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”.

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Painting Through the Berlin Wall

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“We enjoyed painting a line through that one!”

The German journalist and author, Frank Willmann, recalled with glee the moment in 1986, when he and four friends daubed white paint across Keith Haring’s iconic Berlin Wall mural. This iconoclastic act was part of an art-activist stunt that stretched 3 miles along the infamous structure. Since the wall was suddenly erected on 13 August 1961, to separate the German Democratic Republic from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Germany, it had been a hated symbol of the Cold War divide between East and West. But by the mid-1980s, the western face of the wall had become a tourist destination, with visitors attracted by the growing number of artworks that adorned it following Thierry Noir’s first wall painting in April 1984.

Born in the East German city of Weimar in 1963, Willmann along with his friends – Frank Schuster, Wolfram Hasch, and brothers Jürgen and Thomas Onisseit – had grown up never knowing a world without the Berlin Wall. By their late teens, the group had begun to rebel against the government of Erich Honecker and the notorious Stasi. Between 1983 and 1985, the authorities agreed to let all five of the young troublemakers emigrate to the West, and they reconvened in Berlin.

Their experience of living on both sides of the wall made the five friends keenly aware of the devastating effect it had on the lives of so many German citizens. They were therefore infuriated to see the wall dismissed by many in the western world as “little more than a big canvas. They just didn’t care what was going on behind it.” The willingness of the West German authorities to pander to the wishes of a famous American artist was particularly irksome, and the five friends decided to retaliate when Haring’s paint was barely dry.

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On 3 November 1986, armed with paint rollers and buckets, and wearing masks to conceal their faces, Willmann, Schuster, Hasch, and the Onisseit brothers embarked on their daring feat. They continued to paint an uneven white line for several hours, until eagle-eyed East German border guards surprised them by appearing through a secret door and dragged Hasch back to the GDR, where he spent 3 months in prison before returning to West Berlin.

As The Guardian newspaper reports, the men today give a number of reasons why they chose to paint on the wall, ranging from a desire to feel empowered and proclaim their move to West Germany, to a protest against the complacency of those fortunate enough to be living on the western side. In a surprising development, only in 2010 when Willmann began researching for a book about the project, did it come to light that Jürgen Onisseit – the friend who had first suggested the white line action – had once been a Stasi informant. In a bitter irony, this revelation has created a more unassailable division between the friends and brothers than any concrete wall.

Warning of the Cold War Horse

The life-size effigy of the horse stands alone in a windswept field in Jefferson County, Colorado. But this is no pettable pony. The Cold War Horse is a warning that something sinister has occurred on this remote plateau, about 15 miles north-west of Denver. Cast in fiberglass, steel and resin, the sculpture depicts the horse cloaked in a bright red hazmat suit, with a grey respirator strapped over its nose and mouth.

The Cold War Horse is wise to be dressed so strangely. Between 1952 and 1992, this area, known as Rocky Flats, was the site of a top secret factory where 70,000 highly toxic plutonium “triggers” were produced. These triggers were then dispatched to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where they were assembled into hydrogen bombs, to be used in the event that the Cold War suddenly became blazing hot.

Throughout its forty-year history, the Rocky Flats Plant witnessed a series of dangerous incidents, including a plutonium fire in 1957 and numerous leaks of radioactive waste into the surrounding soil and rivers. As a result of these incidents, a 4,600-acre buffer zone was imposed around the plant in 1972 and extended a couple of years later by another 4,500 acres. In the early 1980s, revelations about the activities at the plant and its environmental effects led to public outrage. In 1983, 17,000 people travelled to Rocky Flats to join hands around the 17-mile perimeter fence as part of a peace protest. Finally in 1987, the plant was raided by the FBI and its managers were fined what at the time amounted to the largest fine in history for an environmental crime. Although officially cleaned up in the early 2000s, the site is still heavily contaminated and uninhabited by humans, and has since been designated the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

The Cold War Horse was made by sculptor Jeff Gipe, who grew up near to Rocky Flats and whose father worked at the plant for over 20 years and now suffers from serious health problems as a result. The statue was dedicated in September 2015, ten years after the cleanup of the site was declared complete. But this is no memorial. The Cold War Horse is intended as a renegade artwork, to symbolise the locals affected by the scandal who have yet to be recompensated, and a protest against plans to construct a large housing development near the contaminated land.

However, the story doesn’t end there. Just a week after the Cold War Horse was installed, it was knocked to the ground and attacked with sledge hammers by unidentified assailants. The horse is now under repair and Gipe has set up the coldwarhorse.com website for people who would like to donate towards its reinstallation.

Image: Jeff Gipe, Cold War Horse, 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Werkheiser