Boomers, groan all you like at your youthful follies, but this show of Vietnam-era graphics, Emory Douglas: The Art of Political Protest, at Richmond Art Center, brings it all back home, man. Dig: it's clear nowadays that we're stuck in a time warp: Iraq does equal Vietnam, contrary to 2003's conventional wisdom; corporate capitalism still exploits and corrupts; and, once mocked as the hilarious delusion of a paranoid Commie-lesbo Lady Macbill, the vast right-wing conspiracy really does exist, running the country with brazen contempt and cynicism. Mr. Uniter, meet Mr. Bring-Us-Together.
Emory Douglas, Black Panther Minister of Culture and artist for The Black Panther, follows the activist-artist tradition of Daumier, Nast, and Heartfield, who worked for earlier reformist newspapers. In powerful, affecting montages mixing photos and text with bold drawing, Douglas takes on the grim realities beneath America's smiley-face facade. In "Misery Misery" a woman grasps a rat the size of a terrier; in "A Vote for Chisholm [the black Congresswoman who ran against Nixon in '72] is a Vote for Survival," a young girl regards us from her cockroach-infested hovel. Black pride and grit are reflected here, too. In "Hallelujah..." a black matron loses herself in gospel, while images lauding the Panthers' free food programs or touting activist political candidates remind us of their community roots. On the other hand, the dark side of Black Power also registers strongly, fetishizing war, weaponry, and Marxism. References to "fascist pigs" and "corrupt running dogs" abound. Sometimes we seem to be regarding blaxploitation action-movie posters, with their iconography of "guns baby guns," jumpsuited, bereted badasses and Afroed hotties; even a seemingly lyrical depiction of mothers and babies, on closer inspection, has everyone packing Rambo heat. The psychic need for such bravado is naturally understandable, whatever we think of the real-world results.
The social problems of the 1960s did not go away (as proclaimed by free-marketeers) when my generation marched off to law and business school in the '70s, notwithstanding the current success of the Obama candidacy. Presidential messianism has not worked either. Cloistered Americans should look up from their portfolios and realize we don't need war to give our lives larger meaning. What's so funny about peace, love, and the freedom/responsibility that comes with understanding? Through March 14 at Richmond Art Center, (2540 Barrett Ave., Richmond). TheRAC.org or 510-620-6772.