Brazilian Dictatorship and the Bloody Bundles

In the early 1960s, Brazil’s left-leaning president João Goulart made many powerful enemies with his attempts to reduce the exploitative practices of multinational companies, in favour of improving education and labour standards for the Brazilian people. Meanwhile, the US administrations of Kennedy and Johnson were anxious to see Goulart establishing diplomatic relations with Cold War enemies such as China and Cuba, and began to consider his hardliner right-wing opponents the lesser of two evils. On 31 March 1964, with the covert backing of the US government, the Brazilian armed forces led a successful coup d’état. Within two days, a military junta had assumed control of Brazil, heralding more than two decades of brutal repression that was marked by the systemic exile or execution of political opponents and other “undesirables”.

Artur Barrio had moved from Portugal to Brazil in 1955, aged ten years old. In the early years of the dictatorship, the young man trained as an artist at the School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, and watched with concern as civil liberties were eruded. Responding to the rise of paramilitary forces, who prowled the streets, “cleansing” them of homeless adults and children, while student activists, artists and intellectuals started to “disappear”, Barrio created a series of site-specific conceptual artworks in 1969 and 1970, that remain among his best-known projects. Over the course of six months, Barrio made hundreds of “bloody bundles” (trouxas ensangüentadas), which he left in public spaces for people to interact with. The artist conceived of these unwitting individuals as participants in the artwork. Rather than transporting them out of their present reality, as art has often aimed to do, Barrio intended that his objects should open people’s eyes to their current situation, by provoking a sensorial response that would force viewers to confront the atrocities committed by the military regime.

In November 1969, Barrio created the first of his Situation (Situação) works, at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. Titled Situação … ORHHH … ou … 5.000 … T.E … EM … N.Y. … City … 1969, the project evolved over the course of a month, as Barrio placed around the interior of the museum white cloth bags containing concrete and crumpled newspapers to which he eventually added bloodied animal meat. The artist noted the reactions of visitors: some would add their own rubbish or even cash to these oozing piles, while others covered the bags in swear words. At the end of the exhibition, Barrio moved the bundles to the museum’s sculpture garden, where they caught the attention of the local police and were promptly disposed of as garbage.

The following April, Barrio developed this guerrilla-style artistic strategy to produce two ambitious and shockingly visceral “situations” on the streets of Brazil. Defl … Situação … +S+ … RUAS took place in Rio de Janeiro in the first half of April, when the artist walked around the city, leaving behind 500 plastic bags containing animal blood and bones, nails, saliva, hair, urine, feces, paper, sawdust and food waste. The creation of the work and the reactions of passersby were documented by photographer César Carneiro. On 19 and 20 April 1970, Situação T/T took place in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. This project formed part of a four-day happening entitled From Body to Earth (Do Corpo à Terra), organised by Frederico Morais and comprising subversive actions by a number of artists. Barrio anonymously placed bloody bundles in the municipal park and the dried bed of the Arrudas river, as well as unfurling sixty toilet rolls on the banks of the river that highlighted its use as an open sewer. The bags once again contained decomposing animal meat and bones, as well as clay, foam, clothing, wires and knives. The artist intentionally removed any signs that the objects constituted an artwork, and in the current climate many members of the public mistook them for dismembered human body parts. The police force and fire department once again removed and disposed of the mysterious objects, while Carneiro secretly recorded their perplexed reactions.

Perhaps due to the artist’s awareness of the dangers of his involvement coming to the attention of the authorities, Situação T/T would mark the last of Barrio’s “situations”. As censorship and political repression in Brazil became increasingly inescapable, Barrio left for Europe in 1974, where he has continued to produce anti-establishment installation works constructed from the discarded materials of daily life that create surprising and sensory interactions with the public.

Barrio’s Situation works are discussed alongside pieces by other politically-engaged Brazilian artists working in the 1960s and ’70s in the book Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo Meireles by Claudia Calirman (Duke UP, 2012). You can read part of the book online here.

Images: Artur Barrio, Situação … ORHHH … ou … 5.000 … T.E … EM … N.Y. … City … 1969. Installation view at Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, 1969. Courtesy Galeria Millan, São Paulo; Artur Barrio creating Defl … Situação … +S+ … RUAS, Rio de Janeiro, 1970; Artur Barrio creating Situação T/T. Images courtesy arturbarrio-trabalhos.blogspot.com.

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St George and the Atomic Dragon

tsereteli good defeats evil (2)

Perched majestically atop his trusty steed, while delivering a death blow with a spear to the contorted monster at his feet, St George appears incongruous with the lofty skyscrapers that rise above him in Manhattan. What could have caused this valiant knight to venture into the concrete jungle?

The bronze effigy of St George came to New York in 1990, in the twilight months of the Cold War, to take up residence in the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters. The sculpture was a gift of the failing Soviet Union, on the occasion of the UN’s 45th anniversary. Titled Good Defeats Evil, the statue pays tribute to the UN’s role in presiding over a series of treaties that furthered the cause of nuclear disarmament, starting with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by the United States, Soviet Union and United Kingdom in 1968. The figure of the two-headed dragon that lies at the base of the statue is a direct result of the later Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 between the United States and Soviet Union. The dragon is formed from the scraps of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear missiles, which were destroyed under the terms of the 1987 treaty. Standing 12 metres (39ft) high and weighing 40 tonnes, Good Defeats Evil is a bombastic symbol of the Gorbachev government’s commitment to ending the Cold War, which would inadvertently take place the following year with the dissolution of the bankrupt USSR.

The extravagance of this statue will be of little surprise to any visitors from Moscow, where its creator is notorious for installing what many residents consider an unsightly eyesore. The most famous work by the elderly Georgian-Russian sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, is the monumental Peter the Great Statue, which stands on an artificial island in the middle of the Moskva River. The sculpture has been widely derided by Muscovites since it was installed in 1997. At 94 metres (308ft) high, the gargantuan figure forged from stainless steel, bronze and copper is credited as the eighth tallest statue in the world – higher than the Statue of Liberty – and is unmissable from miles around. It is so unpopular in Moscow that a rumour is widely circulated that it was originally conceived as a statue of Christopher Columbus, to mark the 500th anniversary of his arrival in the New World in 1492; but that the US government wisely rejected it, and it was instead repurposed and sold on to the foolhardy Moscow authorities as a tribute to the legendary Russian tsar. Tsereteli vehemently denies the story, although his proposed statue of Columbus, entitled Birth of the New World, was indeed rejected by the US government in 1992 and would struggle to find a home until it was finally erected in Puerto Rico in 2016. The fact that Peter the Great famously loathed Moscow and moved his capital to the eponymous St Petersburg only adds to the ongoing ire among Muscovites, although attempts to knock the statue from its perch have so far been blocked by the appreciative administration of St Petersburg native, Vladimir Putin.

By comparison, Good Defeats Evil has found a more receptive audience in Manhattan. In the gardens of the UN Headquarters, it shares a home with another dramatic Soviet sculpture, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares by Evgenii Vuchetich. In 1959, in the aftermath of the successful Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York, the sculpture was likewise gifted to the United Nations as a symbol of the Soviet commitment to nuclear disarmament. Espionart readers will recognise it as part of the blog’s logo.

In an ironic twist, since 2001, Good Defeats Evil has stood in the shadow of the Trump World Tower. This dramatic symbol of Cold War disarmament is now dwarfed by a skyscraper bearing the name of the new president, who in recent months has expressed a desire to reverse 50 years of US policy by augmenting the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Embed from Getty Images

Images: Zurab Tsereteli, Good Defeats Evil, 1990. United Nations Headquarters, New York. Photo: flickr user Al_HikesAZ, CC BY 2.0; Zurab Tsereteli, Peter the Great Statue, 1997. Moskva River, Moscow, 2012. Photo: flickr user e_chaya, CC BY 2.0; Evgenii Vuchetich, We Shall Beat Our Swords Into Plowshares, 1957. United Nations Headquarters, New York; Trump World Tower behind the Good Defeats Evil by Zurab Tsereteli, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 2007. Courtesy Getty Images.

Saga of the Lucky Dragon and Ben Shahn’s Anti-Nuclear Art

Emboldened by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the United States was keen to bolster its nuclear arsenal as it entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. The remote reefs of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which had come under American occupation during the war, were identified as a suitable test site, and the 167 Bikinians were forced to relocate to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, leaving the region contaminated and uninhabitable.

On 1 March 1954, the United States conducted an atmospheric test of a new hydrogen bomb, with the code name ‘Castle Bravo’. The most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States, it produced a radioactive yield 3 times higher than scientists had predicted. Combined with strong winds, the nuclear fallout reached far across the Marshall Islands, causing radiation sickness among the inhabitants and leading to high levels of cancer and birth defects for years to come.

While the world had long turned a blind eye to the suffering of the Pacific islanders, the Castle Bravo incident caused international outrage due to the misfortune suffered by the Japanese crew of Lucky Dragon No.5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru). Although this tuna fishing boat should have been at a safe distance from the explosion, 80 miles from Bikini Atoll and outside the danger zone set by American officials, the unexpected potency of the bomb led the fishermen to be deluged by radioactive ash, which they unwittingly cleaned from the ship’s deck with their bare hands. In the days that followed, the 23 crew members fell victim to acute radiation syndrome. Their recovery was hindered by the US government’s refusal to reveal the composition of the fallout, for reasons of national security, and, in a double tragedy, all were inadvertently infected with hepatitis C during treatment. However, amazingly, all but one would survive the experience.

The death of Lucky Dragon’s radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, fuelled the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement both in Japan and across the world. The fisherman’s final words, “I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb”, touched a nerve at a time when America’s nuclear stockpile was proliferating rapidly. The country’s armoury of nuclear weapons would rise from 299 in 1950, to a high of over 31,000 devices in 1965 (the Soviet Union would reach a high of almost 40,000 nuclear weapons in 1980). American artist Ben Shahn was one of those alarmed by this acceleration and horrified to hear about the devastation caused in his country’s pursuit of military supremacy, and the incident at Bikini Atoll would continue to haunt his creative output for years to come.

In 1957, Shahn accepted a commission to illustrate a series of articles about the contamination of Lucky Dragon No.5, that were published in Harper’s Magazine in early 1958. The following year he travelled to Southeast Asia and the experience reinforced his enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese art. Upon his return in 1960, Shahn began a series of paintings on the same theme, highlighting the injustice wrought on the burned and poisoned Japanese fishermen and powerfully advocating an end to nuclear testing. In the Lucky Dragon paintings, Shahn’s signature style is enhanced by design elements drawn from Japanese artistic traditions, while the heavy palette and scenes of lamentation provide a confrontational record of the nuclear anxiety that gripped people around the world.

Together with the writer Richard Hudson, Shahn later brought together some of his Lucky Dragon illustrations and paintings in the book Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon, published in 1965. While Shahn’s leftist principles and socially-directed art were viewed with suspicion by many in the United States, this series of work brought him great acclaim in Japan and across Southeast Asia. Part of Shahn and Hudson’s book is available to view online.

All images by Ben Shahn and tempera on wood. We Did Not Know What Happened to Us, c.1960, Smithsonian American Art MuseumThe Lucky Dragon, 1960, Private Collection; A Score of White Pigeons, 1960, Moderna Museet.

Ridiculing the Regime: The Orange Alternative in Poland

As communist governments across Eastern Europe floundered in the 1980s, strange creatures began to be seen behind the Iron Curtain. Mischievous little gnomes with cheeky smiles and pointy hats first appeared in the southern Polish city of Wrocław, and then began to pop up on the walls of cities across the country. But despite their comical appearance, these gnomes had a serious purpose – using surrealism as a weapon to bring an end to the country’s repressive regime.

The dwarves were the mascot of the Orange Alternative, an artist-activist student movement founded in 1980 at the University of Wrocław. In that year, art historian Waldemar Fydrych, who went by the nom de guerre ‘Major’, wrote the Socialist Surrealism Manifesto, in which he argued that the system of government in Poland had become so surreal that it had transformed into a work of art. Fydrych led the creation of the Orange Alternative magazine, from which the resulting movement took its name. These events coincided with the first months of Solidarity (Solidarność), a political opposition movement that would grow in power throughout the 1980s and finally force through democratic reform at the end of the decade.

The Orange Alternative advocated using ridicule as a form of resistance, modelling its absurdist, avant-garde character on the Surrealist art movement in 1920s’ France. From 1982, participants in this artistic opposition painted over government slogans on the streets of Poland and left the graffitied image of the dwarf in its place. The movement gained pace as young people saw it as an appealingly exuberant substitute for the pomposity and seriousness of Solidarity. As Orange Alternative symbols appeared on city walls from Kraków to Gdańsk, the Polish militia attempted to end the rise of the gnomes by detaining graffiti artists, but still the irreverent images multiplied to over a thousand.

From the mid-1980s, the Orange Alternative developed into a series of over sixty ‘happenings’, artist-led actions and performances that took place in Polish cities, including Warsaw, Łódź and Lublin. These surreal activities included handing out free toilet paper, sanitary towels and pretzels to passersby, to satirise the state’s control over the distribution of consumer products and highlight their scarcity. The artists and their supporters often wore bright orange hats, and subverted the rhetoric of both the government and Solidarity to create nonsensical slogans, such as ‘There is no freedom without dwarves’ and ‘Every militiaman is a piece of art’. This brightly-coloured peaceful protest began to be reported by the Polish and international press, leading the humouristic happenings to become increasingly popular. Thousands of pedestrians started joining in with the actions, while the militia arrested hundreds of participants at a time.

However, the events presented a dilemma to the authorities, as by arresting protesters they risked making the regime itself look ridiculous. As Fydrych noted, “Can you treat a police officer seriously, when he is asking you: ‘Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?'” The state’s anti-Orange operations led to absurd scenes, such as the militia hauling away over 70 people dressed as Santa Claus. Members of the Orange Alternative also anticipated the authorities’ aggressive response and incorporated this into their plans for the happenings, such as running through the streets in T-shirts bearing the words ‘galloping inflation’, and then upon arrest, loudly congratulating the state on finally putting an end to the galloping inflation. The Orange Alternative movement reached its climax on 1 June 1988, when over 10,000 people wearing orange hats marched through the streets of Wrocław in the ‘Revolution of Dwarves’, while similar protests took place in Warsaw and Lublin. The following year the movement disbanded, as the communist Polish United Workers Party finally loosened its grip on power and allowed semi-free elections for the first time since 1928.

In the essay ‘Performing Revolution: The Orange Alternative‘, Julius Gavroche explains the movement’s importance as a model for peaceful protest around the world:

“They introduced what could be called performative politics, often using carnivalesque techniques, theatrical foolishness and taking back the spectacle into their own hands. The members of the Orange Alternative were not just artists with political objectives, they were also shrewd manipulators.”

Since 2005, the Orange Alternative has been given a permanent memorial in its birthtown of Wrocław, as an assortment of bronze gnomes have been placed on the streets of the city’s Old Town by local artist Tomasz Moczek, proving a popular draw for tourists.

Images: Orange Alternative graffiti, n.d. Courtesy Julius Gavroche/Autonomies; Down with Hot Weather–Down with Batons (Precz z upałami–Precz z pałami), Wrocław, July 1988; Revolution of Dwarves (Rewolucja Krasnoludków), Wrocław, 1 June 1988. Courtesy Grzegorz Borkowski/OBIEG; Dwarf sculpture in Wrocław.

Sakiet Remembered: Painting the Algerian War of Independence

Twenty-one years after Picasso created his iconic contemporary history painting, Guernica – to memorialise the obliteration of the small Basque town by united Fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War – a similar event in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence inspired two French-born artists to express their outrage at their country’s actions.

The little town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef in northern Tunisia is situated just a few kilometres from the country’s border with Algeria. Since the start of the War of Independence in 1954, aimed at freeing the country from its French colonial masters, guerrilla fighters had been operating out of border towns including Sakiet. Even after France constructed a 2.5-metre high electric fence between the neighbouring countries, its generals still suspected that Sakiet was harbouring a large number of Algerian revolutionaries (who were at the time designated terrorists). On 8 February 1958, during a crowded market day, the French air force unleashed a sustained bombing campaign against Sakiet’s 3,300-strong population. The bombardment left over 148 civilians injured and some 70 dead, including a dozen children when a primary school was hit.

The event was a defining moment in the war, leading to international outcry and hastening Algerian independence. Yet though the bombing of Sakiet is jointly commemorated each year in Tunisia and Algeria, this “colonial Guernica” is now largely overlooked in the West. However, thanks to two heart-wrenching paintings held in London’s Tate Modern, the events in Sakiet have been immortalised.

Despite the establishment of the Cold War, the French artist André Fougeron remained a committed Communist and continued to create socialist realist paintings throughout the latter half of the 20th century. He often used his work to criticise Western imperialism and the injustices of capitalism, and the bombing of Sakiet inspired him to create one of his most well-known paintings. Massacre at Sakiet III (Massacre à Sakiet III) shows the piled corpses of men, women and children, swathed in dark blankets and appearing as disembodied heads. The pale blue ribbon in the hair of a little girl at the centre of the painting draws the eyes of the viewer and delivers a powerful shock with its simple message of childhood innocence, snatched away. The half-closed, clouded eyes of the man below her give a nauseating view of death, while the naked body of a young woman, with her dead child still clinging to her, heightens the sense of violation. In stark contrast, the row of army boots and rifle stocks that are glimpsed towering over the pitiful scene indicates where the viewer should direct their anger. When the painting went on public display in a Parisian salon just two months after the attack on Sakiet, Fougeron was criticised for clearly assigning blame to the French military, which had yet to accept responsibility for the bombardment of the Tunisian town.

The following year, Fougeron’s compatriot Peter de Francia, now living in London, used a very different artistic style to depict the despair and suffering in Sakiet. In contrast to Fougeron’s austere palette and sombre, reflective tone, The Bombing of Sakiet by de Francia mixes vibrant colours to give a sense of the noise that ripped through the bombed town, filled with the screams of survivors. While Fougeron’s painting is formed from soft curves and strong, clear lines, de Francia’s expressionist vision of the dead and the injured, thrown together among the twisted ruins of smashed buildings, uses sharp, jutting angles and colours bleeding into one another to convey the terror and confusion. At the centre of this sea of muddled limbs and detritus, three anguished survivors take in the catastrophic scene, seemingly oblivious to each other: while one surveys a lifeless body next to her, another weeps with eyes closed and a pained expression, and a third reaches out, perhaps searching for a missing friend or her stolen child.

 In 2005, the James Hyman Gallery in London chronicled the development of this epic painting in the exhibition Peter de Francia: After the Bombing. The large number of pencil and charcoal sketches and studies in oil show how the artist was absorbed with the subject and painstakingly created the monumental testament to a country torn apart by the aggression of a dying colonial power. De Francia’s painting is on long term loan to Tate from the Tunisian Embassy, ensuring that Sakiet will be remembered for many years to come.

Images: André Fougeron, Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), 1958. Oil on canvas, 97 x 19.5 cm; Peter de Francia, The Bombing of Sakiet, 1959. Oil on canvas, 189.8 x 365.3 cm; courtesy Tate. Peter de Francia, Woman with Dead Child (study for the Bombing of Sakiet), c.1959. Charcoal on paper, 35.7 x 25.5 cm. Private Collection.

Henry Moore in Albania: From Persecution to Celebration

This snapshot of a man posing next to one of Henry Moore’s reclining figures appears unremarkable and similar to thousands taken every year across Britain, where the artist’s modernist bronzes are a common feature in sculpture gardens and public parks. But this image records a momentous and moving visit to the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens in Hertfordshire, England for Maks Velo, an Albanian artist imprisoned for his appreciation of Moore’s work.

 Maks Velo was born in Paris in 1935 and raised in Korçë in Albania, which at the time was a conservative and authoritarian republic that had recently claimed independence from the Ottoman Empire. By 1939, in the approach to World War II, Albania was invaded by Fascist Italy, and during the war it was occupied by Nazi Germany. The end of the war brought little relief, as the country was absorbed into the Soviet sphere of influence, and ruled over for forty years by the increasingly erratic and despotic dictator, Enver Hoxha. Despite these challenges, Maks Velo successfully trained as a civil engineer and architect in the Albanian capital of Tirana, before beginning a precarious career as an architect, artist and writer.

Hoxha was suspicious of intellectuals from the outset of his regime. Many of those who did not flee soon after he took power in 1944 were executed during a post-war witchhunt, while artists and writers continued to risk imprisonment and exile throughout Hoxha’s reign. The persecution was focused in particular on intellectuals who had travelled abroad, thereby stripping Albania of wider cultural references and forcing it into an artistic vacuum. In 1949, Socialist Realism was adopted from the USSR as the official creative style of Albania. Despite Hoxha’s acrimonious break in relations with the USSR in 1961, a rift that precipitated the dictator’s bizarre programme of bunkerisation, Socialist Realism continued to be enforced – although artists risked harsh punishments to test its boundaries.

 Maks Velo first saw the work of Henry Moore in 1969. By this time, organic forms reminiscent of Moore’s modernist outdoor sculptures were already appearing in Velo’s paintings and applied artworks, and it is unsurprising that the Albanian artist recognised Moore as a soulmate. In an interview with the British Council in April 2014, Velo recalls that three years later, a friend gave him an English exhibition catalogue containing pictures of Moore’s drawings and sculptures – a publication that was strictly forbidden in communist Albania. This gift, and Velo’s dedication to the work of Moore and the Romanian modernist sculptor, Constantin Brâncuși, would have dire consequences for the artist.

In 1978, Maks Velo was arrested for showing “modernist tendencies” in his work. The book of Henry Moore pictures was found in his possession, and used as evidence for his subversive behaviour. For the next six months he was interrogated, before being found guilty and imprisoned for a further eight years. Most of his paintings and sculptures were destroyed and his beloved Henry Moore book was confiscated. After his release in 1986, Velo was sent to work in a factory in Tirana. From there, he was able to make it back to his birth city of Paris. A landmark exhibition of Henry Moore’s outdoor sculptures in Paris’s Parc de Bagatelle in 1992, finally gave Velo the opportunity to come face-to-face with the work that had so deeply affected his life. And despite the tragedy it had caused him, Velo’s love of Moore continued to thrive.

This story came to public attention in September 2013, when Moore’s prints and sculptures were finally publicly displayed in Tirana at the Albanian National Gallery of Arts, in an exhibition organised by the British Council. Two years later, Velo himself would enjoy a major retrospective in the same gallery, opening just days before his 80th birthday. As well as Paris and in England, Velo has now travelled to Cleveland in the United States and Düsseldorf in Germany to see Henry Moore’s work. For him, Moore’s sculptures “embody gentleness” and are “full of harmony, tranquillity and perfection.” Asked whether the work is revolutionary, Velo commented: “The term ‘revolutionary’ evokes terror. Communism destroyed many meanings. But any great art is revolutionary, is a step forward – and these steps have brought the world to a higher level. This includes Henry Moore.”

You can find out about Henry Moore’s importance as a Cold War artist in an earlier feature article on Espionart, and see more of Maks Velo’s work on his website.

Image: Maks Velo at Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, with Reclining Figure: Angles by Henry Moore, 1979. © The Henry Moore Foundation; Photo of Maks Velo in his studio; Maks Velo, Overlapping Forms (Forma Te Intersektuara), 1964; Installation shot of Maks Velo: Ekspozitë Retrospektivë (Maks Velo: Retrospective) at the National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, 2015. Courtesy Tirana Times; Maks Velo at Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, with Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae by Henry Moore, 1968–9. © The Henry Moore Foundation. Unless noted, images courtesy Maks Velo.

We the People: Shepard Fairey’s New Pictures of Hope

Back in 2013, Espionart showcased the work of American illustrator Shepard Fairey, exploring his debt to the aesthetics of the Cold War. Fairey’s 2008 ‘Hope’ poster, bearing the image of Barack Obama, has become perhaps the most iconic political illustration of the 21st century. Since then, the poster has been widely imitated and parodied by both Fairey and his admirers, to support causes such as the Occupy movement, and to shame a variety of politicians. The Women’s March on Washington and in cities around the world on 21 January 2017 revealed an imaginative range of appropriations, satirising the new president.

Fairey’s work has also been back in the news – and in the public consciousness – this week, as the artist released a new set of illustrations reaffirming the rights of American citizens from a range of ethnicities. At a time when many fear the divisive rhetoric of the incoming administration, the ‘We the People’ series (a nod to the opening line of the US constitution) offers a confident vision of the American people and supports Fairey’s belief that compassion and unity is the best antidote to the politics of hate. In red, white and blue – the same US flag colours of the ‘Hope’ design – Fairey’s three new posters feature bold images of American citizens, their cultural backgrounds indicated by their styling. A Hispanic woman wears a red flower in her hair and a T-shirt emblazoned with the Mexican golden eagle, taken from the country’s coat of arms. Beneath her image, the phrase ‘Defend Dignity’ points to Trump’s recent demonisation of America’s Latino population. Above the phrase ‘Protect Each Other’, an African American with long dreadlocks looks downwards, inverting Obama’s triumphant upward gaze and indicating the risks posed to young Black men, as highlighted in the Black Lives Matter movement. But of the three, the poster that has been most visible and had the greatest impact is that of a woman wearing an American flag in the style of a Muslim hijab. The rallying cry of ‘We the People … are Greater than Fear’ urges American citizens to resist the rise of Islamophobia.

Fairey’s posters are part of a group project, organised by the Amplifier Foundation, which works with street artists and illustrators to commission and distribute social campaign posters. The Colombian American muralist Jessica Sabogal and Mexican American illustrator Ernesto Yerena also contributed posters entitled ‘We the Indivisible’ and ‘We the Resilient’, with all five designs now available to download free of charge from the Amplifier Foundation website. The foundation also released five additional posters in celebration of the Women’s March on Washington.

The success of Fairey’s new designs is such that, this week, the Guardian newspaper devoted part of its front page to announcing an exclusive interview with Munira Ahmed, the Bangladeshi American woman who was the inspiration for Fairey’s hijab poster. Ahmed in fact modeled for the photo on which Fairey’s poster is based a decade ago. Since then, the picture, by New York photographer Ridwan Adhami and taken in front of Manhattan’s Ground Zero, has been widely shared online. In an ironic twist, a building owned by Donald Trump can also be seen in the background.

For Munira Ahmed, the poster is “about saying, ‘I am American just as you are’. I am American and I am Muslim, and I am very proud of both”. Shepard Fairey also recognises the particular cultural resonance of his hijab poster, calling it “very powerful, because it reminds people that freedom of religion is a founding principle of the United States and that there is a history of welcoming people to the United States who have faced religious persecution in their homelands”.