Emory Douglas interview

courtesy of MoCA LA

courtesy of MoCA LA

Last year, I went up to San Francisco to interview Emory Douglas, who was Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until it disbanded in the early 1980s.

At the time, an exhibition of his work was running at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles. However, the interview ended up running in its entirety in a Canadian magazine called Fuse, which accompanied an exhibition of his work in Toronto, Edmonton and Winnipeg from September ’08 through January ’09. Another exhibition of his work showed at Urbis in Manchester, UK up until April of this year, and back in 2007, Rizzoli published Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas. The last few years have clearly been busy ones for Douglas!

As if all this weren’t enough, “Emory Douglas: Black Panther” opens next week at the New Museum in New York City. I think it’s important to point out that a version of this exhibition (curated by Sam Durant) originated at Los Angeles’ MoCA in 2007. Usually, exhibitions start out in New York and slowly make their way across the country, but not this time. This one was born and bred in California.

It was really an honor to meet Douglas. He possesses an exceptionally generous spirit, and I came away from our conversation feeling very inspired. Below is an excerpt…

VP: Some would argue that social and political problems should be dealt with by lawyers and politicians, and artists should create work that helps us momentarily escape from our problems. What would you say to that?

ED: Well if you’ve got art that’s helping people escape from their problems, then you’re dealing with art that serves the interest of those who want to continue to oppress you. That’s basically what they want you to do; they want you to just be passive. So that kind of art would be in their best interest. All art reflects an outlook, no matter what you do. So if you say, “I don’t want to make art that has anything to do with politics,” all art is a reflection of a political outlook whether you call it abstract art or whatever; it may have great feeling and emotion to it. But what does it serve, what does it bring out in you, what does it do for you? Does it make you say, “Oh it’s great that I can do this art,” but not understand the connection between this art as an individual achievement and the greater interests served by creating this art.

Art can be a release on a personal level. All art can be relevant and can have some kind of educational aspect to it, but you need to consider to what degree it pacifies people and keeps them pacified as opposed to being enlightened, informed and educated.

Is there anything we can do about this art that pacifies?

(laughs) No, you just have to do more of the art that enlightens. Because the art that pacifies is going to be around as long as the art that enlightens. Now, which one is going to have the most impact and which one is going to have the most influence, and that kind of thing…

Which one? Pacifying art seems to be winning…

Of course, because it has more money behind it and there are more venues that it can be presented in on a mainstream level. See, that’s where you look at it from the standpoint of it being a form of pacification. Because those mainstream galleries and people who spend the money buy into that from the standpoint of aesthetics: shape, form, mood and that kind of thing. But if it has a statement, then they might say, “No, no, no. We can’t deal with that.” (laughs) “We need something that doesn’t have any type of politics in it.” But then they’re talking about politics while they’re saying that because of the very fact that they don’t want to deal with any kind of a statement because it would interrupt their politics. So therefore it becomes political in that sense. By the very nature that they chose this art over that art.

I guess you can’t really force enlightenment on someone. Like you said earlier, art has transformational powers, but I guess if someone doesn’t want to be transformed, then it doesn’t work.

There was an actor that came through the Museum of Contemporary Art show in Los Angeles. I forget the guy’s name. Somebody pointed him out to me when he came through the exhibit, and he didn’t look too pleased with it all. (laughs) So it depends on what your thinking is, what your outlook on the world is. This is art that came out of oppression, out of suffering, out of a whole different world. A lot of people are not ready to deal with that.

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~ by Valerie Palmer on July 16, 2009.

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