Interview with Caleb Duarte and Emory Douglas

Angela Marino | University of California, Berkeley

EDELO and the origins of Zapantera Negra

Caleb Duarte: Well, I’ve been working with different Zapatista communities since 2008. We started an arts center out there that’s called Where the United Nations Used to Be. It’s an actual building where the UN used to be until they got displaced by an autonomous indigenous community that occupied it for three months, and so the UN decided to move to a different place. And so the building remained empty. And at that point my partner and I were looking for a space to really engage art and social change—if you want to call it that—and we found the space! So we really started to look at art existing in popular culture, within the need to manifest, to express, to be visible in the public realm, outside of the capitalistic and commercial worlds that we know art exists within. And so we really felt the Zapatistas were doing this. And so we consider Zapatismo one of the most important art movements of our time, because of the use of their body, the use of poetry, the use of embroidery, the use of painting, of muralism….Just the way they communicate about their movement is very mystical, without romanticizing the realities behind the suffering that’s happened since way before ’94. And so for us, it was like a complete art movement outside of the definitions of the art world or institutionalized ways of looking at the expression of the people.

So, after three years of working with some of the painters and some of the artists and travelers and what you would call political tourists, academic tourists (you would get influences from Europe and South America), we started looking at the Black Panthers and what they were able to do within their time, through the introduction of Rigo, an artist who had a project out there in Chiapas for six months as a resident. Rigo worked with Emory before, and he worked with different political prisoners. And he introduced us. And I think what we were really looking at is the time difference between what the Black Panthers were able to do and what the Zapatistas were doing. The Black Panthers kind of separated in the early ‘80s—‘84, ‘83—and that’s precisely when Zapatistas were getting together out in the jungles. For ten years they organized, without the world knowing of their existence. So there’s a generational gap that’s not really there. And that if we think 30 or 40 years ago, compared to the history of social struggle, it’s not really much of a difference. But somehow our educational system convinces us otherwise, that 40 years ago if an African American cannot read a book in the same space as a white man, then we start really thinking about the realities, the significance of these social movements. And so we really started looking at Emory’s specific work.

But when you look at the way the Black Panthers were organizing, I mean they were extremely progressive in a lot of ways. And so I think it was a strategy to present the Black Panther movement as very determined, where violence was right on the cusp of self-determination. But in reality, that was just a visual, physical statement, where they would come out dressed in a certain way. And that, for me, is performance art, without necessarily having the artists saying, “Okay, we’re going to do a performance piece!” No, because the body is manifesting itself, the natural need for society to express itself and to rise above the systems that otherwise oppress our own natural need to say something, to sing, to dance. And that’s what the Black Panthers were doing, and that’s what Zapatistas are doing. And I was like, “Wow, we have to connect these two visually somehow, and invite Emory Douglas to come out and, you know, show what the body did and what the body can do: as theatre, as parade, as performance, as visual communication.

And then what the army does, what the state does. The army has it’s own form of using art, with their uniforms and their marching, and they have their own power to it. So using the Zapatistas with hand-carved guns and the masks, the covered faces, and the beautiful embroidery work that they wear… that—in contrast what the military does, what the state does to us—was just like a beautiful thing to celebrate, about the human potential to rise above the state. And so the Black Panthers did that, and they proved that. And, yeah, that’s where the initial connection came in.

“How to rise a popular voice through art”

CD: Definitely! I mean, we have two movements that are very distinct: one happens in the rural areas, in coffee plants, folks that have been isolated for a very long time—because Chiapas is a very isolated state, because of its terrain, its jungles, its mountains—and so a lot of the movement was made, created in isolation to the whole globalized world. And the Black Panthers were right in the crush of urban development and decay, completely different landscapes. But the tools they had around them to be able to manifest this, were similar, I think: how to rise a popular voice through art. You know? I think that’s what the question- I don’t know how conscious it was about it, I think the people manifest themselves—like when we go to the flea market, when we go to the mercado in Chiapas. It’s like Emory was saying, there’s art everywhere, from the low-riders, to the hotrods, to even the Superbowl Halftime Show.  You know, you have Beyonce with her legs (talking about fertility and masculinity!) and there’s art everywhere, just being [noise: shh-shh-shh-shh]. Everything’s theatre! And so when it’s turned into a tool for the people to really manifest themselves, then I’m like, “wow!” Totally inspired. Outside of the commercial world, you know?

Energizing other political movements

CD: Well, I think the work speaks for itself. I think it’s doing what it’s doing. You know, you have this whole pink tide in Latin America, and the Left kind of becoming more realistic. And then you have the Zapatistas not wanting to follow the same patterns of Marxism and socialism. They’re not even declaring to be anti-capitalist. They’re just like: “let us create our autonomy based on our relationship to the land. And let us figure this out. We don’t know what we’re doing, we’re marching forward, but we know there’s something here,” you know? And, yeah, it’s doing that work. I think that as artists and cultural promoters, we’re just trying to facilitate certain kinds of bridges, I think. We’re not really creating at this point.

Expanding the work of the Black Panthers

CD: Well, I think just with Emory’s visit—he visited us twice, and he gave an amazing presentation at the University of the Earth in Chiapas (he got invited by Dr. Reimundo, to come back and present and share what the Black Panthers were able to do) and that in itself, alongside la Mapuche from Chile, different struggles in Argentina, different groups from all over the world presenting their struggles—you can see art within the mix of all of those presentations. It wasn’t an art presentation, but it was very visible, the role that art plays, either through alternative media, and poetry, and music. So that in itself, I think, is already creating tremendous alliances. Just hearing of Emory coming back from New Zealand, and the Panthers out there? It’s extremely inspiring. Outside the art world, the institutionalization of expression and art production. This is like where it’s really alive, you know?

Inspiration behind Zapantera Negra

Emory Douglas: Well initially I was invited by Caleb and EDELO Art Center which started several years back, not knowing what the project would be at that time. But finding later that it was going to be- when the fundraiser began, to see that it was going to be an exhibit that was a reflection of the art that I did, reinterpreted by Zapatista spirit. And so I was glad to be a part of that. I was knowing a little about the Zapatistas and their struggle for self-determination in land rights, which were basic things that we in the Black Panther Party talked about in our Ten Point Plan, Platform and Program. And so that corresponded and struck a chord with me, inspired to be a part of the whole ideal of the encounter of Zapatista- Black Panther.

Connection between the Zapatistas and the Black Panthers

ED: Basically, at the core is self-determination: to define their destiny for themselves. So that was some of the same things that we had talked about in the Black Panther Party. And so it was through the arts itself that we were able to capture the attention and reflect the politics reflected in the art of what we were about. And when I saw some of the images that had been put together, it was reflected in the artwork itself.

Self Determination

ED: You go back to the spirit of self-determination, the spirit of self-reliance. For them the land, land rights, all of those things you see connected to, interconnection of everything on the planet. All those things you see in the artwork itself.

Symbols and Historical Links

ED: It did express it, but it was a foreign language to me. So it was more the aesthetics that gravitated me to the feeling of knowing that it had a more deeper meaning, when I see the snail—in regards to what the meaning of the snail was at the time—and the corn and getting more insight to what the representation of the corn meant to the Zapatistas. You know, people of the land rising up from the dirt. Those things. Patience, with the snail, and the cycle of ongoing spiraling. The universal cycle that you see in the snail.

Well, in a sense. Also there was a historical link, because the Zapatistas become from Zapata, Emiliano Zapata. And we all had images on the front of our paper of Zapata, back in the day. Several images. So we knew that history. So there also was a link, as well.

I am We

ED: Well I Am We was a statement that the Black Panther Party used to use. And so it was out of wanting to show the link between the Black Panther Party and the Zapatista as one in spirit. I presented several possibilities, and the one that was chosen was I Am We, because that was one that was written in a book of poetry that I think Huey Newton back in the day had mentioned, he said I Am We. And so it struck a chord with everyone, and thought it was good to use it as the poster and the banner to symbolize the link with the snail and the panther below the banner itself.

The snail symbolizes the Zapatista spirit of patience, I guess. Going inside of oneself and coming out and moving at a slow pace, and being connected to the universe and everything in the universe. In regards, that’s what the snail represents. So that was just the spirit of self-determination, more than it was the interpretation of the meaning of the symbols that they had within the context of their ongoing journey in understanding of the universe and life itself, as it related to the Black Panther Party and the experiences and the journey that it came out of historically in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Visual Mythologies

ED: Well, this story’s telling that there is seen within the images in the artwork that was embroidered, a connection, a link that could be transcended in the interpretation of the art itself. And so it was that link there, in regards to the interpretation of something that had been created at a certain time for a movement on the other side of hundreds of miles, thousands of miles away. That 40 year later, someone sees, who is also struggling for self determination, and they can see in the artwork how to interpret and extract a meaning for themselves that links, that makes I Am We a real vibration that comes together between both entities who are separated. Who know very little about the other—maybe except in a scholarly way, through research, or people who had heard of it, or people that left and came back and knew of the history—but in a real basic way, there was no links or connections. I think in that context, it becomes meaningful.

Unity. Unity, unity that transcends borders and becomes universal.

Well it’s still about enlightening, being informing. But also being- having some aesthetics to it, in the context of the design elements in it, and in the colors and all those things, to make it attractive to want to look at. And get the message, once you’re attracted to the aesthetics of it. As opposed to just something that’s harsh-looking and defiant without any beauty in it, you know? Any colorful richness to it.

Current Art Production

ED: Oh yeah, the changes for me is that I’ve been able to travel and see and communicate with artists in other parts of the world. And to understand that you have to be patient and you have to understand that what’s relevant for where you’re from might not be relevant for where you’ve been. So you have to be able to understand that in relationship to being patient, and not trying to force what you do on somebody else. But if they appreciate what you do, then they’ll acknowledge and let you know that as well. Also, in murals and paintings, I’ve always come to like to have people work with me, and many hands when I’m doing murals if I can, with others. Work with young people to interpret the artwork. Which has also been done in Harlem at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, where young people did a mural in Harlem that’s still there, of the artwork—of my images—remixed and reinterpreted. It’ll be there for about five years (been there for close to three years now). And so being able to talk with young people and to give them some insight that they can perhaps be inspired by. Those things, yeah.

Transcription by April Sizemore-Barber

Ángela Marino, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. Her research focuses on fiesta and carnival, and U.S. Latin/o American performance, plays, and politics. She is co-editor of Festive Devils in the Americas in Richard Schechner’s Enactments Series (Seagull Press, forthcoming), and is currently writing a book on populism and performance in Venezuela.