The combination of a black beret, black leather jacket, black pants, black shoes and exposed weaponry formed the military-style uniform for the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, and that look became an enduring symbol that lives on today. A new exhibit at Poster House explores how the Black Panther Party powerfully branded its work through clothing, posters and newspapers.
The show, “Black Power to Black People: Branding the Black Panther Party,” is now on view at the museum in Chelsea through September 10 featuring 37 works dating from 1932 to 1980. You’ll see heroic images of party members, printed materials like The Black Panther newspaper, political campaign posters and powerful photographs by artists including Emory Douglas, Dorothy Hayes and Danny Lyon.
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As one of the most influential militant groups of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party devised a specific graphic language to reclaim Black humanity and decommodify Black life. Curator Es-pranza Humphrey spent several years researching the exhibition, digging into the design process and conducting interviews with Black Panther Party veterans.
“I came across all of these themes that seem to be the Black Panther Party’s initiative to brand Black power and make it part of the identity of the Black Panther Party,” Humphrey says to Time Out in a tour of the exhibit this week.
She organized the exhibit thematically, beginning with a minstrel image to show the image of Black America at that time. She juxtaposed that illustration next to the iconic depiction of the party's co-founder Huey P. Newton holding weapons.
“He’s focused, and he’s in control of his image. … He’s in a militant position. Now he has the power whereas in this, these are caricatures from a period of enslavement,” she explains. “This frames the way that the Black Panther Party is going to move forward with their branding just by thinking, ‘this is the way the world is, this is the way our image has been manipulated by the world, we have to take this back.’”
I want Black people to come into the show and really feel proud that Black power is transcendent.
The exhibition includes a history of how the Black Panther Party was formed and how the logo was created. You’ll see the work of graphic artist Emory Douglas, who served as the party’s minister of culture, throughout the exhibit, especially in a section featuring the Black Panther Party’s newspapers. The newspaper was crucial to the movement, Humphrey says, because it “allows Black people to be the voice of Black issues.”
Gripping political posters featuring Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton also get the spotlight with a detailed explanation of how the Black Panther Party challenged government structures and the two-party system.
Playing in the background, you'll hear music by Elaine Brown titled "Seize the Time," which was a rallying cry for the party. The songs express Black resistance, community and revolution. The album cover is on display, along with song lyrics.
Finally, before you leave the exhibit, pick up a copy of the periodical called "Black Power to Black Women," a collection of stories about women in the party whom Humphrey interviewed.
Humphrey, who serves as Poster House's education curator in addition to curating this exhibit, hopes New Yorkers will come and explore this essential piece of American history.
“I really want Black New Yorkers to feel proud of a message that doesn’t rely on the subjugation of Black folks, that doesn’t require the amount of emotional labor that some more graphic images would take from Black people. I want Black people to come into the show and really feel proud that Black power is transcendent. And Black power is something that moved beyond the Black Panther Party, but the Black Panther Party owned what Black power could look like and did look like,” Humphrey says. “For the general New York public, this is a New York story. Even though the Black Panther Party was founded in California, it is a national organization, and there are still people alive, and we have to think about how we preserve this history.”
See Black Power to Black People: Branding the Black Panther Party at Poster House through September 10, 2023. Poster House is the first museum in the United States dedicated to the global history of posters. Also on view there right now: Made in Japan: 20th-Century Poster Art.