Voices of a Generation
On the Issues

Protest art pushes back

BY Abby Downs

In this June 23, 2011 file photo, activist artist Ai Weiwei opens the gate to talk to journalists gathered outside his home in Beijing. Ai said on Monday Nov. 7, 2011, thousands of supporters have donated more than $550,000 to help him pay off a tax bill sought by the government. A state-run newspaper has warned the movement could be illegal. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

Protest art pushes back

By Abby Downs
December 4, 2020

Protest art has been a crucial component to raising awareness in the wake of uprisings linked to the Black Lives Matter Movement and drama of the 2020 presidential election. Kara Walker’s recent Instagram post Kick ‘m to the curb references kicking President Donald J. Trump out of the most powerful office of the United States. Having the ability to participate as a voter for the first time in this year’s election, all types of art spoke to me and allowed me to become more interested and informed about critical issues occurring this year.

Art is a form of expression and is usually up for interpretation. Protest art is explicit and straight to the point. It challenges the status quo and hierarchies imposed by those in power. However, due to the expressive nature of art, many artists are activists as well. Whatever medium is utilized, art matters because it can provoke emotions, inspire people to create, and soothe and heal the broken. Art has the ability to illustrate narratives and different perspectives.

Belief+Doubt (2012) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by Betty London.

Protest art is important for visual learners to process information in this day and age. With the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter movement and women’s rights coming into the spotlight, protest art plays a role in all of this. When you’re scrolling through Instagram or TikTok you constantly see forms of art, whether it's digital posters or visual art performances. Whether we realize it or not, protest art is constantly surrounding us and pushing us to speak up — for what is right or perceived to be.

Three particular artists stand out for their ability to speak into the moment.

Barbra Kruger is an American artist who pairs text and images to convey a direct feminist cultural critique, and her work may be seen on MoMA’s website. Kruger’s output examines stereotypes through the use of bold text layered over mass-media images. MoMA states that Kruger often uses phrases in her work that include pronouns such as “you,” “your,” “I,” “we,” and  “they.”

These words address cultural constructions of power, identity, sexuality and consumerism. The image titled Untitled (Your Body Is A Battleground) resonates today, just as it did a quarter of a century ago. Kruger made this iconic image with a black-and-white background and bold red text for the Women’s March on Washington in 1989 after a string of anti-abortion laws “began to undermine Roe v. Wade,” according to JSTOR Daily.  

Ai Weiwei’s efforts as a protest artist are straightforward and directed at politics. According to The Nation, he has an eye for the point of interaction between art and politics and how it can be formed into performance art. He says an artist must be an activist. Weiwei is openly critical of the Chinese government’s stance on human rights.

Shown in a photographic light, Dropping a Han Dynasty urn (1995), shows Weiwei releasing a precious artifact in a multi staged shoot. This act is one form of protest through art.

Kara Walker is another prime example of a protest artist who resonates with audiences. According to Time magazine, Walker is known for her ambitious work across mediums by interrogating race, sexuality, slavery and identity. Directly after Joe Biden was announced as president-elect, Walker took to her Instagram @kara_walker_official to post work, particularly the viral Kick ‘m to the curb image.

Walker typically works with black paper cutouts to make her mark, silhouette-style. Her trademark approach shows an African American woman kicking the ousted Trump, hair flipping upward with a potbelly, in the air. Although this work is posted to Instagram and is not displayed in a museum, it still serves as a reminder that protest art comes in all shapes and sizes and platforms.

Kara Walker @Kara_walker_official

It’s important to reiterate how all of these artists use art to awaken their audiences. When people’s backs are to the wall, protest artists like Kruger, Weiwei and Walker have ours.