The art of the protest
Five artworks we should carefully contemplate these days.
Words by Raquel Fernández Sobrín
It is time to listen, learn and take action; so it feels convenient to quote an article Clarence Lang, professor of African American studies at the College of Liberal Arts, published in the Black Perspectives blog of the African American Intellectual History Society in 2016:
“Framing symbols and discourses—rendered in the form of images, platforms and demands—are the most critical aspect of any movement-building effort. At their most effective, they bring political coherence and focus to an activist community, convey meaning and goals to supporters and potential participants, mobilize constituents to action, and equip adherents organizationally to contest for legitimacy (and power). Along these lines, framing discourses can communicate insurgent ideas about what changes are necessary, rather than simply what reforms are deemed possible”.
Black Girl’s Window (1969), Betye Saar
“Even at the time, I knew it was autobiographical,” she said. “We’d had the Watts Riots and the black revolution”. The piece includes references to the private, the public and the mystical: “It was a diary of my life. […] This is a picture of my family, of my father and my mother dancing. Unfortunately, during my first few years my father passed. He had an infection and the hospital in Pasadena was segregated and he had to drive to a community hospital which was the only kind of medical care black people had. The next picture is the death, which is the way I interpreted his passing. I find it curious at this time that he is at the center. He had such a rude way of dying. I had issues with racism and segregation”.
Out of Body (2015), Tschabalala Self
“The work is political because it is politized; politized bodies are featured in the work. I’m a political person because if I wasn’t a political person, that would affect my safety and well-being in the country. But that’s not why I’m making the work. I’m making the work to leave a document of my experience of people who are like me”. Self devotes her art to the exploration of the exploitation of the black female body in contemporary culture, the way it is iconized, as well as to examining the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality.
The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles (1996), Faith Ringgold
Ringgold recognizes the achievements of Madam Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hammer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune and Ella Baker. The ninth woman is Marie Simone, a fictional character created by the artist to represent the future of the fight. The man, Vincent Van Gogh. With this piece she not only celebrates the legacy of eight African American women, also the traditions of her community.
Black Unity (1968), Elizabeth Catlett
On the side you can’t see there’s two soothing African masks carved in the wood, so together with the fist the work symbolizes quiet strength and defiant determination. Back when Catlett created it, it was already a way of conjuring images of revindication, particularly that of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists at the Mexico City Olympics. The gesture of protest and black unity had already been popularized by the Black Panther Party, and is still full of meaning.
Yo Man Ray Yo (2000), Emma Amos
Recently passed away, Amos explored the African American identity and culture in her work with a unique way of celebrating women’s presence in said heritage. “Race, sex, class and power privilege exist in the world of art”, she stated. “I hope that the subjects of my paintings dislodge, question, and tweak prejudices, rules, and notions relating to art and who makes it, poses for it, shows it, and buys it. The work reflects my investigations into the otherness often seen by white male artists, along with the notion of desire, the dark body versus the white body, racism, and my wish to provoke more thoughtful ways of thinking and seeing”. This painting is a response to Man Ray’s famous Noire et Blanche (1926).