it would be in violation, with bullets in the chamber, in violation of the local gun ordinance. Therefore, they could charge us with all these other trumped up charges.
They arrest us. We go back and forth to court. Eventually they want to make a deal. That we would get non-supervised probation if we plead guilty to a misdemeanor. The reason why we agreed to that was because it was this whole group of folks around the country who wanted to become Panthers. The organization was beginning to grow and develop. And so we need to do our organizing as opposed to spending a lot of time going back and forth. So we agreed to the unsupervised six-month probation. But we had to go to court in order to—so the judge—and plead guilty to the misdemeanor in order to get the unsupervised probation.
But they didn't know who all had guns, so Bobby Seale had to choose the other—about three or four people that they knew had guns, but other than the pictures they couldn't tell who had guns. So Bobby Seale had to pick—was about seven to ten folks to go and plead in relationship to the misdemeanor. I was one of those who was chosen, along with a few other Panthers. When we went to court and we pleaded guilty, they say, “How we plead?” “We plead guilty.” And we fitting to walk out the court. And the judge say no, no, no. You all going to jail.
So they set us up. So they set us up. We went to jail. I think I did about three or four weeks. Some people did a month, two months. You had Little Bobby Hutton, who was the very first Panther, he was 15, 16 years old. Huey and Bobby had to get permission from his parents for him to join the Black Panther Party back in the day. So he went to juvenile for about three months, six months. And after that, the Party began to evolve and grow. The paper itself became the organ that we used to get our message out.
It also had local, national, international news. Always in solidarity, coalition with people's struggles around the world and on the domestic level as well. First three or four issues, maybe didn't have any artwork. I was just doing the production work, laying out and those things, about the third or fourth paper I began to do a little illustration in the inside of the paper. Then maybe a little while after that, I began to do illustrations for the back cover that you would see each week, when the paper did begin to come out on a weekly basis.
Initially it was supposed to come out biweekly. But we got it out when we could. Sometimes in the early days, as we evolved and developed—yeah, was supposed to be biweekly at first. Yeah. But we only got it out maybe once a month [laughter]. And then sometimes when we did it then, you maybe look at an article or it'd say continued on page four, and you go to page four, the article wasn't there [laughter]. So we had to have critiquing and evaluation and develop so the paper would be consistent.
And I think about the late 1967, or 1968, we started getting it out on a consistent basis. But we also got it out where it was—it'd say continued on page eight, the story was on page eight [laughter].
So I inappropriately asked him before we started this, how many times he was arrested. And that was the one story he told me. But I just think it's really interesting that he just happened to talk about that story. Because right now, I'm working—I don't know if it'll become a project. I tend to meet activists and work with them before I actually make something. But I'm currently working with Tokata Iron Eyes, who is the 15-year-old spokesperson for Standing Rock.
And she has become really close with some of the young March for Our Lives people. The kids. And recently, Jeremy Scahill on an Intercept podcast, on Intercepted, was just talking exactly about that legislation and that event, when you all were arrested, in relationship to March for Our Lives, because it's the only time I think in our history where these kind of right wing racist leaders decided that they were going to put gun control in, in any way. When it was when you all legally showed up and had a right to the Second Amendment, to bear arms, and it sounds like you didn't even have bullets in them or anything.
Yeah, but it doesn't matter. But, you know, that's like—I don't know. I find irony in that. I find extreme irony in that.
It was still the colonial mentality. There, a black man stand up—
But would that change today? It seems like it's the same issue today.
As much as things change, some things stay the same. Why do they get to murder and brutalize us and we get the blame?
So, okay. So I am going to ask you something and you can tell me I'm totally wrong. So a lot of times I feel guilty because I can't just draw like you. And I'm thinking, because I have to look at a picture. I can only draw from pictures. I'm like really good at copying exactly what I see. And I'm also really terrible with slogans. And so I go to every protest I can go to, and I record them all to figure out the text that I want to include. So I'm really literal. And I collect pages and pages of slogans, and I collect like things that are moving that people say in books.
So I'm wondering: Kathleen Cleaver talked about you being really quiet when groups of folks would get together in the Panthers. And she always thought that you were just quietly recording stuff in your head. So I'm wondering first of all, did you ever use photographs? Did you ever take pictures to then draw things from?
I used to look through books. Because you always—I tried having models, and sometimes I'd use mannequins to interpret if I wanted to get a certain—then when I would just do visually, interpret the drawing, a figure, without a photograph or anything. Then you get a different feel. It depends on—it became the point where the kind of feeling I wanted to express with artwork was determined how I would do it, or what I had access to in order to do it, materials at that time. Yeah.
So I saw that you talked about there were a couple of posters of—there's a couple posters where you did drawings of people looking at reading the paper. There were some posters you made, some graphics, sorry, you made, of people reading the paper. And it'd seemed like you had actually taken their pictures. Is that true?
Yeah, yeah, well, those are photographs of folks who were—wanted to get their paper every week and wanted to highlight them. So there was this one sister who used to get her paper, sit in the back of the central headquarters where her lot was. And she would sit out there and read her paper. Then I got an illustration of this brother who used to come by, he had the wine bottle in his pocket, and he'd be slushed, but he would come get his paper every week. No matter—
But did you take pictures of him?
Well, then, in the beginning, we had photographers who we had access to those photographs. Then we developed our own in-house photography department.
You know what I'm trying to figure out. Where are all those photographs?
Oh. Well, we still got some of them. Matter of fact, I've remixed some of those images today. And I do have a whole—on the social programs that we have. Those pictures are a part of those social programs as well.
So you have a lot of new works. I mean—
Yeah, this is remixed, and new work, yes.
So and you're calling them remixes.
Well, some of them are remixed because they're reinterpretations of works I've done in the past. Like some artists take them and they throw them away. I take them and remix them.
So I have this—when I started, I was pretty young when I started making work. And I first started making work about like tree sitters, like environmentalism, climate justice we call it now. And I started making work about prior to the passage of Roe V. Wade. Women. There was a group in San Francisco called the Army of Three. And they were trying to make abortion legal. And at the time I was making that, I think Bush was trying to take our rights away. And I can go on and on and on.
But I was really worried when I started making that work, but I sort of didn't care, but I was worried that it was like really local, really of the moment, and that over time, my work would be irrelevant. And now at fifty-three, I wish my work was irrelevant. I wish that those ideas, those works, regarding immigration justice, labor issues—it's like repeat, repeat, repeat. And new and scary versions that I could never have expected.
So when I heard that you were doing these remixes, it made me think about that, that you hope in one lifetime things get better, but they don't. So I don't know. I just was wondering if you could talk about it in those terms at all. Like what's different, what's the same, how it feels to be remixing those images and having them still be relevant.
Well, all of them are not remixes. Sometimes I have a list of stuff I want to work on. Immigration issues. War. All those things. Social justice issues. I may try to work on at any given time one of those issues. And over time it becomes a volume of work. And then there may be some stuff that I have done and integrate into that image, or remix those images. And then I observe how—certain images, how people respond to them. They have a longevity from how people respond to them, what they say about it. So I try to reinterpret them in a more contemporary way. And that context. Yeah.
So, okay. We have like five minutes. Is there anything that you really want to talk about or say? Or do you want me to keep sort of talking about ideas?
Please, if you got a question, I'll respond.
Well, we kind of started talking about this a few weeks ago. But one of the subjects I'm doing right now is I went to Trump's inauguration. Not to be at the inauguration, but to protest. And there was this amazing kind of coalition called Disrupt J20. Which is January 20. Or, not Bush, Reagan. Or, not Reagan, my god, it's like a Freudian slip. Trump. Horrible Trump. It's like your drawings, you just keep putting another horrible president's head in. Reagan. Trump. You know. Anyway.
So I went to Trump's inauguration, and you know how he has been flipping out about he had the biggest inauguration ever. Well, I don't know if anybody knows this, but the reason he didn't is because there was this amazing alliance of activists, eight activist groups. So you had a kind of queer trans liberation group, you had like climate justice, you had Black Lives Matter, you had The Future is Feminist, and you actually had a trade group, like some—they saw Trump's trade policies coming up.
Which I couldn't even figure out what they were about. They had llamas and everything else. I didn't know what was going on there. But they had chained themselves to the—and blockaded the entrances of the inauguration. And there were tons of arrests. Like I can't remember, but in the hundreds. And it was all nonviolent. And it all ended at the Black Lives Matter. And then this amazing activist, who I actually was fortunate to record her talk, Future, spoke.
So I've been watching. And I think about—it seems like, from what I hear, a lot of the feminist groups from your era of the Black Panthers, and it seems like you all were working with the United Farm Workers, and like AIM, and groups like that. So this idea of alliance building has become really important to me. Because that group, Disrupt J20, was really exciting to me, because it had been a long time since I had seen such diverse issue groups come together and work together and see a reason to support each other's struggles. And I feel like that's disappeared a little bit these days.
And for me, I find great hope in that. And that's how we can make change. So I'm wondering if you have any reflection on the knowledge and wisdom of what you experience, and what worked in terms of activism. And what we need to maybe have more of right now. Like what's missing, or what we can do better, or—in terms of being activists.
Well, that comes out of the movement itself. As you evolve. And your commitment to it as a collective. You can have many possibilities. But if you don't put them into practice, to see how it works in the real world, critique and evaluate it and sum it up and correct it, and continue on, then you'll never know. So it's based on the practice. But it's also based on being—simply trying to be inspiring to those who want to be inspired with what you're doing. That is a part of also how people come together and also, the repression breeds resistance.
So all those dynamics. But we were just in the right place at the right time. The organization. There'd never been nothing in history of this country like the Black Panther Party. Young black youth. This was a youth movement, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years of age, that first cadre. Old folks in the party was thirty years of age.
But you think about some of these young people today, like in Black Lives Matter, in the Standing Rock movement, in the March for Our Lives. They're all fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years, too. And that's amazing and that's super exciting.
Yeah, I’ve connected with them. I've done some talks with the Black Lives Matter group out of Florida. There was a group that had a convention, when they had their first convention, I believe in Ohio, they were trying to get in touch with me through some of the other Panthers they invited and we finally connected. And they were called the Dream Defenders.
The Dream Defenders, they were in Florida.
Yeah, and they wanted to talk about art, because a lot of them were artists. And we had an hour talk or more, and they were questioning about my work and what I was doing, and what have you. And I was telling them about the OSPAAL, Organization for Solidarity with People of Africa, Asia, Latin America. And Tricontinental posters, which came out of Cuba during that time. Amazing political posters. And they were googling it right at the same time [laughter]. They didn't know nothing about it, until I told them. It gave them a whole other perspective.
But that's so important because that's how we learn, so we're not having historical amnesia all the time. I think it's really important to learn like what worked, what didn't work so well, so we're not like constantly repeating the same processes.
Well, what works and what doesn't work doesn't necessarily—
Always work and doesn't work.
Yeah, because of the dynamics. They didn't legalize, they criminalize everything that was—we were doing back then to make change. A lot of that, you're giving people what, seven, ten, fifteen years for protesting. And all those kinds of things. So you have to look at it in the context of what's going on now. And how you can strategize to be effective and have an impact. But you have to be committed. And that don't mean you don't have fear…human nature. But you still have to be committed to what you do, and how you do it. Those things. Yes.
So one of the things you said is you have to be motivational for the people, for them to get involved, and so—
Yeah. If you got a core, and people identify with what you're doing, you're serving an interest, I mean see, because when the Panthers started, Huey Newton—there were a whole lot of other organizations calling themselves the Panthers at the same time. The symbol comes from the South, during the Civil Rights Movement in 1965, when the Voters Rights Act was passed in this country that gave blacks the right to vote without being lynched and murdered legally. You had SNCC, Students for Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
You had Stokely Carmichael and them. They went to Lowndes County, Alabama, which is predominately black—about 20,000 strong, 80 percent black, but the Bull Connors and the racists ran the county. Plantations, what have you. Lot of the blacks, most of them were sharecroppers and—but they wanted to vote. So when they came there, they wanted to be informed and enlightened, but they didn't want to be a part of the Democratic Party, nor the Republican Party. So they started the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.
And like the white racists, who had a symbol, and it was the Democratic Party, who had a symbol of a white rooster, which stood for white supremacy.
Oh, you use that rooster in some graphics, okay.
Mm-hmm. And what happened is that they had to have—Lowndes County Freedom Organization had to have a symbol. So you go—they seen these high school sports teams, like with the animals, the tigers, the lions, and they chose the panther. So the symbol of the panther comes from the South during the Civil Rights Movement. But then moving fast forward, when I mention about—
We have to talk quickly, because we're out of time, unfortunately.
Yeah, okay, Huey Newton said, well, the people going to identify with the organization that's serving their interests. And that's what took place. The free breakfasts for school kids. The free health clinics. All those things were needed by the community.
Ambulance service in Winston-Salem, in the South. First chapter in the South, Winston-Salem, had an ambulance service. Regular ambulance service refused to come in on a timely basis, or at all. So the Panthers went and got certified as ambulance drivers, and the community helped them buy an ambulance. So you had the Black Panther Party community ambulance.
The Black Panthers were doing more social services than the government was and I don't think anybody realizes that.
Well, that's why you had the free lunch programs in school. They had to acknowledge that.
So we have to finish, but I just was trying to get you to say that art helps inspire the people to get—I was trying to get you to come back to the importance of art in activism, so we would end on the same—
Well, art is a tool. Yeah. [laughter]
Shall we open it up to up to questions, January? Emory, thank you for doing this with me. [applause]
So just go ahead and raise your hand if you have something you want to say, or a question, this is your opportunity to speak your mind, or to ask questions of these incredible artists we have. So just wait for the microphone.
Somebody ask us a question. It's always like everyone's afraid to ask the first question.
That was a very nice talk. Emory, I'm impressed with your chill and happy-go-lucky attitude at this stage in life. I don't know if you've mellowed or not. But I want to take you back to your edginess, and when you first started, and what were some of the times when you really were pushed to the edge in anger, and how long did you have to wait, count to ten, to actually do something on paper to express yourself with the art? Did you have to sort of sit back before all that anger came out in your art, so you could actually give a better expression of what was meaningful to you? Or were you just over the top angry on a few occasions that were ridiculous?
Well, sometimes the frustration anger came out in the artwork. Just in general. You listening to the people, you're hearing what they're talking about, how they're feeling. And you're feeling, you're expressing that in your artwork. Interpreting your artwork. Sometimes it was highly provocative. Other times it was pleasant and loving, and in some cases. But it was meant to be in your face. That was at that particular time, in the ’60s, that's what the art was initially reflected in the drawings and stuff.
It's evolved over a period of time, shifted in many ways, and people can tell the direction of the Party, the way the art was illustrated in the paper itself, as well. So just saying it in different ways, but making it relevant in the context of different ways, as opposed to using it in the same framework, in the same contexts, without—Beginning, we used to have a lot of the guns in the artwork. Then we had the pig drawings.
Then we had the solidarity with people's struggles around the world. And we also had those that dealt with social programs and issues of those in the paper. So you had the shift. But the frustration was always there. I recall one time I got stuck early on. And I was talking to Eldridge. We used to—we didn't have a headquarters at first. We used to work on a regular light, on a regular table, or on the floor. And we used to use—we had to make up our own layout sheets, we had to cut and paste and put stuff together and use prefabricated materials, letters, to make out the letters and stuff for the newspapers, headlines and things like that.
And I was getting frustrated, and I said, “Well, I'm still— I'm having these mental blocks, I can't come up with anything.” And I remember Eldridge saying to me, “Well, look, it doesn't matter what you say about this government, you'll be right.” [laughter] That there opened up a whole mindset, different mindset. So I was very provocative in some work, but it was based on fact. It may have been provocative, but it wasn't a distorted interpretation.
I think it's like I'm constantly like critiqued as my work being angry. And my work is totally honoring nonviolent civil disobedience activists. And I think that sometimes there's a confusion that political action is angry. All the time. And especially with the Black Panthers, they're like always angry. But I think activism is about citizenry and changing things for good. It's not always driven by anger. And sometimes—
It's guided by love.
It's guided by love, and those stereotypes sometimes have to be changed of activists as angry. Because I think it can be used as a negative a lot.
Is there another question out there?
I hope I answered what you said. I'm not sure. Okay.
I don't see an angry bone in your—you're so nice [laughter].
First of all, I just wanted to thank both of you and before I ask my question, Emory, I just wanted to let you know that Siobhan Gregory told me to send you regards from Wayne State in Detroit. So. Coincidentally, I was—today I was in Cleveland, and Tommy Smith, the athlete who—
Yes, we did something at Yale.
Yeah. So he—I was at a conference that he spoke at. And somebody asked him if he knew Colin Kaepernick. And so I noticed in your artwork that you had made reference to Colin Kaepernick. And I just wondered if you could maybe talk about your opinion about that type of activism.
Well, that, I got several images like that. I done one—we got on the front of the paper in 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics. But in the next Olympics, in 1972, you had Wayne Collett, a black runner, and another runner who—the protests continued when the national anthem was played, they just stood up on the podium, they just, with the chin, hand on the chin. They wasn't raising the flag, any of that. And so I tell people that's where—that's the Kaepernicks, that's where Kaepernick comes from. That.
So the link is there. And so that was—and I was—the blacklisting of Kaepernick was a racist, institutional racism, that was taking place, because he was defiant and standing up for human rights violations against the African American community in this country. As John Carlos and Tommie Smith and them did, Wayne Collett and all the athletes did during that time. Also had Serena Williams in there when—and had the badge, I am we, I am we because you are. That's like an African proverb.
And it's because of observing how she's treated in relationship to her beauty and her outspokenness. And so also that's contemporary. That's contemporary in relationship to—young people. You seen all across the country in these little kids getting the knee, and what have you. So that's the inspiration, that's the inspiration of today. In a broad, broad way, a broad context. And informing, inspiring. So that's how I look at the artwork of Serena and Kaepernick, what I did, yes.
I think we have another question over here.
Thank you very much for an awesome talk. It's a three-part question. The first two is for both of you. The third one is for Andrea. First is, how do you keep hope alive within yourselves when you're dealing with this struggle, when you're dealing with social justice work? Because it's been eternal. Number two is that, how do you survive not just with—how do you survive financially? Is it lucrative to do social justice artwork? And then, number three, for Andrea, as a person, as a white woman dealing with issues that deal with other races as well that effects all of us, how do you handle your critiques, and how do you go beyond that?
I’ll answer that really quickly, because I get asked that question all the time. First of all, I really believe in intersectionality. So there's all these complicated issues, but if white people sit back and don't say anything, then we're participating in xenophobia and we're participating in all of those things. So this is about making the—if we have social justice and equality in this world, then we all live better, life is better. And so I also feel like I'm an activist, and I work with activist groups that have the same goals that I do.
I work often really locally and with really specific causes. So it's not about gender, race, ethnicity, any of these things. It's about common activist missions that we're working on. And so I just think it's—I try to be really aware of where privilege lies, and where—it's a constant balance. But if all white people just sat back and let everyone else do it, it'd be a real mess. I mean I have to speak out, because I receive the benefits of being white in this world.
Just to add to that, though—
I don't know, is that [laughter]—
If you look up—some of you may know Assata, have heard of her. If not, you can read on YouTube. Assata Shakur, who was an exile in Cuba. Well, you read about Marilyn Buck. Marilyn Buck was a white activist who helped liberate her out of prison, was a part of the crew that helped liberate her out of prison. So you had those activists who were committed to doing—working during that particular time. Now, what's your other question, though? The first one.
Oh, he asked us about making money, too, Emory [laughter].
Money and actually how do you survive? Because—Internally, dealing with difficult issues, it hasn't changed, or the struggle has been different, but how do you survive through the struggle?
Well, there's interest, the world, you can around the world now in 48 hours. You got the electronic media and all that. So information travels. And stuff is on the media. And you—all over the world, everywhere, you got people who are trying to deal with social justice issues. Who are interested in that history of the artwork. Understand that Black Panther Party, itself, so you can put it in the context, you had the Australian Panthers, who were in Brisbane. You had the Polynesian Panthers, in New Zealand.
You had those who were called the Dalit Panthers, who were inspired in India. You had the London Panthers in London. You had all these different formations that were inspired, and the official chapter was the London, and the Australian Panthers, and the New Zealand Panthers, but there were many others. So that history lives, lived on, continued today, through different young scholars who were doing a lot of research and writing about the work. Nothing that I demanded—requests, but there's been a lot of interest since about 2006, 2007, where I was invited to the Sydney Biennale.
I been to Sydney, Australia, about three or four times. Collaborated with Aboriginal artist named Richard Bell there. I been to New Zealand. Did collaboration with the Māori artists there. And then worked in the hood in New Zealand with young folks who are challenged in—they got gangs there just like they got gangs here, and that's the bottom of the world. But they got 8 million people. But they do have them there. But it's an amazing, beautiful country. Been to Beirut, Lebanon, to the arts center.
Been to Portugal several times. Nottingham. Contemporary. Been to Banksy Gallery. Never know if Banksy's a he or a she, but I been to the gallery. And did exhibits there. And so done work with Zapatistas in Chiapas. Some of them have—the Mayan women collective—done, interpret four or five of my images in embroideries and those kinds of things. So it's just a matter that—so it's everywhere. When you go, you go, and just came back, got an exhibit in West Den Haag in the Hague in a gallery there.
Went also to—went back over to Amsterdam, been there four or five times in Amsterdam. Done some collaborations. Were just there with groups similar to Black Lives Matter here. Doing things. And activists over there. So it's—you ain't going to get rich, but you get compensated for your—for coming and contributing, making the presentation, and doing the exhibitions. Bogota, Colombia. Had an exhibit there last year. Year before last. Last year I had one in Brazil.
So, Mexico. Also had one in—did some talks in Argentina. I never had—when I first got my computer, I had never looked at my messages and one day I say let me look at messages. And there was a request from these youngsters from Argentina who wanted me to come, because they knew of the work. And I contacted them. And they connect me with their site. And it was young people, artists, all of them are graphic designers. And they—what they did is they felt they didn't have any qualified designers and teachers in Argentina, so they began to bring in artists, to teach them, and talk to them. And so they wanted me to come. It was called TRImarchi and it was in Mar del Plata on the coast. And they had this major basketball stadium. And they had about 6,000 or 7,000 young people from Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, all around those areas, 5,000, 6,000 strong. In the quarter, they had young artists selling their goods. Outside, during the breaks, they had music playing, and they had skateboarding, and all these things going on. Then you come in and do your talk.
I remember when I did the talk, and it was over, it was like you go to the opera, you get seven, eight, nine curtain calls. Well, that's what it was like. And I was trying to figure, ‘what was that about?’ And it come to me that what they were inspired by the artwork because the issues that they're going through in their countries that they're trying to deal with. So that's the link. That's the connection. Because of the digital age. And they can get in contact with you. And plus when you put the images on the internet to Facebook, and Facebook is a tool, all of them spy. All of them spy.
So it don't make a difference. You put that one down. You still use your cell phone. You still being spied on [laughter].
I love this.
In that context.
Sadly, we're going to have to close up soon. But, Andrea, any last thoughts about survival?
Yeah, yeah. I mean I think that in terms of survival in terms of remaining optimistic, I think that what's my happy place in the world is being at a march or protest. Like it's so—it makes me so happy and hopeful. And I think that the US is so—and the art world is so much founded on individualism. And I think that's really a problem in that if you just start to think—there's this term called radical hospitality—radical patience.
And believing that your enemies, if you really want to be successful, your enemies have to become your allies. And it may take multiple generations. So instead of seeing yourself as an individual, making change, you think of yourself as part of a big group and you don't even know a lot of those people who are working together on common causes, which is what Emory was just describing. And thinking of yourself as just doing your part in a group, it doesn't become overwhelming. You're just doing your part and you believe that change can occur.
And it may take generations, but it takes a lot of the pressure off, and it just feels—that's how I maintain hope.
Thank you. I love that as an ending comment. Thank you both for being here and thank all of you for being here and bringing your ideas and your bodies into this space on this cold day [applause].
- West by Midwest–
- Short A black-and-white photograph of two men shaking hands is mounted to a light-colored piece of wood.
- Long A black-and-white photograph with white borders is affixed to a small wood board with photo corners. The photo shows a scene in a supper club or restaurant. It features two fair-skinned, dark-haired men in suits standing, shaking hands. The man on the left holds a small box and the man on the right extends his left hand to receive it. In the foreground, two seated, light-skinned people with long dark glossy hair look up at the men from their table. The two men look directly at us. A date stamp reading "JAN 3 1968" appears in the bottom border of the photo. The ends of two knotted leather cords emerge above and below the photo on the left side of the wooden board, seemingly binding the board like a book cover. A signature reading "Edward Ruscha" appears on the board in blue ink below the image, and the initials "B.A.B." are signed and underlined in black on the wood above the mounted photograph.