By Pete Vonder Haar
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In his demand for true democracy, graphic artist Emory Douglas brandished his pens and markers like weapons, cutting through injustice with each mark he made. With every newspaper, magazine or poster that the former Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party designed, his full intent was to "project maximum damage to the oppressor with minimum damage to the people." His art called the poor and disenfranchised to arms while exposing the degradation and brutality of the "pigs," the unlawful kidnapping, imprisonment and murder of those who dared to speak out and the purposeful destruction of a people created by the (arguably) government-sponsored stream of heroin and other drugs into the ghetto. I kind of get nervous when I see this much palatable anger and rage directed toward a government that frankly looks a lot like me. But seriously, after 400 years of enslavement, degradation and dehumanization, would anyone even consider designing these graphics any differently?
While overseeing the production of the Black Panther Weekly, Douglas believed (and still believes to this day) art could be a catalyst for change. "Defending Democracy," the current exhibition at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, displays work by Douglas and others who share that belief. The show includes Douglas's political graphic art, the murals and prints of the anonymous artist collective ASARO, and the "teach-in" installation of Houston's own Otabenga Jones and Associates.
The democracy these artists are defending is not that of George Bush and his cronies — it's more that of Thomas Jefferson, who said: "What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? ...The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
The installation of Douglas's work contains rows of display cases with copies of The Black Panther weekly that he personally laid out and designed, as well as other periodicals from the late '60s through the '70s, including Jet magazine and the Houston-produced Space City. On the walls are posters of his work, as well as his manifestos calling progressive artists to arms. If you feel inclined to judge Douglas's work by academic standards, please don't. His graphics — made with markers, pen and ink, gouache and graphite, integrated with text and photographs in a raw, direct style — were never meant for gallery settings.
Douglas joined the Black Panther Party in 1967, after hearing cofounders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton speak at a planning session for the First Annual Malcolm X Grassroots Memorial. Shortly afterward, he offered his graphic design services to The Black Panther weekly; soon, he was appointed the party's Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture. He was responsible for the paper's management, art direction, layout and production for the next 12 years. Although he was initially influenced by the prints and drawings of civil rights artist and printmaker Charles White, Douglas soon turned to works that were decidedly less pacifist in nature, including the underground protest graphic arts of Cuba, Vietnam and the Middle East, for inspiration.
In addition to his own work and writings, the installation includes illuminating documentation on the Black Panther Party's more often than not disregarded (by the mainstream media) "survival programs," coupled with a brilliantly crafted soundtrack that includes the music of Public Enemy, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, along with interviews of party members, a Houston radio broadcast on the police murder of Carl Hampton and excerpts of speeches by Malcolm X and others. The BPP Survival Program included the free breakfast program for children, escorts for senior citizens to and from banks, free medical and dental programs, and sickle cell anemia research, for starters. The self-sufficiency advocated by the Black Panthers scared the U.S. government more than any militant calls to arms. To learn of their self-sufficiency was eye-opening — all I had ever heard as a white teenage girl growing up in Southeast Texas were fear-mongering, lopsided harangues against the Panthers.
In the front gallery of the Station are the graffitied stencil murals and prints of Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca (ASARO), a collective of artists and arts groups formed in response to government oppression in Oaxaca. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico, with many of its citizens lacking basic social services such as running water and sanitation, and still governed by the heavyhanded and corrupt PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) for going on 80 years now.
In May 2006, the National Teachers Union in Oaxaca went on strike against the government's policy of underfunding teachers and schools while overfunding the Oaxacan tourist industry. On June 14, overreacting with excessive force, government forces went in and cracked the heads of the populace. In response, hundreds of social and political groups rose up against government oppression and corruption. In October, the violence escalated further when the government sent in additional troops, resulting in at least 18 deaths, hundreds of injuries and numerous illegal detentions and tortures. It was then that ASARO joined the fight, and overnight guerilla artists began spray-painting stenciled murals throughout the city in support of the populace's cause.
There are four murals created by ASARO members on view at the Station that are similar to ones they created in Oaxaca. Much like the work of Douglas, these artworks are used as weapons to unify and empower the people. One depicts a one-sided street shootout between the heavily armed Policía Federal Preventida and rock-wielding Oaxacans; another shows a group of people flipping off the cowboy hat-wearing head of Bush as he looms above the Mexican Border Fence, much like the Cheshire Cat above Alice.
The murals seem somewhat deflated of the power they must have wielded in their original settings on the streets. I much preferred to watch the video of the murals the group created in Oaxaca, for it was easier to imagine how inspiring or annoying it must have been (depending on what side of the fight you stood) to see Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz portrayed as a ratero y cínico, or President Calderón wearing a gas mask and making a fascist salute.
Also on view are linocuts and woodcuts created by members of ASARO, who remain anonymous to avoid prosecution. Many of these prints are outstanding and reminiscent of Posada, Mendez, Goya, Kollwitz and Daumier. The images include a young woman and her child masked like Zapatistas and a woman brandishing a machete; their oppressor is also depicted, as death-head helicopters, transgender corn and the police caught in the act of mocking the murdered Benito Juárez. My favorite print is of a person pushing a gurney loaded with dead people and a child covered in straw, while a hideously ugly rich pregnant woman cavorts with her poodle in the street.
The Otabenga Jones and Associates installation El Shabazz High School Gym is a re-creation of a high school gym complete with a scoreboard, bleachers and a basketball hoop. A projection screen stands opposite the bleachers, and a few posters, including one commemorating the murder of Carl Hampton, Chairman of Houston's People's Party II, and another advertising the Black Panther-inspired Free Breakfast Program for Children at the Cuney Homes Community Auditorium in Houston, are taped to the walls. The installation includes a free bimonthly revolutionary film series commemorating the Black Panther Party.
I hesitate to say this, but the offerings of Otabenga Jones and Associates seemed like six degrees of separation from the revolutionary work of Douglas, and maybe five degrees away from ASARO. In all fairness, and in order to get the full impact of their installation, I did go back to see The Education of Sonny Carson — a very powerful, heart-wrenching film by and about the activist Sonny Carson, and I will go back to see some of the other films. However, in this particular setting, I did not feel like I was in the midst of artists fighting for a cause, although I know that individually and as a collective, the four Associates are more than capable of doing so. Sometimes the art world confuses actual activism with someone showing examples of revolutionary acts, and what I really want to see is Otabenga Jones and crew get out of the museum setting and metaphorically kick ass against oppression.
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