By Jamie Murphy
‘Art’ as a concept can be difficult to grasp. It means different things to different people. What might be ‘art’ to you might just be an unmade bed to someone else. But most scholars and weekend exhibition-wanderers alike will agree that ‘art’ is something that elicits emotion. And when it comes to evocation, the art and imagery of protest movements contribute some of the most meaningful, shocking and raw pieces to come out of recent times.
As with conceptualising ‘art’, ‘protest art’ is a complex term. Black protest art can reasonably be dated back to the songs of slaves in the colonial era, acquainted by the staccato of rattling chains or beat of west African Akan drum; plaintive and haunting melodies reminiscent of the shores from which they had been taken.
Banksy has described art as a ‘deadly political weapon’, something that can challenge the status quo. One need only look at the works of South African apartheid artists such as Willie Bester and Jane Alexander for an example of the potency of art in confronting issues like racial oppression. Their visceral realism is a bold counteraction to the very crimes they depict.
This is because protest art is a reaction, something the artist feels they have to create, rather than something they necessarily want to create. The black arts movement is indicative of this. Originating in the USA during the Civil Rights Movement, it marked an ideology made tangible through art and music. This ‘black aesthetic’ has been hailed as essential to the creation of an African-American identity, a juxtaposition from the overwhelmingly white and western personality that black communities had been told to conform to for centuries. Art solidified the concept. Protest art visualised what many people felt.
As the manifestation of the campaign for rights, black protest art became a rallying point. Artists such as Jacob Lawrence, for example, used their art to document the history of atrocities perpetrated upon black communities and individuals, with his 1940s The Migration Series depicting the flight of blacks from the South to the North in fear of Jim Crow-mandated racism.
The purpose of these works is to stir something within one’s gut: anger, disgust, incredulity, indignation. They are meant to be challenging to the viewer, and they are meant to incite them to action. The tragic thing, from the 1960s to the 2010s, is in their striking similarity in theme.
In Gordon Parks’ photograph from the 1960s, a black man holds a placard declaring that the USA is a police State. In a photograph by Devin Allen in 2015, a black community is seen protesting following the death of Freddie Gray whilst in police custody. In the artistry of the 2010s, we are now seeing an appropriation of 1960s imagery in a deliberate attempt to eschew timelines and chronology to show just how little has actually changed.
With the re-establishment of far-right politics across the world, and with mounting tensions over police brutality in the USA, black protest art is being resurrected for a twenty-first century following. Thanks to smartphones and social media, everyone can become a street documentarian. And as progressive and fantastic as this is, one must always remember that protest art has a purpose: there is still something to protest about. There are still injustices being perpetrated every day.
Black History Month is a time to reflect upon and celebrate the successes and achievements of black people the world over. But, in order to understand exactly why their achievements are so important, Black History Month encourages us to confront the truth about centuries of oppression. Artwork, and especially protest art, can help us confront these ugly truths. But, without detracting from the progress made by campaigners, protest art reminds us that there is still a long way to go…
Photograph by Melissa Delzio via Creative Commons and Flickr