All Power To The People show recalls the spirit of the Black Panthers. Photo By 2003 CSPG
ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE! GRAPHICS OF THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY 1966-1974 at Toronto Free Gallery (1277 Bloor West), to October 11. 416-913-0461. Rating: NNNN
Toronto Free Gallery takes us back to the heady 60s, when the Black Panthers electrified/terrified the U.S. with the prospect of armed, politically aware, beret-and-leather-jacket-wearing black militants defending their communities "by any means necessary" and taking aim at their oppressors.
The material comes from L.A.'s Center for the Study of Political Graphics, an archive of more than 50,000 artworks from international movements for social change.
The show includes posters, pages from the Black Panther newspaper and flyers, much of the art by Emory Douglas, the Panthers' commercial-art-trained minister of culture. (An interview with the 72-year-old still feisty Douglas from his San Francisco home is in the latest issue of Fuse magazine.)
Printed on newsprint to blanket ghetto walls, Douglas's posters are strong and original. Angry yet dignified figures of women, men and children are depicted in a powerful linear style recalling block prints. Cuban graphic design is one inspiration, and the influence of psychedelic rock concert art peeks through in op-arty backgrounds. Though his work was never intended for an art world audience, Douglas is receiving recognition, like a recent show at L.A.'s MOCA.
Sheets from the Black Panther newspapers remind us that the party wasn't all "off the pigs," but also focused on community issues like breakfast programs for kids, sickle-cell anemia and forced sterilization.
In hindsight - Eldridge Cleaver became a Republican, Huey Newton died in a drug-related shooting, Communism collapsed, civil wars pit African against African - the Panthers' solutions may seem naive, but racism and inequality are still very much with us.
For me, it's a bittersweet trip to the past, but All Power To The People succeeds at communicating the Panthers' tremendous energy and courage in those dangerous times.