“We’re Still in Crisis”: Former Black Panther Emory Douglas’ New SFMOMA Project Represents Black America’s Continued Push for Equality

Emory Douglas was Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 to 1982. His mural, “Reparations,” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a condemnation of the exploitation of people of African descent. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

The gift and curse of Emory Douglas’ artwork is that they are timeless.

As Minister of Culture of Black panther party from 1967 to 1982, when he ceased operations, he gave the organization a visual language, embodied in vivid colors, bold lines and dramatic photographic collages. His work then portrayed the plight of the black population of America, and at 78, he continues to create images highlighting this theme today. In the wake of the upheaval of last summer following the police murder of George Floyd, this couldn’t be more relevant – painful as the truth may be.

Or, as Douglas likes to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same. “

The activist artist’s latest piece, “Reparations,” which supports the ongoing movement to provide reparations to Americans descended from African slaves, is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until September 2022. Douglas a said the play is a reminder that the struggle for black equality waged by the Black Panther Party decades ago is far from over in America.

“We’re still in crisis,” Douglas told The Chronicle on a recent visit to the museum as the installation was nearing completion. “When it comes to reparations, in a historical and present context you talk about slave labor, then you move quickly until you are denied education, employment, community redlining, prison-industrial complex. These problems over time created a system of oppression that continues today. “

Marina Perez-Wong works on the “Repairs” mural by Emory Douglas at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She and Elaine Chu, Lauryn Marshall, De’Ana Brownfield and Priya Handa, all women of color, painted the mural. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

Douglas’ uniquely moving visuals are present in his latest work, which began to take shape over the summer. The capital letters of the word “repairs” are made by the distorted black bodies of enslaved Africans. Each letter is connected by chains that are handcuffed around the neck and feet of the individual black bodies, the length of the chains being colored in the red, white and blue of the American flag.

The project embodies the kind of work he created in the ’60s after Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale invited him to create the visual aesthetic of the party. Douglas went on to design the organization’s popular newspaper, the Black Panther, as well as the appearance of the posters and brochures the group circulated across the country.

Thinking back to his work, Douglas downplays the importance, instead claiming that the Black Panther party was simply part of a “larger movement.”

“We were not the movement. We may have been a speck of dust in the equality movement, but we had a strong core that had a big impact on the movement as a whole, ”said Douglas. “We were changing the dynamic, and that’s how we create spaces to have the conversations we still have today. “

Emory Douglas (right) chats with Marina Perez-Wong as she and others paint her “Repairs” mural at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in September. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

‘Reparations’ is part of Bay Area Walls, a series of SFMOMA commissions from several local artists that began in 2020. The installations focus on regional and national social issues, with works by Bay Area artists Leah Rosenberg and the Twin Walls Mural Company, among others. As Douglas finished designing his mural in August, Elaine Chu, Marina Perez-Wong, Priya Handa, Lauryn Marshall and De’Ana Brownfield, all women of color, executed Douglas’ vision on the museum wall for three weeks in September.

Perez-Wong believes Douglas is one of the icons of the Bay Area art world and called his decision to only work with women of color “revolutionary.”

“It was the goal for a lot of us when we were younger, to be able to work with someone who is a mentor and help them with a vision,” said Perez-Wong. “In my career accomplishments list, it was really high up there.”

There is also a local opportunity for the “Repairs” part. In May, San Francisco created a task force to explore what reparations might look like for descendants of enslaved people. The task force will also examine how the wealth gap and other disparities affecting Black San Franciscans have been influenced by various other social and political harms.

“I feel like sometimes people don’t realize how important the concept of reparation is as a black or a descendant of Africans,” said Brownfield, a black artist who is also a region educator. bay and a member of AeroSoul Art, an Oakland-based group that promotes the writing culture of the African diaspora. “It is important that we are given resources so that we can build institutions that would benefit the black community as a whole. “

Douglas approached the project as a collaboration, giving other artists a space to add their own twists and turns to his work, explained Chu, who, along with artist Perez-Wong, founded the Twin Walls Mural Company wall art collaboration. based in San Francisco.

“The colors read differently when you see them on a large scale, so we used a yellow that we used in the background and suggested a different one that worked,” Chu said. “It was called ‘pure joy’, which seemed perfect at the moment.”

Lauryn Marshall paints the “Repairs” mural by artist Emory Douglas at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on September 14. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

During a visit to the mural last month, Douglas admitted that he sometimes feels frustration with the continued need to tackle the injustices that the Black Panther Party brought to the country’s attention decades ago. . But last summer’s protests were a reminder of the power of unified black voices, he said, and how art remains a critical factor in social change, whether it’s its own murals or those of other artists in places like downtown Oakland.

“Art is a language, it is a way of communicating. It can be provocative, beautiful, the whole spectrum. When there is a social context, it can have a big impact, ”said Douglas. “The Black Panthers legacy exists today in the context of the people who get the plan to create the change, to be inspired by it – not exactly to duplicate, but to do something that goes beyond it. “

Emory Douglas’ “Reparations” mural is part of the “Bay Area Walls” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, until September 2022. Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

“Repairs”: Paint. 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 am-5pm Friday-Monday. Until September 1, 2022. Free. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., SF 415-357-4000. www.sfmoma.org

About Bernice D. Brewer

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