When politics are brought up, it invokes a series of reactions. Some may jump at the term, desperate for any chance to share their bona fide beliefs. Others will recoil, either because of their discomfort in disclosing their political dispositions or embarrassment at their ignorance of the topic. Politics can ruin friendships, first dates and Thanksgiving dinners — particularly now, at a time during which one’s politics has seemingly become the defining pillar of their character. In this polarized state that too often turns ugly, it may seem ridiculous to try and find any beauty in the chaos.
Yet, that it is exactly what many have set out to do. To people of all ages and backgrounds, the tumultuous country they have found themselves living in is not one where they feel defeated, but rather compelled to fight on. With every shocking decision and revolting remark, there is a new protest, a new fundraiser, a new movement looking to help anyone that may need it. In the darkness of prejudice and intolerance comes the fire of activism, and there is no better way to express such passion than through the universal medium of art.
The Center for Artistic Activism, based in New York City, defines artistic activism as “a dynamic practice combining the creative power of the arts to move us emotionally with the strategic planning of activism necessary to bring about social change.” Simply put, this form of art is meant to make the viewer feel something powerful; to make them want to promote change. In 2014, during a seemingly unending string of mass shootings, artist Michael Murphy created an installation of toy guns shaped as the United States. During the Women’s March, news sources hung onto pictures of hand-woven pussy hats and personally made signs. These images provoked thought, hope and a desire to make the future different.
Amplifier is a design lab based in Seattle. Its specialty is activist art and its mission is to “flip artists into activists, and observers into participants,” according to its website. While you may not have heard of Amplifier, you have definitely seen the work of its artists. The now-iconic image of a woman wearing an American flag hijab was a part of Amplifier’s “We The People” campaign, which its website describes as “a nonpartisan campaign dedicated to igniting a national dialogue about American identity and values through public art and story sharing.”
In an email interview with The Daily, Deputy Director of Amplifier, Cleo Barnett explained the “We The Future” campaign as a way of “moving energy and ideas from our streets into our classrooms.”
Following the success and impact of “We The People”, Amplifier has moved on to a new project: supplementing education with art. The organization’s latest campaign, titled “We The Future”, looks to replace traditional classroom posters and resources with ones made by more diverse and activist-minded artists. Young leaders from various social movements including gun control, climate protection, immigration and voting rights are being represented through art and stories to inspire the next generation of activists. The hope is that by seeing activists that more closely align with themselves, rather than old, white presidents or an outdated propaganda poster, students will in turn feel an internalized need to participate.
Barnett reiterated the goals of Amplifier as a way to ignite creativity and promote representation.
“Our goal is to reclaim and rebuild an American identity rooted in equality, dignity, diversity, truth and beauty,” Barnett wrote, “For young people who are not used to seeing themselves in history books or on the walls of classrooms, what Amplifier and its partners are distributing is more than art.”
Bayeté Ross Smith is a multimedia artist, filmmaker and educator who has previously done work with Amplifier. As a photographer, his work often falls under the category of turning observers into participants.
“Far too often people will take a very surface approach to (social issues) and won’t dig deeper,” he said in a phone interview with The Daily. “That often means that we’re not getting involved in constructive and productive exchanges of ideas. … You see the work I do and you have a certain reaction to it, my hope is one will question why they had that reaction, the validity of that reaction and why their reaction was different from someone else’s.”
When it comes to viewing art, the way one receives and is impacted by a piece comes down to perspective.
“I think one’s personal foundation is always the foundation for the lense through which they see the world,” Smith said. “If we were all sitting in the same room and we were to photograph it, all of our photographs would look a bit different. They’ll all technically be truthful, but they’ll still be vastly different. You can see the same thing from different perspectives and see various forms of truth, it’s just important to be aware of how our perspectives impact us.”
Using art as a form of activism is not an exclusively contemporary concept. For decades, the voices of the oppressed are most strongly shown in the literature and artwork they create. This creativity has filtered through generations, impacting the modernized form of various historical movements and weaving itself into the public sphere. A controversial example of this is Beyoncé’s use of the style of the Black Panther Party in her 2017 Super Bowl Halftime show to support to the Black Lives Matter movement and the issues facing the Black community. Much of the Black Panther Party’s image and protest was projected in its style, as it challenged conventional looks of the time. Their daring artistry has stood the test of time, as has the legacy of a magnitude of social movements from American history.
On the special collections floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library, the Labadie Collection is housed in hidden stacks. An anthology of pamphlets, posters, buttons, newspapers and other materials from activist movements dating back to the early 20th century, the collection has been a part of University archives since 1911. It was donated by Joseph Labadie, a Mich. native who was active in the anarchist and labor movements of the late 1800s.
Julie Herrada has been the curator of the Labadie Collection since 2000. Before that, she was assistant curator for six years. She says while the collection still gathers modern anarchist and labor literature, it has grown into a selection of a variety of activist materials from around the United States and the world.
“The original donation from Joseph Labadie was early-19th-century materials on labor movements, socialist and anarchist movements, then with each curator it grew in size to include those contemporary movements of the day,” Herrada said in an interview with The Daily. “Whatever was happening within the time period of the curator, they could start collecting that and adding so the collection included all forms of social protest and all countries, so it has an international scope as well.”
The existence of the Labadie Collection, and particularly its earlier pieces, makes for a vital comparison of activist art from over a century ago to an image created today. While the anarchist and labor movements that started the collection may now seem dormant, that does not diminish its importance.
“I think it’s important for people who are in college now to know that these the movements had relevance and were important in their time and how people spread the word about those messages,” Herrada explained. “You can look at something online and you will really not get the same feeling about it as if you’re holding it in your hands. Maybe hundreds of people held it in their hands and maybe the first person who held it in their hands was the person who created it. It gives you a sense of excitement about connecting to the past.”
Connections to the past are exactly what viewers of the Labadie Collection are looking for. Herrada said the collection is often visited by classes at the University — three had observed the pieces just on the one day we held our interview — and students and professors alike generally have the same response.
“When they are reading some of the documents from 50 years ago they see how relevant the content is to today,” Herrada noted. “It’s something that could’ve been written yesterday, as opposed to 50 years ago, and I always see them kind of surprised by that. We’ve come so far in our society but yet we are still arguing about these same things.”
Whether it is the advancement of labor rights, the recognition of transgender individuals or the continuation of the fight for civil rights, the United States has experienced expansive social crusades for centuries. Though the outright goal of these activists may differ, their core values remain the same throughout movements. Be it laborers campaigning for fair treatment and working conditions or the LGBT community demanding basic human rights, activism grows out of admitting something is wrong and unjust and demanding to live your life — while inspiring others to do the same — in any way that can make a difference.
So many people brush aside social issues because they have heard about it but don’t know enough or they think someone else is taking care of it. Art has the power to change this indifference. It transcends language and backgrounds to reach people in a way that transforms the problem into something tangible, something that applies to them. Unlike speeches, news reports and monotonous facts, art conjures emotions and thoughtfulness. As Smith said, “You now feel in your heart that responding to this event or occurrence or dynamic in the world is an important and relevant part of your daily life. Art takes things that we may be able to intellectualize, and makes them actively relevant to our daily experiences in a provocative and compelling way.”
According to Amplifier’s Deputy Director, Cleo Barnett, “Art is more than beauty or decoration: It is a weapon and a shield. Art has the power to wake people up and serve as a catalyst for real change. It is a megaphone for important but unheard voices that need amplifying. It is a bridge that can unite movements with shared values in ways other mediums cannot. Art gives us symbols to gather around, builds community, and helps us feel like we are not alone.”
To learn more about the work of Amplifier, Cleo Barnett or Bayeté Ross Smith visit amplifier.org and bayeterosssmith.com.
The Labadie Collection may be viewed by request on the sixth floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library.