Black Light Panthers: The Politics of Fluorescence

Pandora Productions, Mr. Experience (1967), screenprint, 24 x 36 inches. Image courtesy the Houston Freeburg Poster Collection.

Pandora Productions, Mr. Experience (1967), screenprint, 24 x 36 inches. Image courtesy the Houston Freeburg Poster Collection.

Between 1967 and 1969 Faith Ringgold painted a number of vibrant geometric portraits she dubbed the “Black Light Series.” Searching for a visual language to express the adamant spirit “black is beautiful,” she eliminated white from her palette and adopted non-European motifs. “Black light,” her term for this new mode, expressed “subtle color nuances and compositions based on my interest in African rhythm, pattern, and repetition.”1 For Americans at the time, however, “black light” suggested something quite different: the trippy, ultraviolet fluorescence of psychedelic rock posters awash in bold, saturated colors. Apart from appearing in the same era, the two uses of the term might seem to have little in common, but a look back at commercial poster design of the time reveals a fascinating middle ground—a spate of fluorescent poster designs in the late ’60s and early ’70s that merge fantasy, hedonism, and an implied revolutionary spirit and African nationalism.

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  1. Quoted in Janet Berry Hess, The Art of Richard Mayhew: A Critical Analysis with Interviews (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014), 51. []