Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Revolutionary Art Of Emory Douglas

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas
MOCA Pacific Design Center
October 21st, 2007 through February 24th, 2008

By Jesi Khadivi
Originally published in Whitehot Magazine, February 2008

For better or worse, style plays a significant role in propelling social movements and historicizing their images. The seductive, bomb throwing chic of the Baader-Meinhof Gang and Hanoi Jane’s power fisted mug shot have spawned numerous fetishist coffee table books and fashion magazines spreads. (Prada Meinhof, anyone?) Revolutionary groups live on in our popular consciousness because of the radical style they embody as much as their politics.

The Black Panther Party is no exception. Founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California in 1966, the Panthers espoused the importance of self-determination in the wake of a government that oppressed, neglected and exploited African American people. They started programs offering breakfast for school children, free food, free clothing and free shoes. Not only did they serve their community, they made being black look powerful. Their uniform of afros, berets and leather jackets perfectly encapsulated the Black Power movement of the 60s and 70s.

The Panthers built their brand beautifully. They were brilliant self-promoters. An integral part of the Panther “By any means necessary” image is the work of their Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas. Douglas joined the party in 1967 at the age of 22. His lithograph posters, collages and drawings were featured prominently in the party newspaper, The Black Panther. MOCA Pacific Design Center has mounted an impressive exhibition of Douglas’ work thanks to the generous assistance of collectors Alden and Mary Kimbrough, as well as other private collectors and cultural institutions. The exhibition features lithograph posters in both black and white and eye-popping color, an extensive selection of The Black Panther papers and a wall sized reproduction of Douglas’ design for Afro-American Solidarity with the Oppressed People of the World.

The right to self-defense was a critical component of the Panther credo. Huey P. Newton chose the metaphor because the cat never attacks unprovoked, but will fight to its death. Douglas’ representations of this ethos fuse Russian Constructivism, psychedelic poster design and FAP style propaganda. The overall tenor swings between the quasi-evangelical progressivism and aggression. Many of Douglas’ designs feature inspirational quotations like “We shall survive. Without a doubt.” As many, if not more, show the possession of a weapon as a vital step on this road to liberation. Douglas’ iconic use of women, children and firearms showed that the movement was nurtured, growing and nothing to fuck with.

Everybody Gets Screwed

Everybody Gets Screwed
By Jesi Khadivi
The Yacoubian Building (2006), Dir. Marwan Hamed, Strand Releasing
Originally published in the Brooklyn Rail, February 2008

This good old-fashioned melodrama explores political corruption, sexual coercion, poverty, religious fundamentalism and the deep-rooted melancholia at the core of contemporary Egyptian life. At $6 million, Marwan Hamed’s directorial debut had the highest budget of any Egyptian film to date. The anxiously awaited adaptation of Alaa Al Aswany’s best selling novel tells the story of the Yacoubian Building, an elegant, old world building in downtown Cairo that has fallen from grace.

Once the home of well-heeled families, it now houses faded dignitaries, a homosexual newspaper editor and a rooftop teeming with dispossessed migrant workers from the countryside. Everyone has his or her cross to bear. Bothayna, a beautiful and conservative young woman, must help her mother support her siblings after her father’s death while dodging the leering eyes and wandering hands of her employers. Her childhood sweetheart, Taha, an earnest and studious janitor’s son, buckles under social pressure and shame at his poverty, and becomes a religious fundamentalist. Even the rich don’t have it so easy. Hatem Rachid, a cosmopolitan newspaper editor, lures young soldiers into his bed with bottles of fine wine. His smug countenance barely disguises the deep loneliness and isolation that he feels in a culture leagues away from accepting his sexuality. Haj Azzam, a millionaire drug lord/politician, takes a secret second wife after recurring wet dreams. Perhaps the most tragic figure in this social tableau is Zaki El Dessouki, a wealthy, foreign educated engineer from a distinguished Egyptian family. His neighbors still call him by the ceremonial title “pasha”, the rough equivalent of an English lord. His poorer neighbors revere him and ply him with requests for advice. Zaki’s social equals, however, see him as a skirt chaser fueled by copious amounts of alcohol.

At first glance, the film is a morality play with high dramatic flourishes. It’s shot like television and has the narrative engine of a soap opera. In spite of, or perhaps because of these traits, the film is surprisingly compelling. The power dynamic between men and women, rich and poor and urban and rural plays out between the sheets. Sex is the common currency driving the film and it provides insight into characters that would otherwise be lost beneath layers of schmaltz and melodrama. The sympathy that the simple, broad smiling soldier Abdo Raboh elicits as he unwittingly begins to succumb to Hatem Rachid’s advances is quickly complicated as he boasts that he frequently takes his wife by force when she is too tired to make love. The political and social ills of contemporary Egypt are expressed via sexual humiliation; everybody is screwing everybody else, but no one comes out on top.