The Legacy of Resistance 

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In 1967, Emory Douglas, then the twenty four year old minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, began designing the layout and illustrations for the Party’s weekly newspaper by using a donated printing press and the skills he received as a commercial art student at the City College of San Francisco. The front page of The Black Panther displayed Douglas’s simple, effective protest images for an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Thirty-two years later, the New Museum is showing Douglas’s work in a major retrospective. In the exhibition Emory Douglas: Black Panther (through October 18), visitors can view his boldly colored offset lithographs that display clear messages of dissent. In one image, a black woman wearing a button down dress stands in a window, holding a green container labeled “lye and acid” over the heads of four pigs masquerading as police officers below her. The text reads, “By any means necessary, unless you got something better.” Laura Hoptman, a senior curator, said that Douglas’s art is “a quintessential example of art as a weapon… it was designed directly to talk to people.”

Douglas observed the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford during his time with The Black Panther. A warmongering Democrat and two Republicans did little to ease the tension between the police and Douglas’s urban audience. When asked how his work reads in a museum setting as opposed to on the streets, Douglas remarked, “It’s read the same, because the art work doesn’t change; you can only interpret it so many ways. You can’t dilute it.”

In tandem with Douglas's retrospective, the New Museum has commissioned a new piece by Rigo 23, a Portugese political artist and muralist based in California. His installation, titled “The Deeper They Bury Me, The Louder My Voice Becomes,” is dedicated to the Angola 3–Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace–prisoners in the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana that were convicted of stabbing a prison warden in 1972. Woodfox and Wallace are still incarcerated, while King was released in 2001 after serving thirty-one years. This homage to a group of prisoners aligned with the Black Panthers is located between the third and fourth floors of the museum, and recreates the feeling of confinement experienced by over two million inmates in the United States, which maintains the world’s largest penal system. The entrance to a small jail cell halfway up the stairs contains a black rectangle on the floor that simply reads “1972.” Looking up, visitors will notice that metal bars line the ceiling above the narrow concrete stairs and the cell. A few feet away, bars block the sole window in the installation, which overlooks the adjoining tar roof. The overall sensation is one of helplessness stemming from forced confinement.
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When asked why he thinks the U.S. has such a sizable prison population, Rigo 23 said, “I think there’s a national narrative that’s very much built on winning. So there’s a place to win, and there’s a place to lose, but there’s not a lot of space in between… there’s not much flexibility.”

Rigo 23 (whose real name is Ricardo Gouveia) was born in Madeira, Portugal, in 1966, the year before Douglas was to begin work on The Black Panther. At the New Museum on July 23, Rigo 23 introduced Douglas’s lecture, noting that the former minister of culture was an early influence on his work. He mentioned that he was “touched by the legacy of the history of resistance,” and suggested the reason the Panthers were respected internationally is because they weren’t solely focused on domestic politics–instead, they looked outside their own borders and forged relationships with anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The two other exhibitions currently featured at the New Museum also refer to international politics and resistance to mass culture: David Goldblatt focuses on the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, while Dorothy Iannone engages with female sexuality. The problem with this ambitious grouping is that all four artists represent some form of 1960s radicalism, but they only loosely fit together. The curation seems forced, because it is.

When asked why Douglas’s work was being shown now, Hoptman explained: “Right now is a great time to look back to the history of the struggles that came out of the civil rights era, specifically because of the change in regime in Washington, D.C., of course.”

The “of course,” though, is what is troubling. Are we really able to look back from a distance, now that Barack Obama is President? Is the New Museum just pandering to an audience that wants to be reassured by art that is post-colonial, post-race, and, ultimately, post-guilt?

Douglas said: “The challenges are still the same, but you may have some now who… think that we’ve turned the page, when we haven’t finished the page that we’re on.”

So how can political artists maintain their voice in the age of Obama, in which the President is depicted as Superman on t-shirts and posters worldwide, or as the personification of hope in Shepard Fairey’s work?

Rigo 23 said, “When Obama got elected President he finished his speech by saying, ‘God Bless America.’ And I think as long as United States citizens think that God should bless their country in particular, we’re not going to go anywhere.” He continued, “I think that political artists working in the United States have to see themselves as political artists living on planet Earth first.”

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