By 1967, the Black Panther leadership had decided that the movement needed an official mouthpiece, and it founded The Black Panther paper. By its second issue, Emory Douglas – then just 22 years old – became its art director, and remained so until the paper folded “around 1979”.
“I took pride in the layout and design, and the challenge of improving the format of the paper,” he says. “But more than anything, if there was one thing I enjoyed, it was doing the artwork, the posters.”
Although he also became the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture, creating these posters was still the most important part of Douglas’ job.
The artworks, which were published in the paper each week, reflected whatever political issues the Panthers were involved in at the time.
He says: “We were opposed to the war in Vietnam, we were dealing with housing and unemployment, health issues. At any given time it could have been dealing with young African- American men being murdered and brutalized, so it covered many issues.”
At the time, the poster was a major space for political statements, giving Douglas plenty of places to draw inspiration from. “We had a lot of political art coming out of Vietnam, work that came out of Cuba, the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and they used to publish a lot of posters in support of oppressed, struggling and revolutionary peoples around the world,” he says.
“So I was inspired by a lot of the wonderful work. And also there was a lot of work done here within the US itself that activists were working on. But most of it came out of Cuba, Vietnam and the Chinese artwork that was big at the time.”
He also drew on techniques from non-political art, giving it the Black Panthers spin. He says: “You would see collages that people had done, that didn’t have any real high level of social content to it, so I was somewhat inspired by wanting to do collages that could be integrated into the art, to give the art more meaning and more depth.”
The posters took Douglas’ art beyond the pages of the newspaper and physically into the community, through some guerrilla curating from Douglas and other Black Panthers.
“We began to define the community as an art gallery,” he explains. “In the early mornings, the Panthers and sometimes myself, we would go out to sell newspapers, and we’d take leftover newspapers and posters, and we would put the artwork from those newspapers up on the walls. We’d take up buckets of wheat paste, and we’d brush them up all over the neighbourhood.”