Protest art has been practiced throughout history, especially serving the anti-war movement in the mid-20th century. Today, art has become a powerful and international language to speak against all forms of human rights violations, along with other activism. For example, during the Arab Spring, the arts were used to make anti-authoritarian statements. The photographer and graphic designer, Nermine Hammam, captures the fundamental frailty of rule by force in the global community in her exhibition Cairo Year One by combining the realities of the conflict with a surreal and idealistic background. Tunisian folk-rock singer Emel Mathlouthi and rapper El General used music to rail against the state brutality and the suffering of Egypt’s youth and working class, which attracted considerable attention from protestors and transformed into a powerful protest song. The protest art of the Arab Spring has since joined a broader dialogue between protest art of the past and present, in mediums as diverse as books, film, performance art, and multimedia.
The power that art has when used effectively in protest is what carries an idea to the masses. Art can be used in a myriad of ways and taught to future generations to learn and demonstrate. Methods can be reused and critiqued to help fit in other movements and protests. In this conversation summary, we review what our compiled panel has to say about today’s use of art in protest. They describe their own experiences, examples and many areas of meaning in different art.
Protest Art in Past and Current Human Rights Movements
In the first set of questions, respondents were asked about the scope of protest art and its impact. Further questions focused on how successful protest can be and what makes it successful.
Mike Klein, an assistant professor in the Department of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas, begins the conversation by noting that puppets have become a recurring form of protest art. He uses the Schools of America (SOA) Watch as an example, Klein describes their puppetry as vivid in color, portraying “myths, and hegemonic images”. They focus on “forces of oppression” as well as symbols of freedom. These puppets take on the form of “people, animals and goddesses” used to depict the story of protest they tell.
Another respondent, Stephen Duncombe, a Professor of Media and Culture at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at the Steinhardt School of New York University, raises his concerns of puppetry becoming too much of a common of a protest method. Due to this, it is no longer surprising to the audience and wouldn’t be as effective when trying to leave an impact. Annie Sloman, an international development, and community cultural development practitioner points to the versatility of puppets, particularly in select areas where human rights aren’t guaranteed. Puppets in artistic protest can provide “anonymity” to protesters where freedom of speech is not a right held for them. Sloman also mentions how puppets are easier for individuals to understand, for areas that may not have a high literacy rate, signs do not convey a message the way puppets can. Puppets further allow for more participation by those choose to protest. This is important when trying to include protesters in the process of advocating for change
The conversation is continued by Duncombe where he mentions one his favorite protests are “critical mass bike rides” since it includes the component of participation amongst all. Duncombe also poses the question if artistic protest “works politically?” Duncombe points out that artistic protest has been in most cases about “injustice” and “the struggle for justice”. For galleries that display these artful forms of injustices and protest, it can make “tragedy something to be seen, observed, and worse: appreciated”. The mission to raise awareness of problems and create change can become less emotionally invoking to audiences
Sloman asks how individuals can know the successfulness of their protest, or what aims/outcomes should be reached to define its success. Jessie Boylan, a photo-media artist based in Castlemaine, Victoria, weighed in by citing a 10,000 person march when a photographer, Peter Dombrovskis, printed a photo of Rock Island Bend, onto a full page in the newspaper to prevent the construction of the dam. The photo read “Could you vote for a party that would destroy this?”, just before the 1983 elections. Ultimately, “this led to an end of hydroelectric dam building in Australia”. Boylan concludes by stating when there are clear goals, such as “advocacy and campaign intentions”, it is much easier to determine how successful a protest was.
Linda Friedman Schmidt, a self-taught artist, raises the question of obstacles faced for creating protest art. She specifically mentions the censorship of art due to the offensiveness it may have to culture, religion, and countries. She cites the example of Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses", which has sent him into hiding and has led to contributors of the book being murdered. She goes on to state that artists censor themselves to protect against being “killed, attacked, imprisoned, threatened, or sued”. She asked other respondents if they’ve felt the need to censor their work due to fear of backlash.
Duncombe concludes this section by mentioning the difference between affect and effect of art. He differentiates between activism and art within the realm of protest. He simply states that activism when protesting or organizing creates the effect, while art used for activism creates the effect (ion).
What Does Protest Art Look Like?
In the second round of questions, respondents were asked to examples of known artistic protests and their adaptability to new movements as they come along. Duncombe begins this section by referencing Rosa Parks planned refusal of her seat on a segregated bus which sparked the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Duncombe looks at civil disobedience as a type of protest art. Others ask if it’s simply “defiance” rather than artistic protest. DeLaure explains how such form of civil disobedience is an act of artistic protests because of people would “rehearse in advance, through training and role-playing exercises” in order to remain nonviolent in the face of assault. Duncombe provides examples of rehearsed sit-in protests published in TIME magazine.
Schmidt continues the conversation by mentioning material and the process used in artistic protests. Her own medium is comprised of discarded clothing. By making the “Invisible visible” by pairing opposite meanings together (revealing pain through clothing meant to conceal), Schmidt demonstrates suffering and oppression through her art to bring light to those who are overlooked.
DeLaure is reminded of art portraits completely made out of legos of “dissidents and political prisoners around the world”. Again Schmidt emphasizes the meaningfulness of material used in the art, by explaining the use of clothing in her own pieces, “Due to their intimate associations with the body, articles of clothing function as powerful metaphors for the human condition...These textiles carry the stories of those society overlooks: women, children, black people, old people, immigrants, refugees, the disappeared, the displaced”.
Ann Lewis, who’s a well-known activist artist, brings up the recent Women’s March on Washington to highlight the use of protest art. She asks other respondents if they were at all inspired by the cleverness and creativity many protesters had shown during the march. Leslie Lumeh inquires about fashion as protests, specifically the iconic pussy hats that made their debut during the women’s march. DeLaure states that the pussy hat did five, very significant things that made it such a powerful protest statement within fashion (and art).
1. They were a visual meme that reclaimed a sexist, offensive
term uttered by DJT, turning it into an empowering oppositional
statement; 2. They gave aesthetic unity to vast numbers of people; 3.
They enabled sewers and knitters unable to march in DC to participate
and support the protest via their craft; 4. They facilitated an immediate
solidarity among marchers.. 5. They remain as visible, wearable
traces after the day of the marches, that continue to evoke their spirit.
Lewis then mentions the “light-heartedness” that hat gave the movement. She mentions how it made her feel included within the movement creating the feeling of“unity” DeLaure had mentioned.
Duncombe gives another example of fashion for protest, by examining the 1913 Women’s Suffrage parade, where women protesters would dress in all white dresses. Fifty years later during the second wave of feminism, women “threw garments (bras, girdles, etc)... into a “freedom trash can”. Other examples such as when Lebanese women protested laws allowing rapists to marry victims by wearing wedding dresses with “blood” on them, or when thousands of dresses, pants, and skirts were displayed in an exhibit to demonstrate the horrific rapes and sexual assaults of the Kosovo war.
Boylan furthers the conversation by asking of the effectiveness of protest art within galleries rather than public to the “masses”? Boylan makes the point that not every ordinary person is spending time in a gallery, nor does a majority have time to do so. Duncombe follows up with two questions, “who are we trying to impact? And are they in the gallery?”. He concludes that protests are in galleries aren’t as effective as those who attend them tend to be “cultural elite.” But they may have the power “to open the eyes” of persons who have connections to higher institutes.
As this section begins to come to a close, DeLaure makes the connection of sound and protest, giving the examples “We Shall Overcome” which has been changed and used many areas of protests. She mentions that songs are emotionally evoking and calming. It creates “physical and participatory” unity amongst protesters. It has the power to reach broad audiences and is malleable to different contexts.
Interaction Between Protest Art and Communities
In the third round of questions asked the panel to discuss how to best engage, youth, NGOs and human right defenders amongst protest art. Sloman begins the discussion by referencing support of community protest. She uses the example of Taring Padi, which was an “Indonesian reformation movement that brought down long-term dictator Suharto”. Taring Padi is a group of artists that are requested for assistance by the community for their campaigns of an issue. This allows for the whole community to become engaged and giving them all an opportunity to voice their own concerns on the issue. It enables them to learn and garner knowledge of how to continue artistic protest.
DeLaure, an Associate Professor in the Communication Studies and Environmental Studies programs at the University of San Francisco, finishes the conversation by mentioning the MMAP (Mural, Music & Arts Project) within the Bay area. This program is structured to help youth understand and develop skills in performance and visual art that “tell stories about their lives”. This teaches them about the capabilities of political art. She briefly touches on how underfunded arts education is in the US and the backlash political art faces here. Because of this, people understand less how to express their own ideas and create well-developed ways to make their voices heard. Due to negative backlash protests receive, it makes it more stigmatized and dangerous to be participatory in movements.
Conclusion & Examples
In the final section of this conversation, respondents are asked to making concluding remarks and share any examples they think are interesting for the audience to know. Klein begins by looking at the initiative by the Pillsbury United Communities, where they used decommissioned weapons as art. During the Fall of 2016, there was gun buyback that allowed artists to use these as art to open dialogue about gun violence in the US. Klein them prompts other respondents about their take on weapons used in art.
Delaure mentions how decommissioned weapons could use in an interesting way by creating them into children toys. Klein mentions that the “juxtaposition” of children and weapons is intriguing because of innocent children have versus our thoughts on guns. He uses a picture from Jonathan Ferrara Gallery to give an example of how “disturbing” it is.
Resources & Examples
Images courtesy Tammam Azzam
Right: 'Klimt, Freedom Graffiti'