Emory Douglas

“And there were times when people would say they’d buy the paper and they could tell which way the party’s politics were heading at that time because it was reflected in the artwork.”

Twenty years later, Douglas’ posters are among the defining images of the Black Panther movement: bold, strident and somehow larger than the pages they’re printed on, the posters express defiance, revolution and solidarity with every pen-stroke.

They depict African-American subjects in warlike poses – often gripping weapons – or chronicle the effects of poverty on children and families.

Others show the police and politicians as venal and corrupt, often depicting them as pigs or rats. Slogans urge people to take up arms against the police, or to aim for self-determination.

While the posters include everything from thick line drawings that recall African textile patterns to collages of photos cut from newspapers and hand-drawn elements, their look is oddly consistent.

Most of the time the paper was printed only in black and white, occasionally venturing into two or even three colours for key editions – but the images are striking nonetheless.

“Basically we didn’t have a lot of materials or technical equipment – that’s how the creative part comes in,” explains Douglas. “We didn’t have a newspaper press, but we built our own small multi-lith press and we used to print posters and booklets and those kind of things.

“For the art itself, I used a lot of prefabricated materials, letter sheets and stuff like that to make the textures and patterns of the line drawings,” he continues.

“It was a very grassroots kind of look, low-tech,” says Douglas. “And not only that, it became a look that other chapters and branches of the Black Panther Party had to take on, and they also had local artists who came to also do the same things I was doing as a leader.”

It wasn’t always obvious to Douglas that he’d become a figurehead, a leader of a movement. As a youth he was always drawing but was also often in trouble with the police.

He eventually wound up in juvenile detention in San Francisco, where a supervisor suggested that he try his hand at art in a training college. So he trained in commercial art, including silk screening and display art, he helped out around San Francisco State University.

“I used to do jobs for the different departments that needed sign letterings, doing technical illustrations and things like that.”

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