Escaping the class system in a Volkswagen by Marc Rayner

Top Three Influential Pieces of Protest Art

Sara Mansour June 29 2022


From political freedom to racial equality, here are three venerated achievements of modern creative activism defying the status quo, as representations for collective resilience and social solidarity through evocative visual arts.

1. Faith Ringgold, “United States of Attica," Poster, 1971-72

Faith Ringgold's “United States of Attica”

Widely acknowledged for her narrative quilt embroideries, African-American artist Faith Ringgold’s “United States of Attica'' is a revolutionary political poster, illustrating a geographic perspective of America drenched in green and red hues of Jamaican writer Marcus Garvey ‘s Pan-African flag, who was a distinguished black nationalist proponent. In September 1971, relentless maltreatment towards 1,200 Hispanic and Black inmates perpetuated by blatantly racist officers, and ignoble sanitary conditions remained covert behind the walls of the Attica Correctional Facility. As a result, Ringgold’s dissidence in her imagery expressed a poignant yet subversive protest to nefarious state crimes within the prison system. She denounced the chauvinistic spirit of white supremacy by labeling assorted dates of American historic atrocities, such as the notorious lynching of 14-year old Emmett Till in Mississippi, after he was falsely accused of harassing a local white woman at a grocery store. Additionally, Ringgold condemned the anti-Chinese riots in Oregon during the 1880s, the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Andrew Jackson’s Indigenous removal policy, which forced the Cherokee nation to migrate to modern-day Oklahoma during the infamous Trail of Tears. Among many immeasurable violence enumerated across her poster, which showcases a reformed visual narrative of U.S history as constituted in systemic oppression and racial inequity, yet the bottom of her poster reads a heart-rending axiom “This map of American violence is incomplete.”

2. Nicky Nodjoumi, “Long Live Freedom,” Printmaking, 1978

Nicky Nodjoumi's “Long Live Freedom”

Decades of institutional corruption, elitist exploitation, and social abuses have sewn into the political fabric of Iran’s dictatorial Islamic republic, and has molded Kermanshah-born fine art painter Nicky Nodoumi’s satirical motifs. His sleight-of-hand and incisive visual commentaries, often vilified and prohibited nationwide by his authoritarian foes, expressed an opposition towards the late 20th century tyrannical regime usurped by Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shia fundamentalist who orchestrated a coup d'etat to execute the monarchical despotism of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. After his 1969 departure from Iran to reside in New York, Nodoumi devoted his artistic career to provide insights on his ideological resistance in print-making oeuvres, which portrayed derisive caricatures of Iranian and American imperial leaders. He notably produced a 1978 depiction titled “Long Live Freedom,” a propagandist piece dedicated to a radical leftist movement as their campaign for civil disobedience to Shah’s iniquitous incarceration of political dissenters. His sketch illustrates a colossal serrated tip of a black and white bayonet, penetrated into a prison cell, to coerce a gagged inmate. The poignant artwork articulates a doleful, yet cynical proverb of Iran's state entropy, asserting “the problem is people, when they come into power no matter what, they do bad things.”

3. Andreas Sterzing and David Wojnarowicz, “Silence = Death,” Poster, 1989

Andreas Sterzing and David Wojnarowicz's "Silence=Death"

The 1989 AIDS epidemic widely propagandized homophobic preconceptions that became appended to vast political turmoils in America Especially after the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published a medical report which corroborated AIDS to be the second national pervasive disease with exponential casualties, susceptible among males between 25-44 years of age. However, esteemed avant-garde independent artist, David Wojnarowicz, espoused bohemian elements of art performance, film production, musical and noir photographic mediums to innovate an astute yet enthralling poster titled "Death=Silence.'' His grim obsidian imagery, designed by German portrait photographer, Andreas Sterzing in 1989, showcases a solemn Wojnarowciz posed with grotesquely sewn-up lips and a melancholic gaze, signifying profound symbolic themes in his activist oeuvres to counter reactionary hostility as a civil right underpinning for LGBTQ movements. Additionally, his eerie close-up shot renders evocative sentiments of vulnerability and distress, juxtaposed by his frowned, tenacious facial expression, that captures resistance towards toxic hegemonic heterosexuality, which the mysterious hand embodies. Sterzing’s eye-arresting phenomenal expressionist piece reflected a period wherein protest art was utilized as a didactic instrument and an activist strategy to enlighten public awareness on socio-political dilemmas. The poster was featured in Wojnarowicz’s 1986 short film, “A Fire in My Belly,” but ensued an anti-censorship demonstration wherein protestors carried massive placards of Wojnarowiciz’s sewn-up mouth, condemning its expurgation in a 2010 gay art exhibit at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.

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