Homage to the Panthers
Made in an edition of 100 for the Dr. Huey Newton Foundation, Elizabeth Catlett’s linocut, Homage to the Panthers, honors and memorializes the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, established in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California. This work was created after the party was under attack by the United States government, specifically the FBI, whose director J. Edgar Hoover said in 1969 that the organization “represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” The work emerged from Catlett’s reaction to a perceived fear of “subversive” and armed African-Americans. The print features rectangles and a singular oval colored orange, black, and white, all of which feature people and images with connections to the Panthers. At the base of the print is an oblong orange rectangle holding a black machine gun, the symbol of the Panthers abused by the mainstream media to proliferate the false stereotype that the group only advocated violence. This stereotype negated the positive deeds the Panthers did for the community, such as their Free Breakfast Program for underserved children. The center of the composition features the largest and only black rectangle, a depiction of the leaders of the party, Huey Newton, Minister of Defense, and Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information. Ironically, the faces of the leaders are literally fading into the black background, perhaps partly reflecting the way the party began to disintegrate due to the disagreements between the two men during the late 1960s and their respective arrests, which eventually led to Cleaver’s exile in Algeria.
The uppermost half of the print features four smaller images, including two raised black fists. This was the most widely proliferated symbol of the Black Power Movement and the organization. It was also important to Catlett’s life in Mexico and the United States, as she was denied her US citizenship and right to a visa in 1961 because of her political activities. In 1946, Catlett travelled to Mexico and worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a workshop that produced art advocating for labor unions and opposing tyranny. Taller was one of the first print shops to use the raised fist to highlight labor movements. Next to this symbol is a group of men dressed in the uniform of the Panthers. Above this is a group of women in an orange egg-like shape. Women were essential to the party’s operation but were often overlooked in the retelling of its history. The oval shape in contrast with the other angular, geometric shapes connotes motherhood, thus the center of the organization, which is pertinent to Catlett’s practice of bringing dignity to black women, especially workers, as in her prints Sharecropper (1952) and In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom (1946) from the I am the Negro Woman series, also part of the Davis’ Collection.
Imani Higginson ’14
Curatorial Intern, Summer 2013