Category: African American

A Black Panther in England

Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution, opened at the Urbis exhibition center in Manchester, England, on October 30, 2008, and the exhibit will run until April, 2009. I first met Douglas in 2007 at his landmark retrospective held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. I had the pleasure of talking with him again this past September at The African American Museum & Library in Oakland, California where he was exhibiting a work in a group show called, Banned & Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship. I first learned of his UK show during our conversation in Oakland - a scoop I am pleased to announce on this web log.

Artwork by Emory Douglas

[ Offset color poster by Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. In this circa 1970 poster, Douglas combined a double portrait of two lumpen proletarians with the lyrics to an old slave song, "Now all of us are soldiers, we have in our hands the freedom plow, and when we get old and can’t fight anymore, we gonna have to get up and fight anyhow." ]

At the time of this writing Douglas is in the UK, where he has received some significant press coverage. The Times published an article about him titled Emory Douglas paints American history black, and The Guardian published a piece under the headline, Fight the power. He was also interviewed by BBC Radio Manchester on October 18, 2008. The station maintains a website where you can listen to the interview (select the sound file titled “The People - For Manchester’s Black community“). The interview with Douglas appears some 17 minutes into the broadcast.

Blood: A Work in Progress

Oil painting by Mark Vallen

[ Blood - Mark Vallen. Oil on masonite. 18" x 24". Click here for a larger view. ]

A work in progress, my portrait of an anonymous African American man is intended as a rumination on racial politics in contemporary American society. The painting’s meaning and emotional focus is contingent upon who is viewing it, and while some may see menace, a great many others will perceive dignity. I have it in mind that my model’s unflinching gaze, the painting’s emotive color scheme, and the work’s very title - will all coalesce to form a challenging portrayal. While the work may seem finished to most, there are still a few painterly flourishes I wish to add.

The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles will be exhibiting, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, running October 21st, 2007 through January 20th, 2008. The exhibit takes place at the MOCA annex located at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California. Approximately 150 works created by Douglas while he was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party will be on display, with the legendary artist scheduled to attend the special opening reception celebration to be held at the Pacific Design Center on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007, at 6:00 pm. That event is free and open to the public.

Poster by Emory Douglas

[ Revolution in our Lifetime - Emory Douglas 1969 offset lithograph 20 ¼ x 14 in. One of the artist’s great iconographic images, this drawing appeared as a pull-out poster in the Black Panther newspaper, November 8th, 1969. ]

While the graphic art of Emory Douglas has been exhibited in many galleries over the decades, it is astounding to me that it is now being showcased in a museum as prestigious as L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art - especially considering the extreme rightwing political climate in the United States. To be truthful, I’m amazed this exhibit is happening at all. In describing the exhibit, MOCA declared; “At a time when political unrest, war protests, and social inequality have again reached a boiling point, but where artistic responses are not as easy to find, the work of Emory Douglas serves as a powerful reminder of the efficacy of visual art to communicate and push forward a political agenda.”

As a teenager in the late 1960’s, I was embroiled in the issues of the day, from the struggle to end the war in Vietnam to the countless attempts at uprooting and eradicating racism in the United States. I was a reader of the Black Panther Party newspaper, and like many other young people across the country, avidly collected the pull-out posters and graphics Douglas published in the paper. Unfortunately I’ve lost the bulk of my collection - but the fiery exhortations of those artworks remain forever burned in my memory. Numerous misconceptions are still held regarding the Panthers and their legacy, but to me their ideas were brilliantly represented in the artworks created by Emory Douglas. The MOCA exhibit offers a glimpse of recent American history that has become effectively buried and put out of mind - but it’s a history we cannot afford to forget.

Poster by Emory Douglas

[ Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed People of the world - Emory Douglas. 1969. This artwork originally appeared in the Black Panther newspaper, but was later reworked by the artist into this poster. ]

If I had to pick a single image by Douglas that exemplified Panther ideology - it would be the artist’s poster depiction of a young party militant, gun slung over shoulder, peddling a Panther newspaper bearing the headline, “All Power To The People.” That militant slogan best summed up the Panther political platform, but the axiom should also be seen as the core principal behind any genuine political democracy. The poster mentioned is the lead image displayed on the MOCA website, where nine images from the exhibition are on view.

At 3:00 pm on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007, Emory Douglas will discuss with the public, the graphic art he created with the Black Panther Party. All are welcome to this free event. After the talk, Douglas will sign copies of his book - Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas. Instead of an official museum catalog, the exhibit will be accompanied by this book, which was published by Rizzoli in Feb. 2007. The book contains essays by Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Amiri Baraka, Sam Durrant, and Danny Glover, along with dozens of full color reproductions of artworks and posters created by Douglas that originally appeared in the Black Panther Party newspaper.

MOCA’s Pacific Design Center gallery is located at; 8687 Melrose Avenue, Design Plaza G102, West Hollywood, California. 90069. Phone: 310-289-5223. Admission to the Emory Douglas exhibit is free.

The Builders & The Destroyers

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of America’s greatest African American artists - but you could just as easily say that he was one of the preeminent artists of the 20th Century. There’s no doubt that his narrative style, a blend of social realism and flattened abstract picture planes, was to influence legions of artists - myself being one of them. His evocative and clear-headed works, while focusing on the adversity and privation endured by African Americans, spoke of oppression as a universal problem. Likewise, his series of artworks dealing with the likes of Toussaint L’Ouverture (The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture) and John Brown (The Life of John Brown), unflinchingly focused a spotlight upon revolutionary violence as a way of ameliorating the worst outrages suffered by humanity. So I find it more than a little amusing that one of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings now hangs in the Bush White House.

The Washington Post reported on Sept. 20, that the Green Room of the White House has been freshly redecorated under the direction of First lady Laura Bush, and part of the renovation involved the placement of the painting The Builders, a newly acquired masterpiece created by Jacob Lawrence. In May of 2007, Christie’s sold The Builders at its auction of American Paintings for $2,504,000 - a world record price for a work by Lawrence. It was a privately funded department of the White House mansion’s historical association that purchased the painting.

The Builders - painting by Jacob Lawrence

[ The Builders - Jacob Lawrence 1947. Tempera on board, 20 by 24 inches. ]

The Post quoted Laura Bush’s comments regarding the painting, “I like the strength of it. It’s a very, very strong picture. The people in it are strong. He (Lawrence) liked the idea of a lot of people working together to build, I think that’s really just a picture of our country; that’s what our country relies on.” That remark might draw looks of stunned disbelief from the Katrina-ravaged people of New Orleans, but the irony is apparently lost on the First lady.

Black Heritage on the Auction Block

I was horrified to read in the Los Angeles Times that the historic collection of African American art owned by L.A.’s Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company has been “carted off to be auctioned in New York.” The LAT article, Historians angered by auction of black art, revealed that “Golden State plans to sell 94 artworks Oct. 4 at Swann Galleries” in New York City, with the auction of paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures expected to sell for as much as $1.5 million. At issue here is not merely the desire to see this body of work remain in Los Angeles - much wider concerns are at stake.

As reported in the LAT, Samella Lewis, the founder of the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, stated; “It’s one of the finest collections in the West in terms of African American culture and art. It’s like a museum.” But an opportunity for L.A.’s museums to purchase the Golden State collection never occurred, as the insurance company decided to send all of the artworks straight to the auction block. How is it that we’ve arrived at a point in our so-called civilization where great collections of historic artworks can simply be sold off piece by piece to the highest bidders? What happened to civic pride and the public interest… where did they go? Clearly, the Golden State collection should be in a public museum and available in perpetuity to the general public.

But there’s another aspect to this story that bothers me a great deal. The significance of the Golden State collection reaches far beyond monetary worth - it represents a people’s collective history. From the Legend of John Brown series of screen prints by Jacob Lawrence to Charles White’s portrait of Harriet Tubman, the artworks epitomize, in visual terms, the African American struggle for justice and equality. How can such a body of work be scattered to the four winds, with individual pieces to disappear into private collections?

Portrait of Harriet Tubman by Charles White

[General Moses - Charles White. Ink on paper. 1965. White’s portrait of the escaped slave and leader of the famed underground railroad, Harriet Tubman, who was referred to as the Moses of her people. In the collection of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, but soon to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. ]

The LAT article quoted Paul von Blum, the senior lecturer in African American studies at UCLA, with a single sentence. “For the multicultural community in Los Angeles, it’s a cultural loss to the city. I would like to see these works go into a museum in Southern California.” Knowing Von Blum personally, and being acquainted with his deep and abiding passion for African American art, I realized he would have more to say on the subject, so I asked him to contribute his thoughts to my web log. Here’s what he had to say:

“On August 17, 2007, The Los Angeles Times published an article by Bloomberg News reporter Lindsay Pollock about the impending sale of the major artistic treasures of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company in Los Angeles. This black-owned corporation plans to sell almost 100 artworks representing some of the most iconic figures in African American art history. Among the artists in this sale, to be conducted by Swann galleries of New York on October 4, are Henry Tanner, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, and David Hammons.

The loss of these works is nothing short of a cultural catastrophe for the Los Angeles area. During his 30 years as Golden State art director, Los Angeles artist William Pajaud lovingly assembled this collection, working with minimal funds and often trading his own paintings to acquire these artistic masterpieces. For almost two decades, I have conducted tours of this collection with my UCLA students and with numerous community groups. Without exception, visitors have been exceptionally moved by this collection. They have understood how the tradition of African American art serves as a reminder of the struggles, aspirations, and triumphs of people of African descent. Losing these works not only diminishes the status of the arts in Los Angeles, but also deprives generations of young people the opportunity to see and appreciate the accomplishments of such stellar African American visual artists.

A capitalist society provides little remedy against corporate sales of privately owned art collections. Still, people concerned about this impending cultural tragedy should alert area public officials and art world ‘players’ about what is about to occur. The best result, under the circumstances, would be for concerned area collectors to step in and purchase all (or at least many) of the works at auction and make arrangements to keep and display them publicly in Los Angeles. Such collectors, of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, exist in abundance in Los Angeles. Publicity about this sale can only in crease the likelihood that someone will rise to the occasion and save the Golden State art collection for the residents of Southern California.”

Our Flesh of Flames

Photomontage by Theodore Harris

[ Photomontage by Theodore Harris.]

Our Flesh of Flames is an incendiary exhibition of photomontage works by African American artist Theodore Harris, now showing at the Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, until September 9th, 2007. I’ve written about Harris before, and was tickled to see the positive write-up he received on Atlanta’s website. Here’s an excerpt of what reviewer Felicia Feaster had to say:

“As nitroglycerin-volatile as the title promises, Our Flesh of Flames is so provocative that it may be a good thing it’s tucked away on a leafy, serene street in the West End. Philadelphia artist Theodore Harris’ collages and collage-based prints suggest a newspaper cut up and culture-jammed by a punk-rock revolutionary. Instead of journalistic ‘objectivity,’ there is subjective fury. It’s a rage directed at a country underpinned by big money and the sedative appeals of God and country. In Harris’ work, it’s not Iraq that’s the war zone; it’s America.

Harris’ repeated visual motif is the provocative image of the U.S. Capitol turned upside down like an inverted cross. Mixed in with that vision of a country whose cherished democracy has essentially gone belly-up are images of raging fires, hooded Klansmen, Bubbas waving Confederate flags, police cracking batons on civilian heads, dripping blood, wounded American soldiers, helicopters and demolished buildings. (….) Our Flesh of Flames is a welcome change from a larger culture of apathy.”

Concurrent to the Hammonds exhibit of Harris’ works, the museum is also showing a selection of political posters created by African American artists during the heyday of late 60’s activism. Of particular note are the many original works on display by Emory Douglas, the former Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party.

By the way, the works of Emory Douglas will also be exhibited at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, California, starting October 21st, 2007 and running until January 20th, 2008. It is an exhibit that I will undoubtedly be covering extensively on this web log. Approximately 150 works by Douglas will be on display in the exhibition organized by L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Instead of an official museum catalog for the show, the exhibit will be accompanied by the fantastic book, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglass, published by Rizzoli in Feb. 2007.

“Malcolm X Speaks for Us”

If he had not been struck down by assassins on Friday, May 19th, 1965 - Malcolm X would be celebrating his 81st birthday with us today.

Linoleum cut by Elizabeth Catlett

[ Malcolm X Speaks for Us - Linoleum cut by Elizabeth Catlett, 1969. ]

In 1969 African-American painter, printmaker and sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett, paid tribute to the slain freedom fighter with her linoleum cut, Malcolm X Speaks for Us. Though she had moved to Mexico in 1947, making that country her permanent home, she still kept a close eye on the Black liberation movement in the United States. Using the linoleum cut method of printmaking, a technique Catlett became accomplished at while working with Mexican artists at the famed Taller de Grafica Popular (People’s Graphic Arts Workshop), the artist created an evocative visual statement regarding the militant leader’s legacy. African-American men credited Malcolm X for having given them their manhood back, but in Catlett’s print all of the faces surrounding Malcolm are female. It was the artist’s way of saying that Black women too had found their pride through the thoughts and actions of Malcolm X.

Farewell Brother Crichlow

Ernest Crichlow spent his entire artistic career painting and drawing the African American experience. He was involved in the 1930’s Harlem Renaissance, worked in the Federal Art Project as part of the Great Depression era Works Progress Administration, and in 1942 was an exhibiting artist in New York City’s very first exhibit of Black American artists - a show that included Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis. Crichlow’s art was rooted in social realism, and he was never afraid to tell the truth about American life. But through is artworks he also provided beauty, vision and hope to his beleaguered people.

The Lovers - Lithograph by Crichlow

[ The Lovers - 1938 Lithograph. Crichlow’s depiction of a Black woman being raped by a Klansman was created when the KKK was very strong in the United States. The artist never avoided controversy, and his social realist style caused him to confront many uncomfortable realities.

In a 2003 interview with CounterPunch Magazine, Crichlow said; "I never say 'art,' I say 'life' because that's what my art is. It's everybody's art whether they realize it or not. That's what art is, it belongs to everyone. But one thing I do think that is really important is that your art reflects what is important in your life. Whether you are a writer or a musician or a painter, where are you getting your creativity from? What I mean to say is that I don't think [modern students] see it as part of their life. They have a tendency to separate. Like ‘this is what I do for a living,’ as opposed to ‘this is my life.’”

Ernest Crichlow passed away on November 10th, 2005, at the age of 91. In singing his praises I’d like to make note of his passion for art and how he never allowed that fervor to wither in the face of adversity - a strength every artist must strive for in these trying times. For his dedication and enthusiasm, his tenacity and skill, my eulogy to Brother Crichlow ends with a salute, and the following words for those painters everywhere who mourn the passing of great artist- live like him.

Kanye West’s Truth Hurts

2013 UPDATE: During a séance held by a group of spiritualist friends of mine, we were contacted by the spirit of Abbie Hoffman. It was a shock, especially since we were hoping for an audience with the evanescent form of Frida Kahlo. From the great beyond Hoffman addressed me directly. “Vallen, what’s this about you giving that schmuck Kanye West the Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award for best guerrilla media actor in a time of conformity, cowardice and censorship!?” I sheepishly offered apologetics to the disembodied spirit hovering above us; “Uh… err… Abbie, I am sorry, I have long been embarrassed by giving West that award.”

The shaggy haired apparition muttered, “Feh!” ya got some chutzpah doin that, ya know. I mean, come on, what has that shlemiel ever done besides fool around with that Kardashian chick?” I told the ghost of Hoffman that I would edit the article, but he interrupted: “Waddaya, a postmodern or sumtin? Look meshugenah, ya can’t alter history like that. Tell ya what, take back the award, Kanye is part of the black petty booshwah, ya dig? He ain’t no rebel.” With that, Hoffman disappeared in a cloud of ectoplasm that reeked of marijuana smoke.

To mollify Hoffman’s spirit, I am retroactively disqualifying Kanye West as a recipient of the prestigious Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award, effective immediately… but my original Sept. 2005 piece of writing shall remain online, and unedited, as a matter of historic record. That article follows.


On September 2nd, 2005, NBC television broadcast a special one hour telethon designed to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but the scripted telecast went awry when rapper Kanye (KAHN’-yay) West condemned George W. Bush for his racism. I watched A Concert for Hurricane Relief as it was broadcast for the west coast… edited and censored, which was something I didn’t realize until turning to the web for more information on the broadcast. The show featured more than a dozen musicians and a number of super-star actors, who presented information on the tragedy in the US southern gulf states and invited viewers to make donations to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. The show began appropriately with Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. (both native sons of New Orleans), leading a jazz band that played New Orleans-style Dixieland jazz - the music closely associated with the devastated city.

It was easy to see that the rather somber broadcast was put together quickly on a relatively small budget, with the musicians and stars not being given much time to rehearse. With varying degrees of discomfiture stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Glenn Close, Richard Gere and John Goodman struggled with scripted lines they had most likely never read before. But the stiffness really didn’t matter… it was the victims of Katrina that one and all cared for.

A number of singers performed, but it was Aaron Neville’s rendition of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927 that I found especially moving. The song has an eerie resonance today because of its haunting chorus, “they’re trying to wash us away, they’re trying to wash us away.” At that point I couldn’t watch any more… Neville’s performance choked me up and I left the room. Turning to the internet for information about the broadcast, I discovered that Kanye West made an appearance that ruffled some feathers. At first I thought I had missed the controversy by walking out of the room after Neville’s song… but as I read more news reports I realized NBC had censored the time-delayed broadcast for the west coast.

Organizers of the NBC special paired West with comedian Mike Myers for a 90-second segment where the two were supposed to take turns reading a scripted message about the hurricane’s destructive power. Myers opened with his perfunctory reading of the teleprompter, and then it became West’s turn to address the nation. Seemingly nervous, he ignored the teleprompter for some pointed barbs on race and class, succeeding also in connecting the occupation of Iraq with the war at home:

“I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation, so now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give: and to just imagine if I was down there and those are my people down there.

To anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can - help with the set-up that America’s set up to help the poor, the Black people, the less well off - slow as possible. The Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realized how a lot of the people who could help are at war right now fighting another war. They’ve given them [the National Guard] permission to go down [to New Orleans] and shoot us.”

Kanye West gives it to Bush
Myers looked consternated by West’s remark, but stuck to his teleprompter script. When his “blah blah blah” recitation concluded, West took over and went out in a blaze of glory by saying: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He delivered his bombshell with the unwavering conviction of someone who knew they were playing the role of upsetter. There was a brief awkward moment of silence as West simply stared into the camera and Myers turned several shades whiter. The camera quickly cut away to comedian Chris Tucker. The entire segment was aired live on the East coast on a seven-second tape delay, which enabled West to beat the censors and insert a bit of reality into the corporate media giant’s star-studded extravaganza. The comments were not only broadcast live by NBC, but were also simulcast to tens of millions on MSNBC, CNBC and Pax. NBC completely edited out West’s segment for the taped broadcast aired three hours later on the west coast. Releasing a statement justifying their censorship, NBC said:

“Kanye West departed from the scripted comments that were prepared for him, and his opinions in no way represent the views of the networks. It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight and the generosity of millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person’s opinion.”

I think it’s safe to say it’s not just ‘one person’s opinion’ we’re dealing with here. The majority of New Orleans’ population - which is 80 % African American - is most likely thinking the exact same thing. Moreover, I don’t recall NBC ever apologizing for peddling the Bush administration lies about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, a fabrication used to drag the American people into a war that has to date taken the lives of almost 2,000 US soldiers, squandered over $200 billion dollars, and killed up to 100,000 Iraqis.

Kanye West’s verbal assault was a historic television moment that corporate entities will now go to great lengths to prevent in the future. Live television broadcasts are rare in the extreme, and the world of corporate broadcasting has become so constricted and edited that spontaneous, unsanitized thoughts never get an airing. West’s unrehearsed lambaste - as rambling as it was, must be seen as a brilliant creative intervention. The few sentences he managed to blurt out contained more biting realism than thousands of hours of commercial news stories spoonfed to us on a daily basis. West tore through the media machine’s veneer of respectability and false objectivity, to reveal a thought shared by hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

NBC’s glaring censorship and frenzied attempt to distance itself from West only provided a lesson on the nature of corporate media and its masquerading as a “free press.” It was Marshall McLuhan who wrote, The Medium is the Massage, a book that foretold the power of media and technology in shaping consciousness… and on Sept. 2nd, Kanye West borrowed a page from McLuhan’s manuscript.

West’s rebelliousness and NBC’s reaction, reminds me of another incident where corporate media butted heads with an outspoken nonconformist. In March of 1970, antiwar activist and co-founder of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman, was invited to be taped for an appearance on the Merv Griffin show. The longhaired Hoffman showed up at the TV studio wearing a suede jacket with fringe, and after being introduced to the audience and fellow guests, asked Griffin if “anyone would mind if I took off my jacket?” The host naturally said “Go ahead.” The Yippie prankster removed his jacket to reveal a shirt made out of an American flag. The guests were appalled and members of the audience were outraged.

It may be hard to visualize this today, with every self-proclaimed “patriot” wearing an American flag garment of some kind, but back in 1970 it was considered treasonous - especially if such a garment was worn by an anti-Vietnam War protestor. In fact, Hoffman had already been arrested and put on trial for wearing such a shirt.

The mild-mannered Merv Griffin attempted to provoke Hoffman, “How can you claim there’s so much repression in America if you’re allowed on my show?” What no one knew was that prior to broadcasting the taped segment, CBS executives had made a decision to censor the show. Just before airing the tape, CBS apologized to its audience:

“It seemed one of the guests had seen fit to come on the show wearing a shirt made from an American flag. Therefore, to avoid possible litigation the network executives have decided to ‘mask out’ all visible portions of the offending shirt by electronic means. We hope our viewers will understand.”

When the taped show began and Hoffman removed his jacket, the screen suddenly switched to a bright day-glo blue. The host and other guests were shown, but every time the camera moved to Hoffman - the screen went blue. The episode was especially amusing since the host’s lecturing of Hoffman on the lack of censorship in the US was itself conducted against a backdrop of electronic masking. That evening over 88,000 people called the station to protest the censorship, and in the week that followed, stores across the country sold out of shirts bearing flag motifs.

Given that no one else in the mainstream media (or the world of pop culture) has publicly drawn a connection between the tragedy in the Gulf States and the occupation of Iraq, West should be congratulated for his outspokenness. I think it only proper that Kanye West be awarded the Golden Yippie Marshall McLuhan Award for best guerrilla media actor in a time of conformity, cowardice and censorship.