In the Black Panthers’ influential and widely-circulated newspaper, Emory Douglas’ drawings held near-equal space to the lines of written text, shaping the visual aesthetic of the Black Power movement. His designs and illustrations commanded attention: police as pigs; iconic renderings of Party leaders; young men bearing arms; slogans rendered in fat block letters. And they lived on—well after newsprint pages crumpled into wastebaskets, or deteriorated over time. Next to each, an underlined “Emory” identified their creator, as if the images could be attributed to anyone but the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture.
Over the five decades since the founding of the Black Panther Party, Douglas’ work has never lost its power. In a recent interview with Artnet, he explained, “Fifty years later, the artwork still has relevancy to it. Because we still have some of the same things happening now as happening then. You have young people who see that. When I do a talk, they’ll say, ‘Well, you could just tweak this and tweak that.’”
And now audiences will have that opportunity once again. On Thursday, Aug. 27, Douglas joins Stephen Coles, the associate curator and editorial director of San Francisco’s Letterform Archive, to talk about his creative process, his years with the Black Panthers and his relationship to the current uprising for racial justice.
If you haven’t heard of the hosting institution, a bit of background: The Letterform Archive is a nonprofit center in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill that houses over 60,000 items related to lettering, typography, calligraphy and graphic design (a.k.a. heaven for design geeks). Important for Thursday’s purposes, the collection holds 100 issues of The Black Panther newspaper, which will be shown along with original prints during Douglas’ talk.
The event is part of the archive’s monthly Salon Series, in which a member of the staff or a guest expert takes a deeper dive into specific collections or themes. Unique in this new world of endless Zoom gatherings, these salons include a view of the discussed material via a live overhead camera, meaning audience members can see the objects as they would in person, leaning over one of the archive’s massive wooden tables.