March 2009, Kofi Forson in coversation with Emory Douglas former Minister of Culture of The Black Panther Party

 

 

 

 Emory Douglas
 "Warning to America"
 Originally published in The Black Panther
 June 27, 1970
 prints available through Station 4 Gallery, London

 

Emory Douglas
Hello.

 

Kofi Forson
Hi. Is this Emory Douglas?

 

ED
Yes it is.

 

KF
Hi. This is Kofi Forson calling from
New York. I promised to call you at this time. How are you today?

 

ED
Oh yes, pretty good, yourself?

 

KF
I’m doing okay. How’s the weather there today?

 

ED
Oh, it’s all right. Good, good; real nice today.

 

KF
Beautiful, beautiful… We’re having a very nice day today ourselves. It’s been cold for the past couple of weeks but today it’s quite nice, almost spring-like.

 

ED
Oh yeah, same here.

 

KF
It’s a pleasure to talk to you. I’m doing this interview for Noah Becker’s Whitehot Magazine and also for Station 4 Gallery. (Sigh) I want to say though that recently there was a cartoon in the New York Post here in New York featuring two policemen shooting a gorilla. The caption loosely refers to the Obama stimulus plan and I don’t mean to just jump into the idea of racism in America but what’s your reaction to something like this? How much of this is a need for outrage concerning racism in America?

 

ED
Well it is. It is an outrage. I caught it the other day on - - just happened to be looking at the news and it is a big issue; it’s a culture within the police department and at the same time it’s a culture within society that perpetuates racism and bigotry to their advantage.

 

KF
Station 4 Gallery is currently showing your work. I want to ask you something more on the idea of arts. How did you separate your role as artist for the Black Panther Party and also as a revolutionary promoting your views? When did this become different or is the artist and the revolutionary the same?

 

ED
Well it is connected; they’re the same because the art is the reflection of politics of the party in the spirit of the people and the struggles that exist at any given time in the spirit of doing the art itself.

 

KF
Where did you grow up and what circumstances led you to making art?

 

ED
Well, I grew up here in San Francisco. I came from Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I was young because I had asthma. They thought the climate would be better here and my mother had sisters that lived here so we came to California in 1951. So I grew up here in California and I went to school here in California.

 

KF
Beautiful; can you talk a bit about your art background? Did you go to school?



ED
My art background: basically a self-taught artist. I took up commercial art at City College of San Francisco, which is a Junior College, and met the requirements and it was that there that I got the basic foundation and the skills of dealing with doing commercial art, which was the foundation that helped me to be able to do the kinds of creative work I had to do and the technical work I had to do for the Black Panther Party newspaper.

 

KF
Yeah. Talk a bit about the transition from foundational art to tackling something more on the verge of socio-political art? When did you make that jump?

 

ED
Well it was always because I was in the black arts movement prior to being in the Black Panther Party- - and there was a consciousness in the Black Arts Movement of doing art of self-determination within the Black Arts Movement. So I already had somewhat of a foundation already when I got involved with the Black Panther Party because I had been doing flyers and posters and designing artwork for the Black Arts Movement and for people in the neighborhood, so I had somewhat of a basic foundation based on the skills that I was learning at City College.

 

KF
Talk a bit about the subject matter of your art? Was this a means of sudden impact? I’m looking at the images and they’re really heartbreaking, beautiful yet heartbreaking. You have a woman with child strapped with a gun. Was this a means of sudden impact? That is to say there was no other way to get your point across; it had to be done by taking extreme measures?

 

ED
Well, it was meant to be provocative but you have to understand - - you have to look at the context of the work and the totality of art that was done during that period. 

 

KF
Yeah.

 

ED
There were some that dealt with the caricature cartoon pig drawings.  Others were done with self-defense as you spoke of and to have a shock impact, a psychological impact. There are others that dealt with social programs and there were those that dealt with solidarity with people’s struggles around the world.

 

KF
The anti-government rhetoric that surrounded the party… How did this deter you from accomplishing the vision for the party?

 

ED
The anti-government rhetoric of the party…?

 

KF
No, surrounding the party; meaning how people viewed the party. How did this deter you from accomplishing the vision you had for the party?

 

ED
People were supportive of the party on the grass root level, mass level. There were people all over the world who supported the Black Panther Party. Black Panther Party didn’t work in isolation. It wasn’t a fringe organization. It had a great impact. That’s why you had the FBI and the U.S Government call it the number one threat to the internal security of the United States.

 

KF
These were some important times, if not difficult times. Can you share with me your experience of this time in a nutshell? Please give me an overview of your mind state at this time in history?

 

ED
My mind state at that time when I came into the Black Panther Party was that you had a lot of rebellion across the country around some of the reflective of the same hypocritical racist cartoons that showed - - and it was in the newspaper back there, and - - has been blasted all over the country and is related to a young black man being shot and murdered. Maybe they’ve committed petty crimes running from the scene. You had the Civil Rights Movement that you’ve seen on T.V. where you had blacks being sprayed with water hoses, being murdered, and beaten because they just wanted to have equal rights to sit - - go into a restaurant or sit on the bus where they chose to or go to the schools where they had a right to and paid taxes to go to. So you had all of these things compounded on, then you turn on the international news and you see the same thing happening in South Africa. So there was a feeling, there was a whole feeling in the country during that time among many young African Americans and other folks who wanted to make change. So that was the spirit of how and why I got involved. I wanted to be a part of something. I respected the Civil Rights Movement but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do to turn the other cheek.

 

KF
It’s quite clear that the message was felt by a whole lot of people. The image of Tony Smith and John Carlos standing in salute at the Mexican Olympics, where were you at this point and what was your reaction?

 

ED
They were from the Bay area. They went to school about 30 miles from San Francisco/Oakland Bay area at San Jose State, and there were some discussions on what might be done when they went there to show the plight and what was going on here in America and the abuse - - human rights abuses here in America, but it was their choice on what they did but there was some discussions and meetings prior to their going.


 

 

 Emory Douglas
 "Our People's Army"
 Originally published in The Black Panther
 April 18, 1970
 courtesy Station 4 Gallery, London and the artist

 

 

 Emory Douglas
 "They Should Be Paying My Rent"
 Originally published in The Black Panther
 February 27, 1971
 courtesy Station 4 Gallery, London and the artist

 

 

 

KF
Really…Okay we have Obama now. We’ve talked about the Black Panther Party, the Civil Rights Movement, about change, the conscientious and political effort to bring about change in America. How is this measured now in time and history with the election of President Obama?


ED
Well you have to wait and see. I mean right now, I mean, it’s good for moving race relations along; but as far as policy, you have to wait and see what it is. You have to see what positions he takes and how he deals with, not only local but the international scene as it relates to policies and stuff of that nature.

 

KF
The success of a black artist is most often dependent upon his or her depiction of social political movements or the portrait of the black experience. How are you affected by the Harlem Renaissance? How did that open your eyes to what other black artists were doing?

ED
I didn’t come in contact with that until I was in college and got into Black Arts Movement. As a child growing up I wasn’t aware of it, I was only aware of Charles White as an artist because my auntie used to get this calendar every year from this insurance company and she used to have it on her wall. And not being from New York or having anyone to give me any kind of reference material related to that period so I was very unaware of it in reality until later on as I grew older. But I think there was some very powerful artists during that period like Aaron Douglas, which is one who I admired a lot of his work during that time. There was some very powerful art work from some of the artists done during that period.

KF
As far as arts, somehow we as black artists are almost always compelled to look at what we call the “Euro American Influence” to use a common name, Picasso. When do you separate the Euro American Influence and get to the point of what is black art? What is black art? Is there such a thing called black art?


ED
Well yeah, because it comes from the experience of the person who the environment, the culture, the lifestyle, all of those things play into one’s art and how they interpret it. So from that perspective you could say that there’s - - that’s the contribution to art itself as a whole.

KF
But do you tend not to recognize the Euro American Influence? That is to say you, growing up as a young black artist…


ED
Well I wasn’t taught that way. I was taught to - - if you looked at it not to duplicate it and create it, you can be inspired by it.

KF
Right…


ED
So that’s how I came about not necessarily to be or try to copy what was being done during that period as much as it was quality art. I wanted to do quality art myself or if I liked the subject matter maybe wanted to be inspired to be able to be a part of that experience of having some work that has a meaning to it and things of that nature. But by the techniques and things of that - - like that I wasn’t - - never - - I never got into European Art in that way.

KF
And I would say so. I would agree with you because looking at your images, they’re very much founded on somewhat of a personal, a personal experience and looking at the images it seems that they stem from who you are and the root of who you are. (Sigh) Talk to me a bit about hip-hop. Hip-hop seems to have taken over the movement where you guys left off. How would you chronicle how far we’ve come from The Last Poets to Chuck D and Public Enemy? What’s your impression of what these young brothers are doing?


ED
The fact is…is that they’re trying to carry on in a way that informs and enlightens people and inspire people to look at things more than just the status quo. So I think that in that sense it’s very positive in relationship to informing, and also they respect the history and they reference the history. So therefore you get the younger generations who follow them, who admire them, will be - - inquire and look into the history as well.

KF
Right…I want to touch on the Obama situation once and final - - for the final time. Where are we now in America? Is this what you imagined decades ago? Is it better or is it worse? Is it…


ED
Well as much as things change, they stay the same. I mean you have a black man who’s the President of the United States. That’s a leap. That’s a leap within itself but people are still unemployed, people are still - - you still got the inferior education. You still got people living in poverty you see. So those things will - - haven’t just changed because of Obama becoming the President.

KF
Right and I’d like to end on this note. Giving what the party stood for and the cause for change, how would you define freedom in the modern age? Is it something intellectual or are we yet to be freed of the so-called “shackles” emotionally and conscientiously?

ED
There’s a combination of both. It has - - it’s a personal thing. At the same time that personal thing has to transcend into collective spirit, energy, and vibration that transcends the shackles of those things but it is… Freedom is an ongoing process. It’s always evolving, always changing because there’s always obstacles that you’re going to have to overcome that’s going to be tried to - - and you always got those different - - you’ve got the distant - - those who are trying to exploit and to keep one oppressed. You always have that element as it relates to those who are trying to overcome those obstacles. So the challenge is, is to try to hopefully to have a more harmonious thing in society where there is a more of an upside of things than a downside.

KF
What does change mean to Emory Douglas in 2009?


ED
Well change is - - can mean many things, I mean, in many people. Change to me is once you’ve reached the challenge that you’re faced with and then you get ready for the next one because change is an ongoing process. Change is not stagnant, change is relative.

KF
What’s your current status? Are you continuously making art, are you teaching, are you promoting what you do?

ED
Yes, I just came back from the U.K. I was in Manchester, England, to have a retrospective major exhibit there, my work at Erebus in Manchester. I did a presentation while I was there at the London School of Economics, did presentations in all the different major communities there, Brighton, Brixton, and I think went to… (What was it?) …went to Ireland for a couple of days and I did a presentation in Cologne at the Ludwig Museum so I’ve been somewhat busy. I’m going to be going to New Zealand and back to Australia. I was in Australia earlier this year. I participated in the Nellie they have there every two years, an art festival. And I’ll be going back there at the latter part of the year for about a week or two. Then from there I’ll be going to New Zealand for about six weeks.

KF
I have to end on this note. What I want to say though is that how amazing is it to come from that experience and to be here in the modern day, how do you see the younger folk? How do you interpret where their minds are and where you think they’re going right now?

ED
Well, they are the product of the obstacles that we had to overcome. They reap the benefits of that somewhat, but there was a disconnect because of the influx of the substance of drugs and stuff in the neighborhood, babies having babies, and the whole bit and we’re four or five generations into all of that. At the same time, these youngsters here grew up on BET, MTV, and what have you. Now you have youngsters who just stopped wetting the bed, 18/19/20 years old, multi-millionaires. They are now being the ones who are marketing the products for the advertisers and stuff. So you have a whole other dynamics that were dealing with today at the youngsters - - as it relates to the youngsters and how that’s going to have to be approached.

KF
As an example, how do you see the future of America?

ED
Well, it depends. It depends on… You could say the future is only a possibility. It depends on what’s done in relationship to the basic very core, the foundation which is in very bad shape right now. How do you deal with this unemployment? How do you deal with the housing? How do you deal with educational system, the infrastructure? All these things that have been neglected are now coming back to haunt the people and the government of this country. So it’s a matter of how…

KF
What do you think about the idea of positioning the young black youth in the direction that you were in when you were growing up? The idea of socio-political conscientiousness; that is to say awaken the black youth with knowledge of politics and getting them involved in politics and I think that’s what the likes of P. Diddy and a number of them were doing with the right to vote almost.

ED
Yes, absolutely. Oh yeah, that’s all the time. I mean, there is a conscientiousness of the young people out there now because everywhere I go they’re inspired and want to be involved and do things right here in the Bay area as well. Behind a young brother who was shot over there in Oakland in the back… you had a humongous outrage of young people across the board who have come out and protested and demanded justice on that issue and among other issues. So there are these movements that are going on but of course the dynamics of how that transcends today is totally different and how that connects than it was in the past. They’re basically - - all they get their information is the electronic media; they do technology, the computer. You talk to them about - - you tell them how - - you… Well how did you do it back then? And you tell them you handed out flyers, they don’t understand that..

KF
I’ve got one final question before I let you go. How have you been received - - how have you been received around the world? Knowing who you are, what you represented for decades here in America, how did the world receive you?

ED
Well, it’s been… Everywhere I go, there’s been overwhelming outpouring of appreciation for the work and what have you. I did a humongous a lot of precious conferences and to be - - over there with the British, with the BB... What'd you call it BBC?

KF
BBC, yeah.

ED
I was doing two or three, sometimes four a day, on a daily basis with different departments there and the turnout at the exhibits it’s been overwhelming. They’re trying to extend it for another two months. It ends in April and they’re trying to see if they can extend it another two months, but it - - another exhibit, a retrospective of some of the same work will be gotten from collectors and we’ll be at the Mocha Museum in June or July in New York. So it’s been well received. People, when they see it in its context along with photographs and other historical documents and materials, they get the gist of how the art itself was a part of a whole movement. They see through the art the struggles that we were going through and dealing with and confronting issues we were confronted with at that particular time.

KF
So this is the final question, I promise you. You do recommend the likes of Kara Walker, Emory Douglas that one of the plights of a black African artist is to chronicle the movement - - is to chronicle where we come from. Look at Kara Walker and what she’s doing; what you have done. How important is that? How important is it to chronicle the movement?

ED
Well it’s very important. If you don’t chronicle, it won’t be documented; and if it’s not documented, young people of upcoming generations won’t know about that history and they’ll just be absolutely frustrated and have no basis of inspiration or perhaps even to move forward with or to be inspired by.

KF
Yeah. Well I tell you what, I saw the images from the Station 4 Gallery show and they’re quite amazing, they’re quite amazing.

ED
You can go to MOCA, they still got their website up, the L.A. MOCA.

KF
Yeah, I’m here in New York, so I guess you’re coming to New York too right?

ED
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean but yeah, yeah. They’re coming to New York too. I mean but on their website right now they still got their whole volume of images that they did for the art show.

KF
Ok I’ll check it out. Emory Douglas, my pleasure sir. I really have enjoyed this.

ED
Oh thank you much, my brother. I have too.

KF
You have a great day, sir.

ED
Okay thank you; same to you.

KF
Talk to you soon.

ED
Okay bye-bye.

KF
Bye.

 

 



Kofi Forson is a writer, photographer and director living in NYC.
His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.
email: lidonslap@gmail.com

view all articles from this author

Reader Comments (0)


Your comments. . .


Your First Name (not shown):
Your Last Name (not shown):
Your Email Address (not shown):
Your Username:
 
 
 
 
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief
  
Noah Becker Art Noah Becker's Whitehot Magazine Of Contemporary Art