Emory Douglas and Rigo 23 are two artists of two successive generations who uncompromisingly advocate social and political change through their work. They both live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have known each other for years. They came together in conversation here to discuss their concurrent solo exhibitions at the New Museum. “Emory Douglas: Black Panther,” a retrospective of the artist’s work made during his thirteen years as Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, includes the artist’s illustrations and graphic designs reproduced primarily in ephemera. From 1967 until 1980, Douglas illustrated The Black Panther newspaper, whose weekly design and production he also oversaw. Rigo 23 is equally committed to situating his work in the public sphere. For a while, his name would change from year to year, so one mural may have been signed Rigo 85; a later one may have borne the signature Rigo 99. In 2003, however, he settled on permanent name, dropped the zeroes, and has been Rigo 23 ever since. His installation titled “The Deeper They Bury Me, The Louder My Voice Becomes,” is a meditation on prisoners’ rights, specifically calling attention to the incarceration of political prisoners the Angola 3, who’ve been in solitary confinement for thirty-six years.
BG: How did the two of you meet?
RIGO 23: I first heard about Emory’s work through human rights activist Geronimo ji Jaga. I’ve come to Emory for guidance many times in doing politically motivated artwork. Emory fills me in on the history of the Black Panther Party.
EMORY DOUGLAS: Currently we’re working together with the family of Little Bobby Hutton, one of the first members of the Black Panther Party, on a public monument in his name. Hutton was killed by police at the age of sixteen. The monument will be placed at De Fremery Park in Oakland, a site where many Black Panther Party meetings were held.
Emory Douglas, Mural, 2009. Courtesy of the New Museum
BG: Emory, you’re also working on a public mural that will be unveiled in September in Harlem.
ED: It’s a permanent mural at 122nd Street and Third Avenue made in collaboration with a group of young people. Images of mine that were chosen by the kids and members of the community are being remixed and painted. The mural’s theme is “educate to liberate.”
BG: That statement “educate to liberate” is at the heart of both of your practices. What strategies do you use to disseminate your messages to a broader public?
ED: My limited training as a commercial artist gave me a foundation to create images to appeal to people’s senses. Many of my collages, for example, integrated photographs from daily events into the artwork to give emphasis to a statement that was being voiced at a particular time.
R: In my practice, it’s important to recognize that a diversity of voices exist in the public sphere. In most cities, public space for art or communication is dominated by advertising-what I call mercenary messages. I’m concerned with bringing other voices and content into this space. Sometimes it’s about creating a diversion or an event that takes your attention away from the advertising world. There’s nothing more beautiful and powerful than truth or justice. If advertising uses an athlete who may be able to run 100 meters in 10 seconds to promote products, I want to make work about a different kind of endurance by showing that there’s someone out there who has survived three decades in solitary confinement.
BG: Rigo, the word “TRUTH” appears in giant letters in your mural for the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco’s Civic Center. I believe it was painted to commemorate the release of Angola 3 member Robert King from prison. Of course, not everyone who sees the word “TRUTH” knows to associate it with King’s wrongful conviction and sentencing.
R: There’s a saying that in times of war, truth is the first casualty. The TRUTH mural was painted in Fall 2002, at the height of the war on Afghanistan. Robert King had been released in February 2001, so the mural can be interpreted in many ways. It could be seen as a memorial for truth, as pertaining to the loss of truth in a state of war. On the other hand, it can be a demand for truth or a celebration of truth. I also painted a barcode on the mural to suggest that truth can also be a product that’s for sale to the highest bidder. United Nations Plaza commemorates the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco, a collective effort to rid humanity of the scourge of war. If you stand in the middle of UN Plaza and look at the mural, you will see the word “TRUTH” flanked by the US flag on one side and the UN flag on the other. Even though the US represents 5% of humanity and the UN represents 95%, the US acted like a much bigger entity than the UN in discussions leading up to the war.
BG: How was the issue of political prisoners addressed in the Black Panther Papers and in your artwork?
ED: All Black Panther leaders organized within the prison system because they were all imprisoned at one point or another. Our paper was always meant to educate people about the fact that there were political prisoners in this country. Americans have this illusion that only other countries have political prisoners. That’s because the political prisoners in the US are treated as common criminals. Now there’s more transparency in the court system. Documents and evidence that had been hiding under stacks of paper are finally coming out into the open to reveal that many people were wrongfully convicted. That may not benefit the comrades who are still incarcerated, but it will result in consciousness-raising for future generations.
R: When members of the Angola 3 were placed in prison, they lived in a segregated society. You can’t expect a society that upholds segregation to have applied laws that were racially just. They’re dealing with the fact that they were judged and sentenced by a society that was deeply racist at the time. Society may have evolved but their condition has not. My work about the Angola 3 is an attempt to call attention to injustices that have the potential to snowball.
BG: Why deliver this message now? Do you think that there’s any hope of reopening the trials of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two members of the Angola 3 who are still incarcerated?
R: Yes. The new Federal administration came in to fulfill a need to correct the negative perception of the US abroad. Obama said, “We won’t condone torture; we want to close Guantanamo,” but as we move on from promise to the delivery, some people are starting to get worried that the real issues have morphed into a semantic discussion of what constitutes torture. As long as something is called a “harsh interrogation technique,” we don’t have to stop it. Being confined to a cell twenty-three hours a day on your own, every day for more than three decades, seems to be a clear case of cruel and unusual punishment.
BG: Rigo, can you tell me a little bit more about the placement of your installation? You’ve turned the stairwell between floors 3 and 4 into a corridor that leads into a prison cell.
R: The invisibility of prisons in the urban fabric is something that I find fascinating. The site that my installation occupies within the museum is also a marginal space. It seemed appropriate to offer a fringe narrative from that marginal position.
The title of the installation is derived from Wallace’s statement, “The louder my voice gets, the deeper they bury me.” King tried to put a positive spin on the situation, saying, “[No,] the deeper they bury you, the louder your voice becomes.” King gave a talk at The New Museum in May 2008 as part of a Creative Time event. He repeated the following statement over and over again: “You throw pebbles into the pond, you get ripples; the ripples become waves; the waves can become a tsunami.” My installation focuses on an episode that is seemingly marginal or irrelevant, and attempts to invest it with a great deal of significance. This installation is a ripple of the fact that Robert King was here in May 2008. A year after King’s talk, Emory Douglas is here, and my installation about the Angola 3 is here. So the ripples are growing.
For more information about the case of the Angola 3, click on. “Emory Douglas: Black Panther” and “The Deeper They Bury Me, The Louder My Voice Becomes” are on view at the New Museum through October 11.