'Artists Take Action' As Collectors Take Note

Shepard Fairey's "We the People." (Courtesy Obey Giant)
Shepard Fairey's "We the People." (Courtesy Obey Giant)

It is an image that has popped up everywhere since Donald Trump took office. A young Muslim woman wears what appears to be a hijab fashioned from the American flag. Her gaze is clear and direct. Her lips are full. It is easy to see that her features are not Anglo ones. Under her portrait are the words "We the people are greater than fear."

Since Shepard Fairey created that image in 2017, it has become nearly as famous as his 2008 “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama. We have seen it on placards at the Women’s March in January 2017, again at the airport protests contesting Trump’s travel ban that same month, and even last month at the March for Our Lives demonstrations demanding stricter gun laws.

It seems to resonate, as it asserts that Muslims are as American as Christians, and that non-whites are just as much a part of the social fabric of the country as whites. The implicit message is one of empowerment and inclusion, an acknowledgement of a diverse America and a refutation of a nostalgic fear-based longing for the past. Based on a photo of Munira Ahmed, a Bangladeshi-American taken by New York photographer Ridwan Adhami in 2007, the poster was created as part of a group project coordinated by the Amplifier Foundation, an art activist group distributing social change posters free online. And now it has also become something of a symbol of “the resistance.”

But it hasn’t taken long for the iconic image to move from the streets to the museum. The Fairey poster is now on view in “Artists Take Action! Recent Acquisitions from the Davis,” running through June 10 at The Davis Museum at Wellesley College. In this time of increased social activism, when every week seems to bring a new protest somewhere, the exhibit showcases approximately 25 posters and prints made in response to political and social issues. The exhibit includes work produced over the span of two centuries, beginning with Francisco de Goya’s "Disasters of War" series and moving through time, right up to the present day. On view are posters calling attention to sexism, racism, war, climate change and the AIDS epidemic, with work from Keith Haring, The Guerrilla Girls, Sue Coe, Ernesto Yerena, Favianna Rodriguez, Rupert García, Rich Black and others.

“I think artists bring a different perspective to whatever the contemporary issues are,” says Lisa Fischman, director of the Davis. “You have an opportunity to try to speak to a collective, whether it’s an imagined civic body or an issue, to try to address and agitate and engage and activate your audience. Maybe that’s about water rights, or maybe it’s about resistance to economic disparity, or maybe bringing attention to something as much as it is asking anyone to do anything.”

The 12th plate from Francisco de Goya's "Disasters of War" series: "This is What You Were Born For." (Courtesy Davis Museum)
The 12th plate from Francisco de Goya's "Disasters of War" series: "This is What You Were Born For." (Courtesy Davis Museum)

Fischman says the seeds of the exhibit were sown after another professor pointed out that the museum had none of Goya’s "Disasters of War" etchings, a group of 82 prints created between 1810 and 1820 that were Goya’s visual protest against the violence surrounding the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising and subsequent events in Spain after the occupation of the country by French troops.

“I was very surprised to learn that,” she says. “And so, I made that a collecting priority. But along the way as time has passed and as Trump’s administration and presidency has flowered more fully, artists have been reacting and that’s been really interesting.”

Fischman says when she went to the Women’s March, she saw the Shepard Fairey poster of the Muslim woman veiled in the flag and decided to buy it through Kickstarter. She then started hunting around for interesting work that spoke “to the art and artistry of activism, not just signs with sloganeering on them.”

That led her to Sue Coe’s linoleum cut prints, which she glimpsed at a print fair in New York, (Coe’s “Unpresidented” print is one of the works on view, depicting President Trump sexually assaulting the Statue of Liberty) and to prints and posters she found online.


Sue Coe's "Unpresidented." (Courtesy Sue Coe)
Sue Coe's "Unpresidented." (Courtesy Sue Coe)

“The Shepard Fairey image of the young Muslim woman that was carried in the march, and who is veiled in this red, white and blue flag -- a form that functions as a veil as much as it functions as a flag — that’s really great. That’s really strong,” says Fischman. “And you can see it at a great distance. It also asks you to reconsider the claims being made about people based on religion.”

Meredith Fluke, a curator at the Davis, and Pat Berman, a Wellesley art professor, pulled together their exhibit from the work that Fischman has been acquiring. The exhibit is meant to provoke discussion among students taking Berman’s “The Arts of Dissent” seminar. The goal, according to Fluke, is to explore various questions surrounding protest art, including who is making it, why, how it’s being distributed and which power agent is being addressed. She tried to think broadly about representing different social movements throughout time.

“It’s really thinking about the historical circumstances and the role of the artist, and the way that someone might interact with that image,” says Fluke. “It’s not only how that work of art sits in history but how it might resonate with the contemporary world.”

Activist Art On The Rise

The political tenor of the times and the high-velocity Trump presidency, in which a frenzied news cycle provides new fodder for outrage from one hour to the next, is nothing if not fertile earth, well-prepared with lots of manure, for a renaissance in activist art. And that is exactly what seems to be happening, with political art readily available online from not only the Amplifier Foundation but from Booklyn, an artist-run non-profit in Brooklyn; Justseeds, a de-centralized, Pittsburgh-based collective of artists producing work dedicated to social causes; The Interference Archive, a Brooklyn-based archive, library and gallery; and Downtown 4 Democracy, a political action committee formed by artists and other creative types. Fischman herself used some of these sources to collect the work that is part of the Davis exhibit.

“We’ve definitely reached a significant uptick of individual artists who are articulating their ideas and opinions about political subjects through their art,” says Josh MacPhee, who helped found Justseeds in 1998 and whose posters dealing with such themes as climate change, mass incarceration and Palestinian rights are also for sale on the Justseeds website.

“There is a lot of activity post-Trump,” he says. “But you could pick any period in the last 150 years and find a pretty significant amount of cultural production by people who are organizing to transform their lives, whether it be unions or women’s organizations or youth groups or church groups or community entities.”

Fluke says she is not sure whether more activist art is actually being created these days. “It seems an old trope that people have been using for a long time,” she says. But, she concedes, the internet means we are now awash in images, and that is something very new.

“There’s a lot more movement than there ever was before,” she says. “There’s a lot more visual material in our lives so we definitely have a lot more access to it.”

There are two forms of activist art, according to MacPhee, and he believes the distinction is important. First, there is art being created by those who see themselves primarily as artists, but who choose to speak out about a cause they feel particularly passionate about. In the Davis Museum exhibit, Keith Haring, who made a name for himself as a graffiti artist long before he touched on the subject of AIDS, might be one of those. Then there is art coming from activists who are primarily part of a social justice movement. They may not see themselves as “artists” at all. Instead, they create placards, buttons, posters and flyers as a way to communicate their message. This second category of activist art is what MacPhee refers to as “movement culture” and where he feels that art can actually have a real impact on the world.

“Museums and cultural institutions tend not to collect movement culture until it’s historically neutralized,” he says. But that has started to change.

Rich Black's "Occupy Oakland," created in 2012. (Courtesy Davis Museum)
Rich Black's "Occupy Oakland," created in 2012. (Courtesy Davis Museum)

MacPhee, a freelance designer who teaches an agitprop course at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, says that following the Occupy Wall Street movement, institutions began to feel a responsibility to chronicle what was happening in the streets. They began collecting works coming out of social movements, including Black Lives Matter, and later Standing Rock. Sales on the Justseeds website have also grown.

It was after the Standing Rock protests, in which Native Americans protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on their land, that the promise of the internet to disperse and distribute activist art was finally realized, according to MacPhee. Graphics coming out of those protests, he says, were quickly reproduced and distributed, with some of those images cycling into museum collections. With more activism in the streets, museums began to acknowledge that their collections did not include the people making noise outside their walls.

“Museums are starting to realize -- especially with this rise of new, very active, vocal struggles, almost like a new civil rights movement, Native American communities, black communities, immigrant communities, all the struggles around gender and conformity -- many are realizing that their collections are largely absent of these people," MacPhee says, "and getting art that comes out of these movements is a shortcut to getting that stuff on the cheap.”

Does Collecting Activist Art Make Sense?

Whatever the impetus for museums to collect activist art, the problem remains of how to do it, since the art itself is readily found on the internet, with no hallowed “original” to covet and enshrine.

“Museums that do collect it don’t know what to do with it,” says MacPhee. “There isn’t a name on it that they can pull out and use to promote their larger mission. The aesthetics don’t necessarily go with whatever is popular within the contemporary art world at that moment. And so, they get collected and they get lost. They kind of get filtered to the bottom of the flat file. And the things more traditionally authored get picked out and then get exhibited and become visual stand-ins for a much bigger well of material that no one tends to see.”

So while a Keith Haring AIDS poster may be displayed in a museum, art by less famous AIDS activists isn’t. And monetarily speaking, the reality is that the art of some anonymous bearded and beleaguered activist is going to accrue less value than art by a “career artist” with a name.

Keith Haring's 1989 "Ignorance=Fear Silence=Death Fight AIDS Act Up." (Courtesy Davis Museum)
Keith Haring's 1989 "Ignorance=Fear Silence=Death Fight AIDS Act Up." (Courtesy Davis Museum)

“It’s useful to them if they want to talk about broader issues of cultural production outside the traditional art world,” says MacPhee. “But it doesn’t have a lot of relevance to the art world proper.”

Fluke, however, says that it’s more the contextual meaning that drives museums to collect activist art.

“If you’re a museum thinking about having these materials in 100 years or 200 years … the value that we see as a museum attached to a teaching institution is that we have a lot of students who are interested in talking about this and are interested in having a larger discussion,” she says.

Still, while the ubiquity of activist art could be a potential problem for a museum, it can be a boon to individuals looking to collect beautifully designed art with strong impact. And with the advent of inexpensive large-format ink jet printers available for purchase at any office supply store, anyone can easily and cheaply print up a protest poster after surfing through one of the many websites offering art downloads for free. The colors, the graphics, the strong messages are appealing and often moving. Not only do protest posters have an impact on the streets, but their messages and style have an impact as framed art hung on a living room wall. Such a collection may never attain the value of a Picasso print, but because social art is so ephemeral, it is more likely than not that over time, many protest posters will become rare. Even Shepard Fairey’s image of a young Muslim woman may one day be hard to find.

“It’s all starting to be marketable,” says MacPhee. “It used to be that you could find old political pamphlets from the 1960s or '70s in used bookshops or thrift stores or on eBay for $2 or $5. And now, there are antiquarian booksellers who have created a whole market selling that stuff at $20 or $30 or $40. Which is nothing compared to the value of modern art, or even contemporary art, but it shows that there is an exponential increase in the sort of commodification of all of the material.”

Bottom line: If you’re an individual collector looking to collect movement art, choose a poster because you believe in the message, not because you expect it to accrue in value. And if it turns out one day that a poster is actually worth something, well, you’ll find yourself ahead of the game. Not only have you lived with something you like while your piece has gained value, but hopefully, you’ve been inspired to get socially active yourself.

The exhibition "Artists Take Action!" is up at The Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 10. The gallery talk “#Resist -- Collecting Activist Art,” will be held on Tuesday, April 10 at 4 p.m. at the museum. The talk is free and open to the public.


Headshot of Pamela Reynolds

Pamela Reynolds Visual Arts Writer
Pamela Reynolds is a writer and a visual artist.



More from WBUR

Listen Live