The Spectre of Engels

This the draft of a co-authored piece with Steve Hanson for the Nyx, a Noctournal site. Here. It was written on behalf of the new writer’s group the Manchester Left Writers.

In the summer of 2009, archaeologists in central Manchester removed the tarmac and cobblestone surface of the Miller Street carpark, revealing cellar slum dwellings from the early industrial era. The excavation was carried out in preparation for the construction of One Angel Square – the new headquarters of the Co-op Group which now stands on the site. For a brief moment, through the work of digger and trowel, the cellars of Miller Street had returned to the landscape.

Friedrich Engels described this street, along with many others, in his 1845 work The Condition of the Working Class in England. The grinding poverty. The ill-ventilation and suffocating filth. The cramped, crowded living spaces. The mixture of human and animal life. And the mixture of human, animal and chemical waste. The text, in parts, becomes a visual and olfactory tour of early industrial Manchester.

Miller Street is mentioned twice as Engels compared the ‘old town’ with the ‘new town’. Each was as bad as the other. The old town was the remnants of pre-industrial Manchester. Its dilapidated buildings and unplanned streets were being used to house thousands and thousands of migrants in what Engels often likened to, ‘cattle sheds for human beings’. (1845/2005, p.90) The new town, a section of the city which included Miller Street, had the appearance of better housing. Yet, this ‘appearance’ merely concealed cheap construction, ill-repair and the use of cellars and back courts for housing. In the older and newer sections of the city, from Long Millgate to Miller Street, every space was filled, pressured and squeezed. These slums were a means to ‘plunder the poverty of the workers, to undermine the health of thousands, in order that they only, the owners, may grow rich’. (ibid, p.92) If the built environment was a means to wring further profit out of the lower classes, it was also constructed in such a way to conceal this fact. Streets extended outwards from the Exchange – the centre of the global cotton trade – cutting through the slums and factory districts to provide an uninterrupted link to the suburban, bourgeois areas. Urban space was so designed that businessmen could ‘take the shortest road through the middle of the labouring districts to their places of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and left’. (ibid, p.86) These thoroughfares were essentially physical lines of capital that served to conceal the abject spaces at the very heart of this vast accumulation of wealth. In The Condition Engels provided a definitive account of the industrial city and its forms of exploitation, accumulation and concealment and it’s worth noting that this account prefigured the Chicago School’s concentric zone model of urban development by over eighty years, although Engels’ description is one of contained, crushing poverty rather than outward and upward mobility.

Returning to these observations may not offer much in terms of new insight. But alongside the return of the Miller Street slums in 2009 and our subsequent return to Engels’ text, we might pose another return: what if Engels were to return to Manchester? How might he re-access the city and, in particular, the contemporary city?

If Engels were to return, the Miller Street archaeological dig would have been a good point of entry. Here Engels would have encountered the familiar and the strange, the known and the new. And perhaps a new approach to his ethnography would have emerged from this. A return to Miller Street would not so much have been to visit a ‘site’ as it would have been to follow a ‘trace’. Rather than an isolated piece of heritage, the archaeological site would need to be reconsidered as a detail that set in motion a series of links – from early industrial Mancunian slums, to the Co-op Bank and the wider financial crisis of 2008. In contemporary Manchester, Engels would have to follow new lines of geography – ones that not only stretched to the suburbs, but also globally. And they do so at different speeds, from the car-commute to the nanosecond of receive-and-send information exchange. But some of this would come as no surprise to Engels. For most of his life he held a managerial position within a Dutch-German manufacturing company operating in the north of England. The international circulation of capital was already a lived reality.

To propose Engels’ return is not so far-fetched. He did return, in the flesh, in 1848, following the failed revolutions on the European continent. During his four-year absence the city had undergone significant change, both physical and political. There were slum clearances as Oxford Road Station replaced the ‘Little Ireland’ district. And in a hugely symbolic act, the city’s more liberal businessmen had erected the Free Trade Hall on the site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre – connecting their campaign for free trade to the city’s radical democratic past. In all of this, the class divisions embedded in the city’s landscape were no longer so pronounced. Manchester had shifted from ‘black and white’ to ‘shades of grey’ as Engels’ biographer, Tristram Hunt, has put it. (2009) Engels recognised this. In his 1892 preface to the English edition of The Condition he wrote, ‘‘Little Ireland has disappeared, and the ‘Seven Dials’ are next for the list of sweeping away. But what of it? […] The bourgeoisie have made further progress in the art of hiding the distress of the working class’. (2005, p.37) For Engels, the processes of concealment that he observed almost fifty years earlier were being extended. We suspect that if Engels were to make a return to Miller Street in 2009, or One Angel Square in 2014, he would easily familiarise himself with the uneven processes underpinning the city’s ‘regeneration’ and it would likely come as no surprise that despite Manchester’s much lauded redevelopment, the city remained a national leader in child poverty. (Child Poverty Map of the UK, 2012, p.9) However, it might need to be explained to Engels how history – and even dark history – is packaged and deployed in such processes. He would need to look no further than One Angel Square as the name of the building is a direct reference to Angel Meadow, the very slum district to which Miller Street once belonged.

Cellars, an archaeological site, One Angel Square. 1845, 2009, 2014. Early Industrial Manchester, the financial crisis, the collapse of the Co-op Bank. We don’t need to imagine Engels physically present to make these connections, to follow these traces. If we speak of ‘traces’ we can also speak of ‘spectres’. Both are terms attached to the work of Jacques Derrida. But here we enter risky territory. Derrida can lead us somewhere, but he can also lead us nowhere. In his work Specters of Marx he reminds us of the different, competing spectral forms of communism and capitalism – the always-yet-to-come and the repetition of the same. (1994) For Derrida, the text is paradigm and the yet-to-come is structured through traces that disrupt attempts to fix or contain meaning. Marxism declares its openly spectral form in the first line of The Communist Manifesto. It haunts capital and it refuses to let the spectre of capital appear as finished business.

Spectres are untimely and with their return we do not know if they are testifying to a living past or a living future. (1994, p.11) By invoking the spectre of Engels, we want to reckon with our past as well as our future, both of which are entwined with circuits of capital accumulation and forms of concealment. Yet, do to this effectively, we must move away from Derrida’s textual paradigm to more concrete accounts. We need to gather and follow through material traces, the literal debris of history – like the Miller Street archaeological site, with its links to industrial slums and One Angel Square.

Today, in 2014, we can gaze up at One Angel Square and be reminded that Marxism was not the only working-class movement to have direct links to the city. In 1844, while Engels was walking the Manchester slums with the Burns sisters, the Rochdale Pioneers opened their first shop in Rochdale, just north of the city. It operated according to principles laid out by the British socialist, Robert Owen, and is now regarded as the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement. However, the shop didn’t gain local traction until the collapse of the Rochdale Savings Bank in 1849 after which people began to see the co-operative as a safer alternative. A neat 160 years later, in 2009, in the midst of another financial crisis and as the excavation on Miller Street was preparing the way for One Angel Square, the Co-op Bank would acquire the Britannia Building Society. Like so many other financial institutions at the time, the Britannia was saddled with bad debt. In a move that mimicked more profit-driven rather than collectivist banks, the Co-op Bank, a subsidiary of the Co-op Group, had sought out struggling institutions to acquire and increase its own scale. Whether out of hubris or incompetence (or both), this would lead to the near-collapse of the Co-op Bank in 2013. With a £1.5 billion short-fall, the Co-op Bank would be taken-over by two American hedge funds, Aurelius and Silverpoint, with the Co-op Group only remaining a minority shareholder. The Co-op Bank was ‘rescued, capitalist style’, as the Wall Street Journal has said. (2013)

Today, in 2014, we can gaze up at One Angel Square and be reminded of the spectre of capital and its recurring cycles of boom and bust. In 1849 this provided an opportunity for the co-operative movement, but in 2014 only setback. The Co-op Bank is no longer a co-operative. And its ‘ethical investment policy’ is now only once removed from wherever Aurelius and Silverpoint decide to circulate their capital, or whoever moves capital through them, or whoever they might sell their shares on to. It’s been emptied out and left as a sort of animated corpse.

1845, 2009, 2014. The cellars of Miller Street, an archaeological dig and One Angel Square. We have seen how one site can become a trace that allows us to sketch out the uneven and concealed geographies of capital and its repetitions of boom and bust that not only offer opportunities for alternatives but also, and most often, a chance for capital to re-assert itself. We have used the figure of Engels to help us think this through and have made reference to the work of Derrida. And here we wish to stake out our final claim. Derrida’s book, Spectres of Marx, was of its time. Written after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it acted as a counter to the triumphant rhetoric of capitalism. Yet, for Derrida, the spectre of Marx is never realised. It only ever tails capitalism with constant critique. We have to move on from here. Capitalism is no longer triumphalist in our post-2008 world, but it remains increasingly pervasive, positioning itself as the corrective to the very problems it has initiated. As the Manchester Left Writers have stated, the left needs to ‘reoccupy the present and the future, actually, physically and politically’. (2014) And working through material traces, as a practice of writing, can be a small step in that direction.

– Mark Rainey & Steve Hanson, Manchester Left Writers 2014


Derrida, J. Specters of Marx. (1994) Peggy Kamuf (trans). London: Routledge.

Engels, F. (1845/2005) The Condition of the Working Calls in England. London: Penguin Books.

Hunt, T. (2009) The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. London: Penguin.

Manchester Left Writers. (2014) Broadside 001: The State of Scripts.

Wall Street Journal. ‘Co-op Bank Rescued, Capitalist Style’. 4 November, 2013.

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My Winnipeg

This is a brief introduction to the film ‘My Winnipeg’ that I gave at a film night in our flat in Lewisham. A version has also been posted on the New Cross Review of Books.

My Winnipeg (2007) Guy Maddin (dir).

You can’t escape Winnipeg. That’s the opening gambit of this film. And the film begins with director Guy Maddin, played by Darcy Fehr, on a train heading out of town. Yet, the train can’t resist the pull of the city and instead endlessly circulates Winnipeg, with the sleepy passengers on board viewing unfolding scenes of civic history, urban myth and Maddin’s own childhood memories from the train windows.

The obscure 1967 track by the Swinging Strings, ‘Wonderful Winnipeg’, plays during the film. It includes the lines, ‘Hail my town, hail my home, the world keeps moving round and round’. I don’t know how many times the song appears, it may be only once, but just like the lyrics suggest, the song circulates the film and is ineluctably engrained on the brain of the viewer. Just like Winnipeg is imprinted on the brain of Guy Maddin, then.

My uncle, a one-time Winnipeg resident, once told me that ‘You can leave Winnipeg, but Winnipeg never leaves you’. It may sound cliché, as this could be said of any city, but it does hold truth. Winnipeg (or whatever city) never leaves you, just as you can leave your family, but your childhood never leaves you. They’re both inescapable – and Guy Maddin weaves these two together throughout the film. As Maddin says, he is trying to film his way out of the ‘heinous power of family and city’.

If there’s a theme I’d like to highlight here it is the theme of the ‘double’. It permeates the whole film. From the outset, there is continual reference to the ‘forks beneath the forks’. The ‘forks’ are the confluence of the mighty Assiniboine and Red Rivers which meet in the centre of the city. Maddin suggests that Aboriginal legend speaks of a ‘forks beneath the forks’ a supposed subterranean confluence beneath the rivers which hold a sort of magical, magnetic power. The confluence is then crudely and repetitively superimposed on the nude lap of his mother – reinforcing the power of city and family. Other ‘doubles’ include the back alleys used to illicitly navigate the city, the night-time sleep-walking rituals that supplement daytime life, the slightly macabre return of Manitoba’s legendary ice-hockey heroes who skate the ice of the Winnipeg Arena one last time before its demolition and the ‘doubling’ of Maddin’s own family, as actors are hired to reconstruct mundane scenes from his life. Ann Savage, the ‘Perfect Vixen’ or 1940s film noir, takes on the role of his ever-watchful and domineering mother.

It could be said that My Winnipeg is a psychogeographic film. ‘Psychogeography’ was a concept introduced by the Situationist International in the early 1950s and in his 1955 tract ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ Guy Debord defines it as the ‘study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals’. My Winnipeg is psychogeographic in precisely this sense and Guy Maddin deploys myth, legend, memory, politics and civic and personal history (everything in his toolbox) to reconfigure his emotional take on the city. Debord continues by writing, ‘We need to work toward flooding the market – even if for the moment merely the intellectual market – with a mass of desires whose realization is not beyond the capacity of man’s present means of action on the material world, but only beyond the capacity of old social organization’. In a sense, My Winnipeg is this ‘mass of desires’, with Maddin projecting various means of accounting for and even repairing his Winnipeg. Despite the weird, multiple trajectories that psychogeography has taken on, especially in the UK, the Situationists were essentially Marxists and there is a hint of this in the film, in nostalgia form, with reference to the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. It all concludes with reference to The Winnipeg Citizen, the newspaper of striking workers, through which Maddin imagines a reconstituted ‘double’ Winnipeg that repairs the mistakes of its past. But it is idealised. And just as Guy Debord wrote that the word ‘psychogeography’ was introduced by an illiterate member, thereby undermining the whole idea at its very inception, there’s a sense that My Winnipeg can’t resolve anything. Covering over the mistakes of the past, with the same from that past, just brings more of the same. Perhaps this is the point of the film, ultimately. We’re still on that circular train ride.

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Lefebvre’s ‘The Production of Space’ § I-XV

This was a short piece delivered to the Henri Lefebvre reading group at UCL, Nov. 2012.  A slightly reworked version appeared in the New Cross Review of Books (NXRB).

The ‘Plan of the Present Work’ or introduction to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space  is a dense drift across a series of themes, disciplines, topics and targets: from mathematics to linguistics, from Plato to Chomsky, from Surrealism to urban planning.  It reflects the manner in which Lefebvre himself, we can imagine, drifted around his office dictating the work to his secretaries.  This is not just meant to be a flippant comment, but gives some insight into how the text itself was produced.  It was spoken in immediacy, filtered only by the typist, rather than the perhaps more reflected act of Lefebvre writing the work out himself.  The working out of his theory of space occurred alongside the material work carried out by his staff.  This wandering style, dense but loose, gives some account for Lefebvre’s sweeping build up to his own theory of space.

“To speak of ‘producing space’ sounds bizarre”, Lefebvre states, “so great is the sway still held by the idea that empty space is prior to whatever ends up filling it”. (1991, p. 15)  There is a ring of the enlightenment era debate between Newton and Leibniz in the priority given to empty space.  The former had advocated a mathematically independent absolute space, while the latter argued for a relational space dependent on the connection between objects – and Lefebvre certainly mines the history and “long development of the concept of space” in the opening sections of the text.  Crucially, for Lefebvre, this critical history is an opportunity to identify fundamental problems with how ‘space’ has been approached and allows him to pose his notion of ‘social space’  in response.  The common perception of space as an empty area or container, is a symptom of the fragmentation of space in western thought and culture.  This fragmentation, expressed in binary oppositions such as the mental (the intelligible, the mathematical, the space of the philosophers) and the lived (the sensory, the material, the practical), is traced through Descartes, mathematical theory and into contemporary philosophy.  We become “confronted by an indefinite multitude of spaces”: literary, ideological, geographical, economic, commercial, national, psychoanalytic etc. (3,8)  These separate, distinct, disciplinary spheres serve to reflect the specialist and functional distinctions in material and urban space: spaces of leisure, work, play, transportation, public facilities, etc.  In all of this, space becomes a vague and neutered concept. This is space viewed as a neutral container: “Space that is innocent, as free of traps and secret places”. (28)  Lefebvre is attempting to tear this veil of vagueness and neutrality, to reveal that space is fundamentally political and that this political character of space is hidden by ideology.  Space reflects the social relations of production and the social relations of production reflect space.  They are mutually constituting, in dialectical relation with one another.  This is the essence of Lefebvre’s maxim: (Social) space is a (social) product.

Production is a key term for Lefebvre, which can be understood in reference to both Hegel and Marx.  While the text is weighted towards Marx, it’s nonetheless worth exploring his use of Hegel – not only in recognition of Lefebvre’s role, along with Alexandre Kojeve, in introducing Hegel into French thought, but also because Hegel underpins his understanding of ‘social space’.  In Lefebvre’s words, Hegel is the Place de l’Etoile of the text, at once austere and monumental, but also an important nexus for the convergence and circulation of ideas.  Lefebvre’s incorporation of Hegel is not uncritical and we need to bear this in mind.  In Hegelian fashion, certain aspects are discarded while others are deployed.  Hegel’s notion of space is dismissed as statist by Lefebvre (21), yet Hegelian production is maintained.  In defining Hegelian production Lefebvre writes:

“In Hegelianism, ‘production’ has a cardinal role: first, the (absolute) Idea produces the world; next, nature produces the human being; and the human being in turn, by dint of struggle and labour, produces at one, history, knowledge and self-consciousness – and hence that Mind which reproduces the initial and ultimate Idea”. (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 68)

‘Production’, as described here, is not given a spatial understanding.  This is rather a broad account of Hegel’s philosophy and ‘production’ is located in the action or type of movement undertaken by the absolute idea in its full, self-conscious realisatiion.  There are hints of a notion of circulation as the idea is then re-produced.  For Lefebvre, the productive movement within Hegel hinges on the term “concrete universal” – a notion that seemingly belongs to philosophy while also extending beyond it. (1991, p.15)  The “concrete universal” is constituted as a relation between the general, the particular and the singular – or the logical-epistemological, the descriptive and the sensory, respectively.  What is significant is that the interrelation between these three notions, under the “concrete universal”, provides a means to escape the “straightjacket” of dualisms that pervade western thought – expressed as the division between the mental and lived, theory and practice, etc.  This relates back to space which Lefebvre regards as being traditionally divided between ideal space as mental categories and real space as the lived space of social practice.  (1991, p.14)

The concrete universal allows Lefebvre to “discover or construct a theoretical unity that is apprehended separately”. (11)  The concrete universal allows a new account of space, at once unified, but also fragmented into the particular (or descriptions and cross sections of space), the general (logico-mathematical space) and the singular (or sensory, lived space).  This, in turn, opens out into distinctly Lefebvrian approaches to space: the triad of spatial practice, representations of space and representational space, the triad of space as perceived, conceived and lived, and abstract and absolute space.

The introduction is essentially Lefebvre’s unfolding of the concrete universal into an analysis of space.  The terms he uses, such as abstract and absolute space, social space, conceived, perceived and lived, spatial practice, representations of space and representational space can be isolated and abstracted to better fit our own research and projects, yet all are to be taken together as overlapping and combined concepts.  This makes Lefebvre difficult to unpack.  We either take Lefebvre at his word in deploying these multiple, overlapping terms, or we confront the idea that he is a bit loose and inconsistent with his language, something that might very well happen when one wanders an office, working out a theory by dictating it to staff.

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Seodaemun Prison: From Colonialism to Where?

In Seoul, historic, cultural and tourist sites often bear witness to Japanese colonialism in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  There is the labyrinthine Gyeonbokgung Palace in the city centre which was largely rebuilt in the 1990s following its systematic demolition by the Japanese in the early decades of the 20th century.  As a longstanding symbol of Korean identity the palace’s destruction was a symbolic gesture of wider colonial oppression.  Gyeonbokgung holds associations with Korean history and culture that stretch back centuries and it is this history, alongside its immense grandeur and central location, that make it a popular tourist attraction.  It’s colonial history is indirect, to be uncovered in explanatory panels and leaflets once the visitor has arrived.

The Seodaemun Prison History Hall, also in Seoul, presents a much more direct encounter with colonial history and visiting it can be considered a form of “dark tourism”. [1]  The prison was built in 1908 by Japanese forces in advance of Japan’s official annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910.  It served as a political prison throughout the Japanese occupation as well as the South Korean dictatorships that followed, before closing in 1987.  The museum site encompasses seven of the former prison buildings including a rebuilt canteen and exercise area.  English language branding defines the museum as “The Place of Independence and Democracy!”, although the exhibitions and interpretation seem to focus almost exclusively on the former. [2]  In this respect, a visit to the museum in the summer of 2012 raised questions on how museums and exhibitions construct and present responses to colonialism.  Although not all of the explanatory material was translated into English (and therefore nuances could be lost), the Seodaemun Prison History Hall presented South Korean hyper-nationalism as the near-exclusive response to Japanese colonialism, to the extent that ‘patriotism’ became a sort of concluding mantra to each exhibition space.  The museum exchanged one form of nationalism (Japanese colonialism) for another (South Korean patriotism), and less simplistic responses to colonialism were lost in the process.

While I don’t intend to write a review of every exhibit or section of the museum, the introductory area, located in a former administrative building, provides an important background to Japan’s colonial activities in Korea.  This includes the appropriation of human and natural resources to further Japan’s colonial project in Asia and to eventually support the Asia Pacific War effort.  In view of this, Seodaemun Prison becomes emblematic of the physical domination and cultural suppression of Korea under Japanese rule as independence activists and resistance fighters were imprisoned, executed, tortured and used as labour within the prison.  Seodaemun also formed part of a wider network of 30 prisons built by the Japanese across the Korean peninsula.  According to the museum, Korea effectively became a “prison colony”.  As Seodaemun Prison expanded in size, so did this wider prison network.  The introductory section also indicated that the prison continued to operate for over 40 years following Korean independence.  It remained a political prison where dissidents, trade unionists and democratic activists were imprisoned and brutalised under the rule of the South Korean military dictatorship.  Institutional political violence did not end with Japanese rule, but continued on under a different guise.  In this respect, Seodaemun acts as a sort of precursor to Abu Ghraib.  Yet, this side of the prison’s history is left largely undeveloped in the museum.  Considering that the torture and death of student activist Park Jong-Chul, along with the sexual assault of another female activist in police custody, sparked off the 1987 protests that would eventually bring an end to over 40 years of military rule, prison life under the South Korean military dictatorship seems too important to be left unaddressed.

The prison’s origins in Japanese colonialism and the brutality of prison life under Japanese rule, including the physical and psychological torture inflicted on inmates, is under constant scrutiny in the museum and acts as a warning about the horrors of colonialism.  Yet, it doesn’t move beyond this.  If Soedaemun continued to function as a political prison following Japanese rule, how many other prisons in the network continued to function as political prisons in both North and South Korea following the Second World War?  This would give some insight into how political power and political violence continued to operate after Korean independence.  The museum also avoids the raw and difficult issue of the division of Korea between the North and South.  As one Korean guide conducting a Japanese language tour of the prison indicated, the museum doesn’t account for ideological divisions within the Korean independence movement.  It presents it as unified, and in this case, unified through South Korean patriotism.  Although the division of North and South Korea was largely the result of the territorial carve-up of the world by the USA and  USSR, they also exploited and reflected different visions of post-Japanese Korea.

Seodaemun Prison offers a valuable insight into Japanese colonialism and the tools of colonialism more generally, but its interpretative response seemed rooted in a simplistic and narrow nationalism.



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Playing Around with Plutonium

This post was originally written for the Nyx, A Noctournal site.  The original piece can be viewed here and includes the recording of a lecture delivered by Dr. Bo Jacobs from the Hiroshima City University Peace Institute.  


“Why on earth are we playing around with Plutonium?”, asked the poet Jotaro Wakamatsu.  He posed the question in Disappearances, a poem about his visit to the abandoned city of Pripyat which had been evacuated in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.  During his haunting account of walking Pripyat’s empty streets, he continually returned to the theme of Chernobyl being replicated elsewhere:

I wade through tall weeds,
In the playground of an abandoned nursery school,
Where radioactive particles take flight, no doubt,
and my lungs take some of them in
with the air I breath.  No doubt, we’ll see
more cities, more places made to disappear.
My hometown’s disappearance may come today.

He also imagined the Chernobyl exclusion zone being mapped on to his own home in northern Japan.  Wakamatsu is from Fukushima and the poem was written in 1994.  Some have labelled Wakamatsu’s poetry as prophetic, although they are well wide of the mark.  His poems, now collected in the book What Makes Us (2012), were attentive to the landscape and surroundings of Fukushima and its changing features following the installation of the Fukushima Daichii Nuclear Power Plant.  These ranged from abnormalities in plant life that only an inquisitive local might notice, to the detection of Cobalt 60 in an elementary school’s playing field and to Wakamatsu’s own body hair falling off unexpectedly in clumps.  His poem South Winds 2, penned in 2008, reads as a sort of dirge – listing the critical and major incidents at the Fukushima plant that were either covered up or left unreported until 2007.  In this respect, the crisis at the stricken Fukushima Daichii plant was not so unexpected.  Wakamatsu’s imagined mappings of the Chernobyl exclusion zone on Fukushima have now collapsed into the reality of a nuclear meltdown and mass evacuation.

Connections can also be made with the ongoing history of Hiroshima – the first city to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon.  August 6th marked the anniversary of the atomic bombing of the city and with nuclear energy now a live political issue in Japan, protests against the nuclear industry took place alongside protests in the city calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.  This year’s anniversary saw citizens march on the head offices of the Chugoku Electric Company in Hiroshima which has plans to build and re-commission nuclear power plants in the area.  If August 6th is rallying date for anti-nuclear protest, it also offers reflection on the horrors of the bombing of Hiroshima.  During the Peace Memorial Ceremony, held each year, the mayor of Hiroshima reads out a new ‘Peace Declaration’.  Following the tsunami of March 2011, these declarations have also raised concerns over nuclear energy policy in Japan and connected the experience of Hiroshima and the Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) to the current crisis in Fukushima.

For family reasons, I often visit Hiroshima and following the ceremonies and protests on August 6th this year, I attended a low-key event on the banks of the Ota river.  Here Buddhist priests lit incense and chanted in front of a make-shift altar.  Hibakusha related their experiences of the atomic bomb and young Fukushima refugees spoke of having to uproot from their homes and begin a new life in cities including Hiroshima.  The poet Wakamatsu was also in attendance.  His work was read aloud by Arthur Binard and Tarou Yamamoto.  Binard is an American Japanese-language poet and has translated Wakamatsu’s work into English, while Yamamoto is a young and well-known Japanese actor who has joined the weekly anti-nuclear protests outside the Prime Minister’s official residence in Tokyo.  He has since received criticism from within the entertainment industry over his activism.  Along the banks of the Ota river, listening to the stories of survivors, evacuees and the work of Wakamatsu read by Binard and Yamamoto, a sort of triad is formed: Hiroshima-Chernobyl-Fukushima.

But a holistic view extends well beyond this.  When Wakamatsu’s question, “Why on earth are we playing around with Plutonium?” is posed, we must not only consider wartime bombings and plant meltdowns, but also nuclear weapons testing, uranium mining, plutonium production and nuclear waste disposal.  Testing is indelibly linked to colonialism, taking place at national peripheries or colonial sites: the Bikini Atoll, the Algerian Sahara, Northern Australia and Kazakhstan to name a few.  So too is mining. If the term ‘Hibakusha’ can be extended beyond the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to anyone suffering from radiation, then among the first Hibakusha were the Hopi and Navajo people of Arizona and Nevada whose land and people have been used in uranium mining since 1942.  Likewise, both testing and mining have taken place on Indigenous land in Australia. (B. Wongar, 2006)  Staggering financial sums have been poured into the problem of nuclear waste disposal – blowing a hole in the argument that nuclear energy is somehow cheaper than other forms of energy production.  Onkalo, The Finnish government’s deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel, is estimated to cost over €800 million, while the UK government has set aside £72 Billion to decommission the Sellafield plant. (Observer, 2009)  When Wakamatsu’s question is asked, the reply necessitates a consideration of the entire nuclear process, from extraction to disposal, and the human and environmental costs that lie in between.

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Urbis, Two Years On

Distance brings a degree of objectivity and sobriety.  Urbis closed just over two years ago and with the replacement National Football Museum now opened, this seems as good a time as any to reflect.

Urbis belonged to a long list of Blair-era millennial projects.  These were cultural venues typically built with form over content, architectural style over inner substance and often forming the gild-edge of an urban regeneration project.  Most of these venues faced unstable futures and have either fundamentally changed their purpose of folded into obscurity.  The Millennium Dome is now the O2 Arena.  The National Centre for Popular Music is now the Sheffield Hallam University Student’s Union.  The Public struggled to ever open and the Earth Centre is an abandoned site.  The National Football Museum’s near bankruptcy in Preston led directly to Urbis’ own closure.  While it would be going too far to say that Urbis’ closure was inevitable, it certainly wasn’t unique.

A friend and former Urbis co-worker, Steve Hanson, recently mentioned that over the years Urbis acted as a sort of barometer for the UK’s political landscape.  It opened in 2002, during the height of New Labour and Tony Blair.  It’s first significant change – from being a set of permanent exhibitions as the ‘Museum of City Life’ to becoming a temporary exhibition space reflecting urban and popular culture – ran parallel with the premiership of Gordon Brown.  Its closure in 2010 coincided with the election of the conservative led Coalition and the new National Football Museum has opened with the same Coalition in a fragile state.  It’s closure, and the staggered sacking of its staff, also occurred during the greatest recession since the 1930s.  This is only a loose mapping, but it’s nonetheless interesting and provides an entry into Urbis’ wider backdrop.

If this background of failed millennial projects and recession-era closures casts a shadow, it’s not one that reflects my own experience of working there.  Without trying to romanticise the place, working at Urbis became a formative experience for me.  It was at once a learning curve and an opportunity to work in creative and necessarily experimental surroundings.  The shift from holding staid, permanent exhibitions to becoming a temporary space was a monumental undertaking as the original exhibits were part of the very fabric of the building.  It also meant the staff had to negotiate an ephemeral cultural space – somewhere between museum, art gallery, community centre and corporate venue, yet always none-of-the-above.   This shift also opened up the possibility for a wide ranging set of exhibitions.  Among my personal favourites were Sex, Seditionaries and the Sex Pistols, Arrivals and Departures: New Art Perspectives on Hong Kong, Reality Hack: Hidden Manchester and Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution. [1]  It was during this time that the Visitor Programmes team established Urbis City Tours.  Over the three years that the tours operated we had taken over 14,000 visitors around our exhibitions and the wider city, eventually receiving Enjoy England accreditation.  The tours were a chance to explore and experience local politics, history, geography and, perhaps importantly, it added an external facing element to the venue.  It was this sort of exteriority that helped make Urbis unique in some ways.

Urbis certainly wasn’t without criticism, but I was devastated by its closure.  Unfortunately, the closure became a drawn-out process with some bitter absurdities attached to it.  While the Museums Journal was declaring Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution to be a marker for future exhibitions, Manchester City Council was announcing Urbis’ closure in the local media.[2]  Added to this was the David Brent-esque performances of local councillors: “You’ll be losing your jobs, but the National Football Museum’s going to be great!”.

It’s testament to the staff and environment at Urbis that many of its projects continued on.  The Reclaim Project continues to mentor and work with disadvantaged teenagers across Manchester. [3]  The Urbis Research Forum relocated to the University of Manchester and continued to run seminars for a further year. [4]  The Language Sofa is still offering language lessons and the creative production company Curated Place can trace some of its lineage back to Urbis. [5,6]

I don’t like to hold grudges and think nostalgia can be poison, so I paid a visit to the National Football Museum shortly after it opened.  This isn’t the place to review it, nor do I ever intend to, but it is far improved from its days in Preston.  That said, it wasn’t without a certain sense of disappointment that I walked through the new museum.  It was like returning to a former family home, with new occupants, new walls and strange furniture.



[2]  ‘Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution, Urbis, Manchester’ (2009) Museums Journal, Issue 109/3, 44-47. March.






Filed under Art, Culture, Manchester, Urbis

Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution

This article originally appeared in OTB: The Tsukuba Multi-Lingual Forum, an annual publication from the University of Tsukuba’s Foreign Language Center. Online editions are available here: OTB Forum.

Please use the following for any citations:
Rainey, M. J. (2009). Emory Douglas and the art of revolution. OTB Forum, 2(1), 7-14.


Emory Douglas was the first and only Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. The party was founded in California in October 1966 and led by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Although famous for its militant stance, the Black Panther Party also ran a series of community programs including free breakfasts for school children. A counter-intelligence program led by the FBI resulted in the assassination, incarceration, and exile of party leaders, which further exacerbated growing divisions within the party. By 1980, one of the most significant left-wing parties in the USA was all but defunct.

Urbis is an exhibition center in Manchester, UK. Opened in 2002, it focuses on urban and popular culture as well as running community programs. The exhibition, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, ran from October, 2008 to April, 2009.

Introduction: Emory in Manchester

Mention of the Black Panther Party (BPP) often raises the image of angry young African Americans in military dress, complete with black berets, leather jackets, and guns in hand. [1] However, behind this image there is an important social context and political discourse. The artwork of Emory Douglas, the BPP’s Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture, provides a means to a deeper understanding of the BPP. The art of Emory Douglas is uncompromising. It is confrontational and often violent, yet at the same time celebratory, inspiring, and empowering. Essentially, his work provides a visual expression of the aims and ideology of the BPP and offers a wide insight into the African American civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The exhibition Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution, on display at Urbis, Manchester is the largest exhibition of Emory’s work to date and his first in the United Kingdom.[2] The exhibition not only presents Emory’s work from the mid-1960s to present, but also sets the social context behind the rise of the BPP, with the long shadow of slavery, segregation, and racist violence in the USA. Working at Urbis, I have had the opportunity to spend time in the exhibition and interview Emory Douglas for the Urbis website. Like myself, many visitors are encountering this lesser known side of American politics for the first time. It is the purpose of this article to present a wider encounter with the politics and practice of the BPP through the work of Emory Douglas and its display at Urbis, Manchester. I also hope to address the relevance of Emory’s artwork today.

While there is no immediate connection between the BPP and Manchester, the city does have a rich and radical political heritage. By the early 19th century Manchester had emerged as the centre of the manufacturing world. The city had embodied the essence of the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of factory production created horrific living and working conditions in the city. In 1842, a young Friedrich Engels arrived in the city from Germany in order to manage a factory owned by his father. Engels was shocked and appalled by what he saw and at the age of 24 published The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), which included a detailed account of the working slums in Manchester. [3] Engels contributed to the development of communist political theory, and his political brother and fellow German, Karl Marx, would visit him in Manchester during the 1840s.

Together they studied at the historic Chetham’s Library and hammered out their theories that would lead to the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. Engels and Marx advocated the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system in order to establish an egalitarian, socialist society. Although not the first working class movement to develop in Manchester, Marx and Engels’ socialist thought would become hugely influential, providing a backbone to the ideology of the BPP.

A direct political link with the USA occurred during the American Civil War (1861-65). Manchester’s textile based economy was dependent on raw cotton shipped in from the southern states of the USA. These states produced cotton through black slave labour and formed a breakaway Confederacy from the USA. Abraham Lincoln, then president of the USA, had the Union navy blockade the southern ports, preventing any cotton from leaving. Although this broke the Confederate economy, it also had a disastrous effect in Manchester as cotton supplies ran dry and factories began to close, leading to mass unemployment. The cotton workers held deep empathy with their slave counterparts, and despite their own hardship the cotton workers union openly declared its support for Abraham Lincoln in a meeting on New Year’s Eve, 1862. Earlier that year, president Lincoln had issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that committed the Union to ending slavery in Confederate states. Through this proclamation the abolition of slavery became a major war aim for the Union and led to Lincoln becoming a hero-figure in Manchester. The president wrote a letter to the city’s workers, thanking them for their support and a statue of the 16th president of the United States of America now stands in Lincoln Square, not far from Manchester Town Hall (Goodwin, 2002; Worthington, 2005).

The Politics and Practice of the Black Panther Party

Established in 1966, in the wake of the assassination of Malcolm X, the BPP had a complex set of political influences both from within the African American civil rights movement and from without. From its outset the Urbis exhibition gives the visitor insight into the political and social context of the BPP by confronting the visitor with accounts of the racist violence meted out on the black population in the first half of the twentieth century, including shocking images of the lynching of black men. The opening section of the exhibition also includes audio speeches and texts from key politicians and activists of the 1960s, including John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy—all of whom were assassinated in that turbulent decade.

Beyond the wider context, specific insight into the politics of the BPP is provided through recent portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. by Emory Douglas. Set side by side, the portraits represent two important, but divergent figures in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. is perhaps the most recognizable face of the African American campaign against racial segregation and inequality. Drawing from his own Christian beliefs and the model provided by Ghandi’s independence movement in India, Luther King based his campaign on the philosophy of non-violence, taking the moral high ground in the face of brutal racist attacks. His emphasis on peaceful protest is seen in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech where he stated, “Non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence” (Martin Luther King, 1964, ¶5). Directly opposed to this was the politics preached by Malcolm X, the black Muslim leader who advocated self-defense, claiming “I believe it’s a crime for anyone who is being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself” (1965/2001, p. 484). The politics of Malcolm X attracted many young African Americans disenchanted with the inability of non-violent protest to realize immediate change or even dampen racist violence. For the BPP there was a real need for self-defense, self-reliance and immediate change and the politics of Malcolm X provided this. The link became direct when the BPP initially formed as an armed security guard to escort Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, from the San Francisco airport in 1966. However, as Emory Douglas himself makes clear, it was the philosophy of the later Malcolm X that was influential, as he was willing to work with groups outside the cause of black nationalism. To Emory, “Malcolm was a person who, after breaking his relations with the Nation of Islam, would work with anybody who was working for freedom. It didn’t matter if they was atheist or Catholic. It didn’t make a difference” (as cited in Rainey, 2008). From the openness that Malcolm X advocated at the end of his life, the Black Panthers would themselves go on to work with a variety of political parties representing other American minority groups and predominantly white parties such as the Peace and Freedom Party.[4] The BPP also looked to international revolutionary groups for its inspiration. The Urbis exhibition emphasizes this internationalist outlook by abutting an Emory Douglas cover of the Black Panther newspaper featuring Chairman Mao’s image over BPP members holding his Little Red Book. This image is hung next to the portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Together these images show the BPP’s position within black politics and its commitment to international Marxism. This commitment was reciprocated by leftist groups around the world, including the Japan Committee in Support of the Black Panther.[5] Marxism was an important political discourse for the BPP, but unlike other Communist movements, it was never its sole ideology. According to Emory, “The party wasn’t stuck in the dogma of Marxism, it was just a guide to action. That was one of many points of view that we looked at” (as cited in Rainey, 2008). Marxism was essentially a tool for liberation, to be combined with and utilized alongside their struggle for black self-reliance. In 2007, the commentator, Greg Jung Morozumi, expressed the complex relationship between international Marxism and black nationalism within the party when he wrote, “It is true that the Black Panther Party was internationalist and that ‘All Power to the People’ subsumed chants of ‘Black Power’”, but “there could be no multinational united front without simultaneous black unity” (p.130).

Beyond Marxism and Malcolm X, a close read of the party’s Ten Point Platform (1966/2001, see Cleaver & Katsiaficas, p.285) reveals the key influence of the Constitution of the United States of America on the party’s ideology, an influence left untouched and unrecognized by many commentators. The Constitution is fundamental to the freedoms granted to Americans and the BPP raised awareness of these freedoms to African Americans. In particular, the BPP emphasized the right to bear arms and the right to a fair trial by jury selected from one’s peers. “You had people naïve of the fact that they had these rights,” claimed Emory, and “it was based on these principles that the Black Panther Party began to show people that they had the right to bear arms and what have you” (as cited in Rainey, 2008).

When considering the combined roles of the philosophy of Malcolm X, Marxism and the American Constitution on the politics of the BPP, a diverse mosaic of political influences emerges. Each of these ideologies and texts was a resource for the BPP and each became a guide for black liberation, testament to the party’s ability to bring together and adapt a variety of political viewpoints to achieve its ends.

The political practices of the BPP had to adapt to changes on the ground. The party initially gained fame through its call for ‘Community Control of Police’, with party members following police patrols through the ghetto, often leading to violent confrontation. The Mulford Act of 1967, passed by the California state legislature, banned the display of loaded weapons within the state and was seen as a direct response to the actions of the BPP. As the party leadership wanted to work within the law, the BPP shifted its focus from militant self-defense to establishing socialist community programs.[6] These Survival Programs provided the ghetto community with free health clinics, clothing and food distribution, and a program of free breakfasts for school children. These Survival Programs also attracted broad support outside the black community and would pose a serious threat to the authority of the government as, according to Emory, “Here you have us exposing to the American People what the government wasn’t doing and what it should have been doing” (as cited in Rainey, 2008).

The attraction of the BPP’s politics and practice was bound to the everyday experience of many African Americans in the 1960s. With the exhibition at Urbis being viewed primarily by a British audience, I asked Emory how he would introduce the BPP to a new audience. Rather than provide a detailed ideology, Emory immediately turned to his own experiences that led to him joining the party:

As a youngster growing up I was exposed to a lot of injustice like many other people. […] On a local level, you had all across the country police brutality with young blacks being shot, murdered and being justified. […] Then you could turn on the international news from time to time and see the same things happening in South Africa (as cited in Rainey, 2008).

It was experiences such as these that led people to join the party and provided the impetus for the BPP’s political program. Emory’s artwork, while reflecting the party’s ideology, created a visual image that deeply resonated with the everyday experiences of African Americans.

The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas

The art of Emory Douglas is defiant and unflinching while being simple and direct. However, in this simplicity is the ability to communicate a potent political message to a wide audience. Emory Douglas (1968) defines Revolutionary Art as being art “for the whole community and its total problems” (¶1). As art for the whole community, it can be understood by the broad spectrum of African Americans, reflecting their anger and aspirations:

From the Christian to the brother on the block, the college student and the high school drop out, the street walker and the secretary, the pimp and the preacher, the domestic and the gangster: all elements of the ghetto can understand Revolutionary Art (Douglas, 1968, ¶4)

While Emory’s account of “community” was embedded in the predominantly African American ghettos of the USA, it also extended to other oppressed groups both nationally and internationally. During 1969 the Black Panther was published together with Basta Ya! a Latin American newspaper, and his artwork often asserted solidarity between oppressed peoples throughout the world (see Durrant, pp. 135, 170).

Although art for the community, Emory’s work also echoed the political aims and objectives of the BPP. His work gave a political direction and visual solidity to the problems that African Americans faced living in the urban ghetto. For Emory (1968), his art offered the “correct picture” (para.1) of the struggle. However, behind this unequivocal language and distinct political agenda is a dynamic relationship between the Revolutionary Artist and his audience. The problems of the community influenced the art, and the art responded with a political definition to these problems, or as Emory (1968) stated, “Revolutionary Art can thereby progress as the People progress because the People are the backbone to the Artist and not the Artist to the People” (¶3). As there was no set definition or precedent for the Revolutionary Artist within the BPP, Emory was able to develop this dynamic relationship with the community as he grew into the role. Emory stated, “I was able to define my role by broadly being around and beginning to learn the politics” (as cited in Rainey, 2008).

It was through the party newspaper, The Black Panther, that Emory was able to present his work to a wide audience. At its height the paper was distributing 400,000 copies a week (Seale, 2007, p. 14). Overseeing the design of the paper, Emory utilized the front and back covers to create widely distributed, high impact images. The centerfold spread became a pull-out poster that could be pasted on the walls of the city. Revolutionary Art is art that could be seen and displayed within the community and, for the Revolutionary Artist, “the ghetto itself is the gallery” (Emory, 1968, ¶5).

The posters and cover images were often a collage of drawings and recycled and reused photographs. Emory also made use of heavy black lines that made the central figures stand out and simultaneously referenced traditional African art, connected to communist propaganda and provided a means of covering over any color overlap in the production process. Central to his work were the figures he developed, taking the anger, frustrations and hopes of the community and translating them into careful caricatures that would define a movement. As Bobby Seale (2007) wrote, “Explain to Emory your issue or problem, and before you know it, Emory has a caricature of it” (p. 13). The two most significant and recurring figures were that of the pig and the ghetto dweller with the former being the most famous and influential of Emory’s creations. Through the pig caricature, Emory was able to depict the oppressor as a slovenly and stinking policeman (see Figure 1). The pig caricature of an uninformed, uniformed, racist, and brutal official was uncompromising and deliberately confrontational, yet it astutely tapped into the anger felt by those living in the ghetto. Through this representation Emory was able to give a clear depiction of who the oppressor was. Through it, he was also able to communicate the broader aspects of BPP ideology and as his work developed, Emory not only depicted racist policemen as pigs, but also soldiers, corrupt politicians, and even entire nation states.[7] Through the pig, the problems of the ghetto were connected to wider international issues and the American government’s treatment of the black population were viewed in direct relation to America’s overseas wars, particularly in Vietnam. These wider issues would appear in the slogans that accompanied the pig caricature. For example, in the poster January 3, 1970 the text reads “U.S. Imperialism. Get out of the Ghetto. Get out of Latin America. Get out of Asia. Get out of Africa” (Durrant, 2007, p. 34). Establishing a link between the statutory racism of the American government and its war in Vietnam was of particular importance to the BPP and the issue of conscription occupied point 6 of the Party Platform, which stated ‘We want all black men to be exempt from military service. […] We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like black people, are being victimized by the white racist government of America” (Cleaver & Katsiaficas, p. 285). The BPP viewed conscription as a further example of governmental oppression. Young black men, particularly those not in full-time education, were among those being drafted into fighting the war in Indochina. Drawing from the Party Platform and the bitter experience of conscription in the ghetto community, Emory introduced slogans such as “Our Fight is Not Vietnam” into his work and began to equate black soldiers with prisoners under the slogan “Free the GIs” (Durrant, 2007, p. 135).

Placed in opposition to the pig oppressor was the representation of the poor men and women of the ghetto. After the pig image of the oppressor had been established, the ghetto dweller became central to Emory’s work. The everyday person became the hero and was transformed into a dedicated and focused revolutionary, making a headstrong stand for their rights (see Figure 2). These representations were set in context within the cracked walls and crumbling homes of the ghetto and often in violent confrontation with the pig policemen. Accompanied by unequivocal, high impact slogans such as “Death to the Fascist Pigs” and “In Revolution One Wins or One Dies”, the previously neglected poor took center stage (Durrant, 2007, pp. 66, 82). Not only were they being represented, but they were also being empowered. According to Colette Gaiter (2007), Emory’s work “maintained his subject’s dignity while illustrating the harsh reality for the disenfranchised of the ghetto” (p. 101). The thick black outlines of the figures helped accentuate the heroism of the everyday person and Emory also made use of radiating lines leading from the figures, creating a sense of beatification on par with a religious icon (see Figure 3).

Emory viewed the development of his work in stages for “the work changed as the party changed” (cited in St. Clair Bourne, 2007, p.201). As the party shifted its focus to the Survival Programs, “the art began to reflect those survival programs” (Emory, cited in St. Clair Bourne, 2007, p. 202). Militant slogans were replaced by ones celebrating the social work of the party such as “We Black People ain’t beggin’ no more” and “We Shall Survive, Without a Doubt” (Durrant, 2007, p. 153 see Figure 3 ). Rather than being a militant, the everyday ghetto dweller was now depicted in support of the Survival Programs. A badge declaring “People’s Free Health Clinics Now!” replaced the gun (Durrant, 2007, p. 154). Coupled with this shift towards the Survival Programs was a turn towards the pressing concerns of the party including election campaigns and protest campaigns against the imprisonment of party members. Emory (1969/2007) depicted ordinary people demanding the freedom of Huey Newton, incarcerated on murder charges in the autumn of 1967 which were subsequently dropped, and wearing the images of assassinated party members on their badges (Durrant, p. 42).

The Urbis exhibition attempts to emphasise the different trajectories of the work of Emory Douglas. His work on the Survival Programs, as well as his international influences and posters relating to specific protest campaigns are each given their own space, providing a balanced view of his artistic output and moving beyond the more famous militant images. Colette Gaiter (2007) remarked that, “few people are aware of the hundreds of drawings of ordinary Black people that Douglas published” (p. 107), and the exhibition certainly raises an awareness of the importance of the everyday men and women in his work.

The exhibition also makes his work contemporary and relevant, displaying Emory’s most recent work dealing with issues such as gang violence and AIDS, as well as offering visitors the opportunity to respond with their own creations. By a grand coincidence, the exhibition coincided with the historic election of Barack Obama, the USA’s first African American president. This heightened the importance of the exhibition of Emory’s work as it provided an important opportunity to review the struggles of African-Americans over the past century, in view of contemporary events. As much as visitors depict Barack Obama and write about his election in their response to the exhibition, Emory holds a tempered view of the new American President. His most recent work, as yet unpublished, depicts Obama in front of the American flag stating ‘I Barack Obama the 44th President of the United States of America Apologize for Slavery’ (personal communication, January 25, 2009). The piece is a harshly direct critique of Obama’s election, stating that even with an African American President, the office of the president still has to come to terms with the racism and oppression of its past.

Also important to the exhibition is the display of art produced out of workshops led by Emory during his time in Manchester. In the summer of 2008, when Emory made his first visit to the city, he led a workshop as part of Urbis’ Reclaim Project.[8] The Reclaim Project aims to mentor young adults from areas of the city that are known for their gang violence, such as Moss Side and Gorton. These young adults are mentored by older role models and take part in a series of activities at Urbis. Emory’s workshop gave the opportunity for those in the project to express their positive achievements and focus on ways to better their community. Importantly, it was Emory himself, as much as his artwork, who inspired the teenagers.


A review of the art of Emory Douglas, and its display at Urbis, Manchester, offer a powerful visual insight into the politics of the BPP and the wider struggle of the African American Civil Rights movement. For those new to this aspect of American culture, and in particular to the BPP, Emory’s work is invaluable. However, its true importance lies beyond acting as historic pieces. In Emory’s work, Revolutionary Art emerges as a distinct practice seeking “change and overcoming obstacles” (Emory, as cited in Rainey, 2008).

It is art born in the community and art reflecting the community. It is not art seeking beauty, or art for consumption, but is able to inspire and empower. 40 years after the heyday of the BPP and in the UK, Emory’s work retains this ability in a cross-cultural context.


[1] Popular films such as Forrest Gump have been central to the formation of this image.

[2] I will often refer to Emory Douglas using his first name. This is because it is the sole name he uses to sign his work and also because of the friendliness and openness of Emory himself. All quotations from interviews with Emory are quoted directly in the vernacular.

[3] For Engels’ description of Manchester see the chapter ‘The Great Towns’ and in particular pp. 85- 109.

[4] For further information see Kathleen Cleaver (2001), Women, power and revolution (p. 125).

[5] Michael L. Clemons and Charles E. Jones (2001) stated that the Japan Committee included a variety of different leftist groups in the country: “The Japan Committee in support of the Black Panther included four Japanese leftist organizations; the International Revolutionist League, the South Osaka Liberation Front, the Young Chinese Organization, and the Isolated Island. Panther Support Committees were critical linchpins in the party’s international approach to combating political repression” (p. 35).

[6] In an interview with St. Claire Bourne (2007), Emory stated, “When the gun laws began to change, we began to change. So Huey and Bobby said that we were going to work within the law” (p. 202).

[7] See ‘March 21, 1970’, ‘April 11, 1970’, ‘September 28, 1968’ and ‘January 3, 1970’ in Durrant, 2007 (pp. 32-34).

[8] For more information see

References Cited

Cleaver, K., & Katsiaficas, G., (Eds.). (2001). Liberation, imagination and the black panther party. London: Routledge.

Clemons, M. L., & Jones, C. E. (2001). Global solidarity. In Cleaver & Katsiaficas, pp. 20-39.

Douglas, E. (1968). Position paper #1 on revolutionary art. Retrieved February 5, 2009, from Emory_Art

Durant, S. (Ed.). (2007) Black panther: the revolutionary art of Emory Douglas. New York: Rizzoli.

Engels, F. (2005) The condition of the working class in England (V. Kiernan, Ed.). London: Penguin. (Original work published 1848)

Gaiter, C. (2007) This is what the revolution looks like. In Durant, pp. 93-128.

Goodwin, R. (2002). The Manchester pilgrimage. Buxton, UK: Church in the Market Place.

King, M. L., Jr. (1964). Nobel peace prize acceptance speech. Retrieved February 4, 2009, from nobel/peace/MLK-nobel.html

Malcolm X. (2001). The biography of Malcolm X. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1965)

Morozumi, G. J. (2007). Emory Douglas and the third world cultural revolution. In Durant, pp. 129-168.

Rainey, Mark. (2008). Interview with Emory Douglas. Retrieved February 4, 2009, from

St. Clair Bourne. (2007). An artist for the people: An interview with Emory Douglas. In Durant, pp. 199-205.

Worthington, B. (2005). Discovering Manchester. Cheshire: Sigma Leisure.

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