folksinger Pete Seeger celebrates his 90th birthday this year.
Over his lifetime he has been a committed activist who believes
that “the world is going to be saved by millions of small
things.” By this he means that the small actions that average
people take will transform the social and political landscape.
Signs of Change celebrates such actions by presenting
protest art produced by grassroots social movements, both
in the United States and around the world. Included are posters,
photographs, prints, and electronic media created to support
and/or document activist causes.
the graphic arts have been a key component of social protest
and political movements. Some images have so affected the
political landscape that they are instantly recognizable,
such as the Uncle Sam recruitment poster or, more recently,
Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster. But this exhibition
is not so much interested in mass movements as it is in chronicling
more grassroots, anti- authoritarian and non-traditional social
and political movements.
which was produced by Exit Art as part of its Curatorial Incubator
Program, is divided into seven sections, each with a different
heading. Posters and photographs are hung salon style with
small banners separating sections. There is a lot of material
here but, unlike the sprawling and seemingly endless display
that was at Exit Art, this presentation is more focused and
easier to digest. While the smaller space has forced some
necessary editing, there are some unfortunate drawbacks. For
instance, there is no room to display the posters from Kein
Mensch ist Illegal side-by-side, and the amazing banners
from the Indonesian collective Taring Padi are barely noticeable
in a window alcove just outside the gallery. But despite its
awkward presentation, the exhibition is an interesting mix
of aesthetics and pedagogy.
each heading there are both familiar campaigns and more obscure
ones. Some of the images are more iconic than others, such
as the Silence = Death poster with the floating pink
triangle on a black ground that was so prevalent during the
height of AIDS activism. Other posters are less recognizable.
Under the heading Let it All Hang Out, for instance, there
are specific references to counter-cultures that would probably
only be recognized locally, such as the San Francisco Diggers,
an anarchist group from the 1960s. But most of the headings
include movements that were higher profile. Struggle for the
Land encompasses the American Indian Movement, Independence
for Northern Ireland, and the First Intifada. Agitate! Educate!
Organize! has a section that shows posters and photographs
from the 2006 Oaxaca uprising. All Forward to People’s Power
presents posters from the civil rights movement and the women’s
liberation movement. Freedom and Independence Now includes
anti-apartheid posters. Globalization From Below shows examples
from the anti-globalization movements. And Reclaim the Commons
has anti-nuclear posters. The mix of well known and less recognizable
movements demonstrates the extent of activism that has taken
place, and continues to take place, over the last several
decades on a global scale.
most protest art is made to be displayed in the streets and
not in the rarefied space of an art gallery, it is difficult
here to experience their full effect. However, the organizers
have provided video and an audio collage to animate the objects.
The audio collage includes the voices of such notable activists
as Fannie Lou Hammer, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Cesar
Chavez; the videos include items such as excerpts from a women’s
liberation march, a documentary about the Black Panthers,
and recent footage of street theater performed by the Iraq
Veterans Against the War at the 2008 Democratic National Convention
of Change celebrates protest and dissent as agents of
progressive political and social transformation. It shows
how small actions can grow into mass movements and how the
use of powerful and creative imagery is central to any cause.
decades after Pete Seeger’s version of “We Shall Overcome”
became the anthem for the civil rights movement, we have an
African-American president. The women’s liberation movement
has brought us closer to gender equity; the gay liberation
movement has yielded the beginnings of legalized gay marriage;
and the environmental movement has everyone talking about
their carbon footprint. Progress, sure, but there is still
plenty of work to do.