With a tradition reaching back probably to the early days of humans and art, protest art can be anything from those often pretty naff street theatre moments at demos to film, poster art, performance or satire. It’s tempting to posit that all art is political, as every creative work assumes a perspective and a position that aligns with the creator, but protest art exists as a work (or as works) that intend to evoke a distinctly political reaction that parallels, feeds on or inspires a given political movement or space. Most often, perhaps not surprisingly, protest art tends to reflect the view of a group who perceive themselves to be oppressed or marginalised. Protest art from power elites is called propaganda. Or ads.
From something of a he-day in the 1960s and 1970s, the art of rebellion appears to have subsided. Or has it? Here’s a run down of some great moments in protest art this year and a look at what issues their creators identify.
Money in the Banksy
By my reckoning Bristol is the UK’s smallest city to have two professional football teams. It also invented its own currency. There’s a theme of escapism here, and it’s no surprise that arguably the most strident modern political graffiti art movement started here.
Banksy has become the leading figure to have emerged from this rich vein, which includes Massive Attack co-founder Robert del Naja (aka 3D). Developing a style of stencilled street art, Banksy has toured the globe, spraying his comments on public surfaces from the UK to Australia (where his only remaining piece, a parachuting rat painted behind the Forum Theatre in Melbourne, was apparently destroyed in 2012).
Earlier this year, he tunnelled into Gaza (not his first time there) to undermine the Israeli-imposed siege and to score some political points through his art. The best-known image has a painted cat toying with a tangle of real discarded wire, which becomes a ball of playful wool. The portrait works to soften the broken and dysfunctional cityscape that surrounds it. There is also a comment here on modern attention and the power of cute cats in the YouTube age.
His painting of a weeping woman on a Gaza door also inadvertently offered a dire comment on human beings pushed to the edge, as the man whose door it was was unwittingly duped into selling the valuable artwork for $175. (It’s since been recovered.)
Banksy’s covert invasion of Gaza also produced a spoof video, which takes the line of a slick travel advertisement, exhorting the tongue-in-cheek benefits of coming to Gaza (“The locals like it so much, they never leave”). The artist would surely revel in the irony of its being preceded, when I viewed it, by a McDonald’s ad on YouTube. It’s also inspired many spin-offs, like this brilliant local version.
Rupi Kaur is a Canadian poet and visual artist. This year, she took some photos of her enduring herself menstrual cycle, which depicted the quiet brutality, stoic majesty and gory results of something women go through every month.
The images link to her poetry, which celebrates the humanity of women, not their gender. She seeks to lay bare the feminine experience, mundane yet breathtaking, to align with a higher principle, a deeper plane of being. The central point seems to be that if it’s OK for women to be portrayed everywhere as sexualised icons for male consumption, then surely such graphic and startling views of women should also be out there.
Given that pictures of naked and often degraded women abound, the fact that Kaur is generally clothed or at least not alluring in the photos (one shows her legs straddling a toilet pedestal with no hint of sexuality) only underlines their potency.
The subtext is a questioning of what is acceptable, with a further undertone of women’s health and sanitation in developing countries especially — but not exclusively — where privacy is often not available.
While poignant and pure enough in their conception, the photos were instantly removed from her Instagram account for being inappropriate.
Well, they walked right into it.
Kaur’s response was art in itself, and perhaps more powerful than the actual images:
“i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. pornified. and treated less than human.” she wrote in a response that reeks of immediacy in its passion and first-draft grammar faults.”
Instagram later restored the images.
The case rivals that of Cuban visual artist Erik Ravelo, whose images of children crucified by various institutions, both real and cultural/political, were removed by Facebook in 2013 (Facebook appears to have disgraced itself again by removing his anti-rape campaign images in the last week or so).
In both cases, the reactions of the gate-keepers say more than the actual objects.
Vladimir Putin is a dickhead. Sure, we can all accept that. But who’s going to tell him that? In Russia? Introducing Pussy Riot.
Started in 2011, the all-fem band has used staged events at provocative sites and fairly atrocious punk music with staccato lyrics in Russian to poke the Russian leadership in the eye, lambaste the perceived cosy tie-ins with the Orthodox Church and stand up for LGBTI rights.
Their most famous gig was at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, which featured the group taking the pulpit in balaclavas during a service and letting rip with some terrible music, pointed critiques backing their favourite causes (apparently; it’s all in Russian) and lots of dodgy dance moves.
It’s fearless and ballsy, and their refusal to cease even as they are roughed up by some toughs (do they have them waiting at Russian Orthodox churches?) displays a passion to their cause few of us could muster. The shaky video of the moment, replete with the stunned faces of the pious flock is priceless.
A slew of court cases followed, and some of the women were tried and convicted and spent time in Russia’s notorious jails. Under pressure from activists both inside and outside Russia, the two central protagonists, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, were released before their incarceration was scheduled to end and became, to paraphrase from another context, too big to arrest.
It’s hard to say what support they have inside Russia, where misogyny and fear dominate the social and political landscape, but they have become the face of Russian dissent internationally and their survival against the odds (others, like Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov were not so fortunate) is testimony to the fact that someone, somewhere doesn’t want them made martyrs.
Early in 2015, the duo re-emerged in a song about the death of Eric Garner, the New Yorker who was strangled to death by an NYPD officer. The song, I Can’t Breathe is listed as a collaboration with numerous artists and is the band’s first effort in English. It’s a much more conventional effort and marks a possible turn away from the band’s punk roots. The video features both women being excruciatingly buried alive, a chilling comment on Russia’s military secrets and manufactured ignorance.
The Chinese Wei
China’s not just a place, it’s a state of mind, at least according to that country’s most celebrated dissident artist, Ai Weiwei.
Weiwei first came to prominence as the artistic brains behind the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The same year of the Olympics, he bit the hand that fed him by publicly recording more than 5000 names of the victims in the Sichuan earthquake. While this might not sound so subversive, the fact is that government censors, embarrassed by the third-world standards of the buildings, sought to deflect attention by, among other things, keeping the victims anonymous.
The marriage of place, art and protest has become a Weiwei theme, and his installations have adorned some of the world’s leading artistic spaces.
Most recently, this month, he has opened an installation at Alcatraz, the infamous prison in San Francisco Bay. This work highlights the universality of the struggle between freedom and oppression. In the US, “anti-terror” laws and various limitations on liberty that have followed 9/11 are suggestive of a sense that an actual prison is not needed; society can become a place of incarceration with just as much success. The fact Alcatraz closed down in 1963, yet freedom remains elusive for many, emphasises that it is the physical prison, not the concept of imprisonment, which is obsolete.
As always, the power of place and institutional context is intrinsic to Weiwei’s latest venture.
Weiwei has suffered for his art. In thumbing his nose repeatedly at the Chinese authorities, never afraid to lace his invective with profanity and wit, he has been imprisoned himself and has been denied permission to travel. In 2009, he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, likely due to injuries received from another police beating.
As a symbol for China’s other face, he is unsurpassed and he has become a global symbol of China’s inability to embrace the same freedoms in its social and cultural output as it has mandated in its economy.
This article was originally published at Daily Review.