Three artists, a curator and a writer came together to discuss the pieces that have not only best reflected the era, but have made an impact.
By Thessaly La Force, Zoë Lescaze, Nancy Hass and M.H. Miller
On a recent afternoon, the artists Dread Scott, Catherine Opie and Shirin Neshat, as well as T contributor Nikil Saval and Whitney Museum of American Art assistant curator Rujeko Hockley, joined me on Zoom for a conversation about protest art. I had asked each to nominate five to seven works of what they considered the most powerful or influential American protest art (that is, by an American artist or by an artist who has lived or exhibited their work in America) made anytime after World War II. We focused specifically on visual art — not songs or books — and the hope was that together, we would assemble a list of the top 25. But the question of what, precisely, constitutes protest art is a thorny one — and we kept tripping over it. Is it a slogan? A poster? Does it matter if it was in a museum, in a newspaper or out on the street? Does impact matter? Did it change what you think or believe? Must it endure? What does that mean? And what is the difference, anyway, between protest art and art that is merely political?
It should go without saying that our answers to these questions, as well as the list we produced (which is ordered by the flow of our conversation), are not definitive. A different group on a different day would have come up with a different list, but disagreement and debate were always at the heart of this project. The panelists spoke candidly about the protest art that changed them or their ideas of the world in profound ways. We discussed the silent work that art does — when it makes us brave and when it makes us believe in our collective capacity to create change. There is simply no denying that it is a dark time in the world right now. There are many reasons to feel hopeless and afraid — we are experiencing, as Neshat pointed out, crises in every aspect of our 244-year-old democracy: about feminism, about human rights, about immigration, about poverty, about housing, about our health care system, about combating systemic racism, about the environment, about our very belief in what is good and right. Still, we managed to end the conversation that day on a note of resilience and joy — a lesson for all of us in the long days ahead. — Thessaly La Force
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
1. Robert E. Lee Statue, Richmond, Va., in its current state
A colossal 61-foot equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee has towered above Richmond, Va., since 1890. It was the first Confederate monument erected in the former capital of the Confederacy and, as of this summer, it is among the last two standing. Other memorials to those who defended slavery — including the Confederate president Jefferson Davis and general Williams Carter Wickham — came crashing down at the hands of protesters in June while Richmond’s mayor, Levar Marcus Stoney, invoked emergency powers to remove the rest on July 1. But the 12-ton effigy of Lee, by far the nation’s most physically imposing memorial to the commander and his cause, proved too large for demonstrators to topple and, given its location on state land, lay beyond Stoney’s jurisdiction. Over the past several months, activists have transformed the base of the sculpture instead, covering the marble and granite with the names of victims of police violence, protest chants, calls for compassion, revolutionary symbols and anti-police slogans in dozens of colors. New phrases continually appear, adding to the kaleidoscopic display of communal, collective action. People who once avoided the statue now make pilgrimages to see what has become an emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as a newly diverse public gathering space. The statue and its surrounding lawn are now the site of barbecues, music and dance performances, family get-togethers, voter registration tents, photo shoots, board games, basketball hoops and religious services, as well as ongoing demonstrations, encampments and candlelight vigils. The ultimate fate of the monument remains uncertain — Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, ordered that it be taken down this summer, but a number of Virginians filed lawsuits, resulting in multiple injunctions barring the statue’s removal. A trial is slated for October 19. — Zoë Lescaze
Thessaly La Force: I’d like to begin by asking a crucial question, which is: How do we define protest art? Cathy, why did you nominate the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Va., and the action around it? Why is this protest art?
Catherine Opie: Well, I think it’s a reclaimed location. What it means is embedded, obviously, in that land. This summer, my wife and I had to drop my son off at Tulane University, so we bought an R.V. because it seemed like the safest way to travel — I’ve also been known to do bodies of work from an R.V. — and it was really, really hard during Covid not to bear witness. Journalists kept showing me images of what was going on in Richmond with the statue of Robert E. Lee. There were projections on it, it became an activist site. The transformation of that space, to me, felt like exactly what protest art is. The day I was there, I had a big camera with me, so multiple families would ask me to take their portrait in front of the statue, which I would do with their cellphones — and just in that way, it became activated. I’m really interested in ideas of activism in relationship to activating these sites. The question now is about the removal of that monument — in my opinion, all monuments from that era need to be removed — but what does that do to the history of the activation there? I find it a very poignant moment of protest art.
TLF: Dread, could you speak to that?
Dread Scott: Ever since the Civil War, there’s been a real attempt by white supremacists all over the country to reinsert and reinscribe white supremacy as the ideology and the visual culture of America. These monuments aren’t from 1862, they’re from 1905, 1920, 1935 and so on. In New Orleans, for example, there was a giant statue of Robert E. Lee. That statue is now gone because of the activist community. And Take ’Em Down NOLA doesn’t get a lot of the credit. Years before Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, called for the statues to be taken down, activists had been working on this in an earnest way. And these statues are all over. There are Confederate monuments in the North, too. But the way Cathy is talking about people reclaiming those spaces and that being protest art is an interesting place to start, because we need to address what protest art is. We should chew on that as we go through these discussions.
2. Silence = Death design collective, “Silence = Death,” 1987
In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the government and mainstream media infamously ignored the crisis. By the time President Reagan finally uttered the word “AIDS” in 1985, 12,000 Americans had already died. That same year, six men in New York City — Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione and Jorge Socarrás — began meeting to privately share their experiences of AIDS-related loss in the absence of public discourse. Inspired to create something tangible that could spread awareness, they swiftly settled on a poster. It should have little (if any) text, they decided. “Manifestos don’t work,” Finkelstein recently wrote. “Sentences barely do. You need sound bites, catchphrases, crafted in plain language. The poster is exactly that, a sound bite, and vernacular to the core. The poster perfectly suits the American ear. It has a power. If you’ve ever stopped in front of one or turned your head for a second look, that power was at work.” The result of their collaboration, a hot pink triangle (an inverted version of the symbol Nazis used to label gay men) emblazoned on a black background above the slogan “Silence = Death,” made its debut in 1987. The six friends hired wheat-pasters to cover the East Village, West Village, Times Square, Chelsea and the Upper West Side — neighborhoods chosen to reach both queer audiences and the media — overnight, and the city woke up to what became the most enduring icon of H.I.V./AIDS-related activism. Later that year, on April 15, members of the newly formed activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up) stormed the city’s General Post Office carrying copies of the sign, solidifying its ongoing centrality to their cause. — Z.L.
3. Faith Ringgold, “United States of Attica,” 1971-72
In September 1971, after years of mistreatment and months of simmering tensions, more than 1,200 of the 2,200 inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York took control of the prison in protest of its substandard conditions and openly racist corrections officers. (As in many American prisons to this day, the vast majority of Attica’s inmates at the time were Black or Latino, while its officers were overwhelmingly white.) The prisoners took around 40 hostages, including guards and civilians, and over several days attempted peaceful negotiations with officials to improve their living conditions. Under orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, state police retook the prison by force, killing 39 people, both prisoners and hostages. In the aftermath, authorities attempted to prosecute various prisoners for their role in the uprising, but even though much of the violence was perpetrated by the state, none of the officials responsible for the deaths ever saw any formal charges. Faith Ringgold’s poignant, incendiary response to this tragedy was “The United States of Attica,” a map of the U.S., rendered in the green, red and black of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag. The map is filled in with the dates and details of other American atrocities — anti-Chinese riots in Oregon in the 1880s, the Trail of Tears in Oklahoma that killed some 4,000 Cherokee Indians, the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi, the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Tennessee, riots in California, Michigan and Texas — so much violence that it can’t all fit on the page. (Statistics about deaths caused by America’s wars, from the Revolution to Vietnam, occupy the work’s margins.) “United States of Attica” is an alternate history of the U.S. that is rooted in loss and inequity, but also, above all, in the bravery of the oppressed as they fight for freedom. Ringgold produced the work as a popular poster that was widely distributed. At the bottom, the artist wrote, in a sadly predictive statement: “This map of American violence is incomplete.” — M.H. Miller
TLF: Nikil, what do think you protest art is?
Nikil Saval: My first instinct was to immediately think of posters. The first one I came up with was “Silence = Death.” I thought, well there is some kind of public standing when we think about protest art. And we can qualify what “public” means. But this is a very obvious instance in which an artwork was created in a collective over several months and was activated in various ways by a social movement to which it was directly tied. That led me to other kinds of works of art that had some connection to a social movement. I thought of Faith Ringgold’s “The United States of Attica.” It’s protest art not just because of what happened in Attica but also because it is a history of American violence. It’s also a map. It’s also a flag because it utilizes the colors of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag. It’s also an invitation because at the very bottom of the image, it has instructions about how to insert your own statistics into it. So I think participation also, in some way, is a part of protest.
TLF: Ru, as the curator in the group, what were you thinking?
Ru Hockley: I was thinking about works that were intended to exist in multiple spheres and registers. It’s exciting that we’re all doing this together, because the first example I thought of was Dread’s flag “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday.” The first time I ever saw that flag was at a protest in Union Square in 2016.
4. Dread Scott, “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday,” 2015
From 1920 until 1938, the N.A.A.C.P. would mark lynchings by flying a stark black-and-white flag from its New York headquarters on Fifth Avenue. “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” read the banner, confronting the residents of a northern city with the horrifying regularity of these murders. In 2015, the artist Dread Scott felt that the banner was just as grimly necessary in the present-day United States as it had been nearly a century earlier. He produced his own version of the flag, updating the text to read “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday,” in response to the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by a South Carolina police officer. “During the Jim Crow era, Black people were terrorized by lynching … It was a threat that hung over all Black people who knew that for any reason or no reason whatsoever you could be killed and the killers would never be brought to justice,” said Scott. “Now the police are playing the same role of terror that lynch mobs did at the turn of the century.” The flag went on display on the facade of Jack Shainman Gallery in New York during a 2016 exhibition organized by For Freedoms, the artist-run political action group founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman. The piece became a source of national controversy when it remained on view above the street after a deadly sniper attack on police officers in Dallas, Texas, sparking a wave of threats to the gallery from people who felt that the work encouraged violence against police. Finally, the gallery removed the flag and displayed it indoors following pressure from the building owner. In 1938, the N.A.A.C.P. ceased flying the original flag after the organization’s landlord threatened eviction. — Z.L.
RH: The next time I saw it was on the facade of Jack Shainman Gallery. And then the next time I saw it was when it was part of the “An Incomplete History of Protest” exhibition at the Whitney. A friend of mine bought one. She’s taken it off her wall and walked with it in the streets during the cycle of protests this summer in Brooklyn. And then she hung it back up on the wall in her house. So I was thinking about how something can work both within the context of an art museum as well as within the context of a protest. I was also thinking of something on a person’s body — in the case of Daniel Joseph Martinez’s museum tags, for example. That is a work that can be in a museum, and it can be in a public space — it can be in all sorts of different public spaces — and exists almost as a monument. Protest art is a very amorphous category, and I don’t think it has to mean the same thing all the time. Different kinds of work can be protest art simply because of the context in which they’re operating.
5. Daniel Joseph Martinez, “Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture) or Overture con Claque — Overture with Hired Audience Members,” 1993
The famously polarizing 1993 edition of the Whitney Biennial was packed with political art and provocations, but in the critical firestorm that erupted after the opening, one piece emerged as perhaps the single most incendiary source of debate: “Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture)” by Daniel Joseph Martinez. The Los Angeles artist had created a series of entry buttons for visitors to wear inside the museum, modeled on the usual colorful metal tags viewers received as proof of admission. The new badges read, partly or in full, I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white. “People went hyperbolic on it,” David Ross, the director of the Whitney at the time, later said. “I remember even former Mayor Koch, who had a radio show, accused the museum of fascism because he said we forced people to wear badges that declared that being white was no good. People just had completely bizarre readings of that piece. That piece became a real lightning rod.” Looking back, Martinez’s work seems to presage the present moment, when the traditionally overwhelming whiteness of art museums — in terms of the artists exhibited, curatorial staff, trustees, and attendance — has become the subject of heightened scrutiny. — Z.L.
6. Nicky Nodjoumi, “Long Live Freedom,” 1978
Among the reasons that protest art from Iran in the late 20th century was so voluminous and potent is that Persian culture has been assailed by a variety of extreme injustices over a shockingly long period, a situation that continues today. The Kermanshah-born artist Nicky Nodjoumi, 78, left Iran for New York in 1969, and throughout the ’70s made political art despised by the regime of the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Though forbidden to work or teach in Iran, Nodjoumi began traveling back there in 1975 to show his work once yearly, until he had a solo show in 1980 at the Tehran Museum shut down by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had overthrown Pahlavi in 1979 to install a rabidly conservative theocracy. Since then, Nodjoumi, who is based in Brooklyn, has turned his satirical eye on a variety of abuses, recently producing a series of very large figurative oils that ridicule both Iranian and American leadership. This early image, “Long Live Freedom,” which he made for a leftist group in 1978, as a protest of the Shah’s wrongful imprisonment of dissidents, depicts a bayonet crashing into a prison cell to threaten a gagged inmate. At the time, he and others couldn’t imagine that things would get worse, but of course, they did. It’s easy to see parallels to the current morass in American politics. “The problem is people,” Nodjoumi once said. “When they come into power, no matter what, they do bad things.” — Nancy Hass
7. Ardeshir Mohassess, “The men bent in prayer to God and the government airplanes arrived,” 1977
Ardeshir Mohassess considered himself, foremost, a reporter, despite being known as a biting, unstinting political cartoonist and satirist. Born in Rasht, Iran, in 1938 (he died at age 70, in 2008), he began his career in his native country, creating drawings in the manner of Saul Steinberg that infuriated the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (Mohassess dressed the figures he made fun of in the garb of the earlier Qajar dynasty, but no one was fooled). He sent up the injustice, materialism, hedonism and hypocrisy of the royal family, and by 1976, he had fled to New York because jobs in his home country had slowed, since publishers of his caustic work feared repercussions from the shah. After the 1979 revolution that put Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs in charge, Mohassess took them on with equal zest. His scratchy drawings were relentlessly ferocious and often macabre, sometimes depicting decapitation and amputation, tools of religious dictatorships. In this one, from 1977, a dilapidated plane strafes a field of civilians mid-prayer. His cynicism was no pose: “I do not believe in an ideal society,” he once said. “I do not need an ideal society either, as there is no need for me in such a society.” — N.H.
TLF: Shirin, what about you?
Shirin Neshat: At this very moment, a lot of us Iranians are speaking about Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human-rights activist and lawyer who has been condemned to 38 years in prison for her defense of political prisoners; since Aug. 11, she has been on a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners exposed to Covid in Iranian prisons. [Ed. Note: Sotoudeh ended her hunger strike on Sept. 26 on account of deteriorating health.]
And in September in Iran, a 27-year-old man named Navid Afkari was executed in the middle of the night because he was a young person who’d joined a protest of the economic hardships there. He was executed to make an example to any other young men and women not to join a protest. So the idea of protest in a place where there is no freedom of expression — where public protest is against the law — is different than the idea of protest here. The two Iranian artists I proposed, Nicky Nodjoumi and Ardeshir Mohassess, are people who live or have lived in exile. I have now lived in America longer than in my own country, and I am an American citizen, and while this is supposed to be a democratic government, I have found that the United States and Iran are starting to seem very similar. The boundary is blurring between freedom of expression and retaliation. It worries me. Even though I live in exile, a lot of Iranian people expect me to be vocal and speak out, so I feel a certain obligation as an artist. Regardless of the art I make, it’s about my position as an artist to be a part of a community to speak out against atrocity and injustice.
8. Leon Golub, “White Squad V,” 1984
For the entirety of his nearly 60-year career, the American painter Leon Golub, who died in 2004 at 82, explored the trauma of social violence through often grisly figuration. If art were to have any relevance, he believed, it needed to forge a connection to the events warping the culture. His inspiration sprang from the huge backlog of found imagery he kept on hand, from classical sculpture to gay porn and breaking news photos. When he and his wife, the artist Nancy Spero, returned to the U.S. after spending five years in Paris, his ire was directed at the Vietnam War, but by the 1980s, he had turned his eye to the atrocities taking place in South America, often with covert American aid. “White Squad V” is part of a seven-painting series focusing on the Salvadoran death squads; a jackbooted policeman steps on the outstretched arm of a civilian sprawled on the ground. The work’s palpable anguish seems brutally current amid cries to demilitarize the police. Rendered on unstretched canvas 10 feet high and 13 feet wide, in a style Golub called “barbaric realism,” the enormous figures appear like awkward cutouts on a flat background, the violence both elemental and confrontational. Golub’s technique was correspondingly rough: He painted layer upon layer of acrylic, then poured solvent on the piece, after which he used a meat cleaver to scrape away everything but an abraded, inflamed ghost-image. — N.H.
SN: I also thought about how a work of art — whether it’s public or in a museum, whether it’s a book or a painting or a film — communicates with its audience. Who is it speaking to? Leon Golub, whom I named, is an artist who devoted his life to painting subjects of violence and political injustice — to questioning the abuse of power not only in this country but around the world. That was a choice that he made. Whether his own life was really immersed in those conflicts, I’m not sure. So there are many ways to go about it. There’s a difference between artists who are protest artists because their lives are defined by political upheaval and artists who are somewhat affected yet still are making the decision to become politically charged and therefore they make art that is very proactively political.
TLF: A question for the artists on the panel: Do you see yourselves as activists? Are art and activism intertwined? Can they be unlinked?
DS: Much of how I engage with the world is through art. As much as I think this whole system is worthless and needs to be overthrown, I know it won’t happen just with art. We’re not going to throw a bunch of paintings at Washington and topple the government that way. As Ru pointed out, she first saw my work at a protest. It was actually brought there from Jack Shainman Gallery because we couldn’t finish installing it, and we said, “Well look, these protests are happening at Union Square, let’s take it there.” Nobody takes “fine art” to a protest and then brings it back to the gallery, but that was what happened. I think about the work of Faith Ringgold; there are ways in which she operated in both the activist space and the fine art space. For me, there’s no separating that: I’ve had artworks that have been part of demonstrations; I’ve made artworks for demonstrations that I consider “fine art,” whatever that is. And I’ve been threatened with jail for some of my art and activism where it intersects. I am both an activist and an artist, and I see the differences between art and activism. It’s not as though there are major walls that are keeping the two apart.
For the first time since the ’60s in the United States, being an activist is something that people can proudly claim. In 1968, somebody might have said, “I’m a scientist,” and somebody else might say, “I’m a lawyer,” and somebody might say, “I’m a revolutionary,” and that would be his or her profession. For the last few decades, people would say, “Don’t admit that, don’t talk about that, that’s not real.” And now it’s an important identity for a lot of younger people. That’s really important. It doesn’t answer the question of what the art is. Everyone here has some connection to the museum side or the commercial side of the art world, which is different than other artists who might be making really interesting art. Which leads me to Emory Douglas, who I suggested. When he was making his best work, he wasn’t thinking about how to have a show at the New Museum. He was thinking about how, in the pages of the Black Panther newspaper, he could contribute to the revolution.
TLF: Catherine, what about you?
CO: I would call myself an activist. Both in terms of being part of Queer Nation and Act Up but also growing up in the ’80s in the art world. I had to come to terms with whether I should make work that is palatable to a larger audience or whether I should make work about my own community, which was absolutely struggling during an epidemic. That was a hard decision for me. My goal, always, in getting a master’s degree was to be a teacher. And so I was really scared of basically canceling myself out of academia, out of a job. But it was too important. And it continues to be really important for me to poke holes in the relationship and the absurdity even in the world that I participate in, in terms of the art world.
9. Robert Mapplethorpe, “Self Portrait,” 1988
There was an elegant logic to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s obsession with skulls. After all, he came to prominence in 1970s New York, at the dawn of punk, when death and destruction were a lingua franca, and the gay cultural milieu that most intrigued him during his career — cut short when he died at 42 in 1989 from AIDS complications — was defined by satanic-tinged black-leather sadomasochism. But he was also an uncompromising formalist, so there might have been another reason he was drawn to skulls: Their voluptuous polished surfaces and shadowy recesses provide an unparalleled purity. Mapplethorpe was determined to find beauty in even the grotesque and macabre. In the last year of his life, he produced indelible images that read as controlled rage against mortality and the ruination of AIDS — a proclamation against erasure. One, simply titled “Skull” (1988), is a human skull in three-quarter profile positioned on a ledge, its sockets gazing upward toward an unseen source of illumination that bathes it half in shadow, half in light. Another, among his last self-portraits, may be his ultimate coda: In it, his ravaged, ravishing face floats in blackness as he grips a walking stick topped with a small skeleton head. — N.H.
10. James Luna, “The Artifact Piece,” 1987
The performance artist James Luna, who died in 2018 at age 68, had a wicked sense of humor, which made his explorations of the way that Indigenous people have long been objectified, especially in museums, painfully piquant. A member of the California Luiseño tribe — and of Puyukitchum, Ipai and Mexican American Indian descent — who lived much of his life on reservation land in San Diego County, Luna staged his most famous work, which came to be known as “The Artifact Piece,” in 1987 at the anthropology-focused Museum of Man (now the Museum of Us) in the nearby Balboa Park. In it, Luna laid for hours at a time in a vitrine, wearing just a loin cloth. Around him, labeled as though for an anthropological exhibit, were such objects as his divorce papers and his college diploma. Even the scars on his body were labeled with deadpan panache. Luna’s occasional yawns and stretches jarred the viewer by disrupting the passive stance the artist was critiquing. “Americans,” Luna once said, “like romance more than they like the truth.” — N.H.
TLF: I’d like to ask you about the Mapplethorpe you nominated, Cathy. He put himself in this work, even though he didn’t necessarily intend to (originally, he was just trying to photograph his cane). Another piece Nikil nominated, by James Luna, also uses the artist’s own body. You and Shirin are both artists who have used your own bodies in communicating.
CO: One of the reasons I nominated Mapplethorpe is because that self-portrait — specifically with the skull and the cane — was one of his last statements, one of his last known self-portraits. This is an artist who built a whole body of work about being a gay, erotic, sexual being, and for him to acknowledge his own life’s end in this way — it’s just an incredibly tense moment. It’s similar to what Felix did with the beds on the billboard, another piece I wanted to talk about. As an artist who had gone to grad school at Cal Arts, who had Douglas Crimp as my teacher as well as many other amazing people who were activists and teachers in my life — there is a certain bravery within the community that gave me permission to be brave as well. Protest art is also about the idea of the collective. It’s the idea that with our voices, we can expand on these ideas, while also being activists and while also trying to create more understanding, equality and humanity within this wold. When you think about all the art that has piled up and that may not be called protest art by the artist but that still influenced us, and gave us permission to have our own voices — I think that is phenomenally important.
11. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled,” 1991
In May 1992, a series of 24 billboards displaying an identical image began appearing throughout New York City. They featured a giant close-up black-and-white photograph, without text, of a rumpled bed, pillows still indented from the heads that had rested there. The image had been captured by the Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose partner, a Canadian sommelier named Ross Laycock, had died the year before from complications of AIDS; the number of billboards correlated to the date Laycock died in January. The harrowing portrait of loss, which, like many of the artist’s works, was labeled “Untitled,” occupied the liminal, often uncomfortable space between art and advertising. Made a few years before the peak of the epidemic in the United States, it brought the domestic devastation of AIDS into the public realm, where, at the time, such realities were largely met with silence and denial. The piece’s simplicity remains its power: Gonzalez-Torres, who, four years later, succumbed to effects of the disease at age 38, forced us to confront not merely the millions taken by the virus, but the incalculable sorrow of those left behind. — N.H.
SN: I’m currently in New Mexico working on a feature-length film called “Land of Dreams,” which is about looking at America from the point of view of an immigrant and Iranian woman artist. It gives a very diverse sociological reading of the country. This character goes door to door to people’s houses and questions them, and asks them about their dreams and nightmares — and in doing so, she addresses not just economic difference but what has happened with the communities of African-Americans and Native Americans. It’s a complicated narrative. So even though I’m working with fiction, it’s my way of being a political activist. This work is my first time daring to offer a point of view on this country, which is something I’ve never done before. So like Cathy said, everything that I make is political. I don’t even have the choice, because all the topics that I’m touching on have affected my life very directly. My work is the product of myself. That’s the most honest way I can make art. It’s not a gimmick and I’m not trying to be politically correct. It’s a really important step for me to embark on this project at this moment of American history as a Muslim Iranian immigrant. Whether it succeeds or not, I don’t know. But subconsciously, I think a lot of us are gravitating toward making work that is politically charged.
12. Emory Douglas, “Afro-American Solidarity With the Oppressed People of the World,” 1969
Emory Douglas joined the Black Panthers in January 1967 at the age of 23, just three months after Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the party. Douglas, who had studied graphic design at San Francisco City College, swiftly became the organization’s minister of culture and the art director in charge of its eponymous newspaper. The high-contrast, boldly hued, thick-lined illustrations and full-page images Douglas created for The Black Panther, as well as his many posters and pamphlets, became inextricable parts of the party’s mission to unite those affected by injustice across the United States and around the world. Emory’s works not only communicated the strength of the group and its rage, but also its sense of collective pride and global community. In 1969, he synthesized all of these elements in one of his most celebrated images. An African-American woman wearing a patterned jacket, teardrop earrings and a rifle on her back brandishes a spear. Rendered from below, she seems to be towering above us. Beside her, text proclaiming “Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed People of the world” addresses the viewer in a no-nonsense, sans-serif font. Reflecting on the image in 2016, Douglas highlighted the central role of female Panthers within his imagery. “The women depicted in my artwork are a reflection of the party,” he said. “Women went to jail and were in leadership roles. Women started chapters and branches of the Black Panther Party as well … that played into how I expressed them in my own artwork.” — Z.L.
TLF: Dread, could we go back to Emory Douglas and poster art?
DS: The Black Panther newspaper was the most widely read Black newspaper in the country. It was not just a fringe activist newspaper. At one point, there were 300,000 issues distributed a week. A lot of the work I was thinking about was about resistance, and I’m glad that Shirin named Leon Golub, for example. I was thinking a lot about Jacob Lawrence — those are all images of people fighting and resisting, and showing that the police are terrible oppressors. But Emory Douglas was focusing on what a revolutionary should look like and how to represent this new generation of badass, Black, leather-clad, beret-wearing people that included both men and women. How do we make the revolution sexy and attractive? The Black Panthers were very inspired by the visual iconography of the Chinese Revolution and Mao Zedong. What’s also remarkable is that Douglas was working with a very limited palette and inexpensive printing technology, yet he was still able to develop a new language to style people fighting against the police and the state. The particular work I chose has both text and image but it also has this beautiful wavy background that belongs to both the psychedelic movement and the larger revolutionary iconography of the time. So, for him to make positive images of not just Black people, but Black revolutionaries who are armed and fighting in a very stylized way, I think, was a real shift. He re-envisioned something and then made it the property of millions of people. There aren’t that many other activist movements that have been able to create that in quite the same way.
13. Jacob Lawrence, “Struggle … From the History of the American People,” Panel 5, 1955
The bright white blades of bayonets clash against black swords and knives, carving the painting into a frenzy of jagged angles. The fifth panel from Jacob Lawrence’s 30-part series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” in which four shirtless brown-skinned men battle a group of armed oppressors, is among the most aggressive. Most of the figures are streaming blood — bright red splashes that leap out from the chaotic mosaic of weapons and body parts. As a whole, the “Struggle” series charts the early history of the United States between 1770 and 1817 through scenes of personal sacrifice, collective labor, hard-won freedoms and various forms of cruelty. Black and Native people, white colonists, British forces and Hessian soldiers all appear in the paintings, most of which are accompanied by excerpts from a contemporary source — a speech, letter, song, or document — that deepens the complexity of the work. The fifth panel derives its title (“We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!”) from a 1773 petition submitted to the governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and its House of Representatives by an enslaved man known as Felix. He condemns violent uprisings, such as the one shown in the painting, and encourages the government to make the “wise, just and good” decision to free peaceful slaves. Painted in 1955, the work captures the historical origins of then-contemporary debates surrounding nonviolent protest versus militant revolution. — Z.L.
TLF: Nikil, you touched on the Act Up sign that is definitely part of the iconographic language that Dread’s discussing. Several people nominated it. Would you talk about that a bit?
NS: It speaks to what we were discussing about the Robert E. Lee statue, because it’s repurposing Holocaust imagery. Something that’s coming up — and it’s in what Dread’s raising and also in the Mapplethorpe — is the idea that the work has a direct purpose. With Emory Douglas (I actually have a reprint in my house of a poster produced for a 1968 Cuban demonstration, “Solidarity with the African American People”), this poster was advertising a rally. There’s also the way in which those posters are aligning themselves with the third world, not just with the Cultural Revolution, but also with what was happening in the Caribbean, especially in Cuba. So there’s this interesting temporal dimension to what we’re talking about. These works are punctual. They’re designed to be used on a particular occasion and then they have this afterlife. The Mapplethorpe actually brings this up very explicitly. It’s a memento mori. It’s about lives and death and afterlives, and it speaks to us in various ways. Many of us nominated Faith Ringgold, which is interesting to note — and I’m sure we could linger on that. Ringgold talks in an interview about how the protest art that she created was not really well-viewed by activists and organizers at the time, that there was this idea that protest and art were not connected. For me, the Rick Lowe homes are also about that immediate need to claim Black space and urban space in a city context that has ramifications over a longer period of time. It speaks to the way that artists have a kind of ambiguous relationship to urban space and cities that is tied to finance, to speculation. Time is an important problem for protest art. That we protest at a moment and it happens and it’s punctual. But the art is not punctual. It’s often late.
14. Rick Lowe, James Bettison, Bert Long Jr., Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples and George Smith, Project Row Houses, 1993
In 1992, the Alabama-born artist Rick Lowe, then 31, had been living in Houston for seven years when a handful of high school students visited him at his studio. At the time, he was making large-scale paintings and sculptures inspired by the poverty and inequality he saw around him in the city’s Third Ward, but then one of the kids asked him a question he could not answer: If you’re an artist, why don’t you come up with a creative solution to the problem? That encounter sparked Project Row Houses, a now almost 30-year-long nonprofit enterprise that vividly examines the porosity between art and activism. Influenced by the German artist and agitator Joseph Beuys, the progenitor of “social sculpture,” and the work of John T. Biggers, who painted haunting, impressionistic scenes, Lowe and a group of collaborators raised money to buy 22 shotgun houses, and renovated them for artists’ residencies and community use. Maintaining their pier-and-beam structures was not cost effective, but Lowe felt it was important to celebrate the African-American vernacular, first erected in West Africa and brought eventually to New Orleans. Behind eight houses that to this day are occupied for up to five months by artists, Lowe and his collaborators renovated others for single mothers to use for up to two years. And over the decades, the project has expanded to include a series of low-to-moderate-income duplex residences and created almost a dozen local social programs. “We can approach our lives as artists, each and every one of us,” Lowe told The New York Times in 2006. “If you choose to, you can make every action a creative act.” — N.H.
TLF: Does protest art have an expiration date or should it endure?
CO: History doesn’t have an expiration date. That’s my answer to that. Art, in my mind, has always been about continuing a dialogue, that continues to inspire as it educates. Ru, I’m going to call on you because I’m interested in the curator’s perspective.
15. Elizabeth Catlett, “Target,” 1970
The most haunting quality of “Target,” a bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, may be its timelessness. The piece — in which the cross hairs of a rifle sight frame the head of an African-American man mounted on a block of wood — could date to the Civil War era, when rifle scopes entered into widespread use, or to the present day, when research shows that young Black men are far more likely to be killed by police than other Americans. Catlett, in fact, conceived the work in 1970 in response to the fatal shooting of two Black Panthers — Fred Hampton and Mark Clark — by Chicago police officers. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1915, the granddaughter of freed slaves, Catlett unflinchingly depicted the violent reality of racial injustice throughout her career, but she also portrayed civil rights leaders — Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis and Malcolm X among them — as well as the courage and resilience of everyday African-Americans, particularly women. “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential,” she once said. “We have to create an art for liberation and for life.” Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962, but she continued to address the experience of Black people in the United States until her death in 2012. Catlett’s “Target” and the 1968 piece “Black Unity,” a raised fist carved in mahogany, are two of the most iconic and lasting artworks in the continuing movement for civil rights. — Z.L.
RH: I was going to say the same thing. I was thinking about the Elizabeth Catlett piece that I selected, “Target,” from 1970. I first saw it in a magazine from the 1970s, I can’t remember which magazine, but I know she made it after Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered by the Chicago P.D. in 1969. It was based on a sculpture she’d made in 1955 that was the bust of a man. It was also called “Target,” but she then added the cross hair. So in order to see this person — to look into his eyes — you have to look through the cross hair. You’re on the other side of the rifle no matter whether you’re me, a Black man, a white man, a white woman — whoever you are, you’re complicit in some way in this treatment and this murder. Even though she was specifically responding to the murder of those two people, there is still resonance to these works. Because history is cyclical, and because we are not yet over the hump in any way, shape or form for any of the issues that any of the artists we each suggested were referring to. We’re still in this moment where Black men and Black people in general are in the cross hairs, literally and figuratively.
NS: The Catlett effectively poses the question, which side are you on? Which a lot of this work does. There are ways in which you’re constantly forced to choose sides. Do you choose silence or do you choose action?
RH: In terms of “Silence = Death” and its relevance, I also thought of it because it is so iconic. And I do think some things probably age less well. But I also think we’re all too old to answer that question.
DS: Ru, you’re a kid. You’re still young.
RH: No, I mean it! Cathy and Dread, you both have college-age children, and maybe you do too, Shirin, but I’m so dead serious. We’re too old. We need to talk to some peeps, some young people, about what they actually think —
CO: I agree with that.
RH: — instead of spinning around — because we really don’t know. I hope the Act Up sign is still resonant for them, but it might not be.
DS: There’s young and there’s young. “Silence = Death” is from 1986. Which is old, but you know, the Mona Lisa is much older than that. We’re still looking at it. Of course, if anybody said, “OK, I’m going to do figurative portraiture like this,” and think it’s gonna be resonant now, they’d really have to do something special to make the case. Yet we can’t deny the Mona Lisa still, in some way, speaks to us. I think the more interesting question with political art is — how does the work actually last through time? There was a lot of work, I’m sure, made during the AIDS pandemic that people have forgotten. I know Avram Finkelstein, who is one of the key creators of “Silence = Death,” and he spoke about how triggering Covid was for him. Historically, people should understand that work. If people made Beatles songs today, nobody would listen. But not to understand that the Beatles transformed rock ’n’ roll would be very shortsighted.
16. Yoko Ono, “Cut Piece,” 1964
The setup — a seated woman, an audience, a pair of scissors — is simple. The implications of Yoko Ono’s most acclaimed artwork, however, are anything but. Conceived in 1964, long before performance art had become a well-established medium, “Cut Piece” invited viewers to approach Ono, who sat impassively on a stage, and, using the shears provided, snip away sections of her clothing. Canonized as one of the most chilling, spellbinding works of feminist art to date, “Cut Piece” eloquently conveys an experience familiar to many women — that of being inside a body upon which others feel entitled to act. Economic in its means, the work implicates everyone — male and female alike — in perpetuating the objectification of women through complacency and voyeurism. The charged atmosphere of the live performance is apparent even in videos: The crowd at one 1965 performance was timid at first — footage shows audience members trimming small pieces from the edges of Ono’s outfit — but their participation soon becomes more audacious and predatory. One young man cuts away a large section of the artist’s top before severing the straps of her brassiere. Ono initially described “Cut Piece” as a means of dissolving the usual dynamic between the artist (as the creator of a fixed product) and the viewer (as the passive recipient), but, decades later, Ono seems to have embraced its legacy as a social critique. The piece, she said in 2003, is “against ageism, against racism, against sexism, and against violence.” — Z.L.
TLF: Speaking of the Beatles, Cathy, why did you include Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”?
CO: It’s a specific work to which so many people attach so many different meanings. Feminists have adapted it as a crucial piece about a woman’s body, even though that wasn’t Yoko’s intention as an artist. And the idea of cutting, that you’re taking a part of a person’s clothing to take away with you — it is a very silent work, which I always liked. I always read it from a feminist perspective, of a woman being exposed and quietly letting pieces of herself be taken away. And I’ve always wondered what performance artists like Marina Abramovic or Carolee Schneemann thought of it. I also like the idea that anybody can perform it — it doesn’t need to be a woman, it could be a man, especially considering the time we’re in now, when our democracy is being stripped away.
17. Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground),” 1989
In our current season of upheaval and chaos, the 1989 March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives, during which a reported 300,000 people descended on the capital to defend the federal right to abortion, seems both long ago and just yesterday. However, one artwork designed for that rally — it was printed on fliers and distributed there — has never been out of mind, and rarely out of sight, throughout the years: “Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground)” by Barbara Kruger. Using her characteristic medium — black-and-white midcentury photographs overlaid with stark white Futura Bold lettering on a red panel — the conceptual artist cleaved in half and into positive and negative exposures the image of a sedate model, her features partly obscured by the text. The work comments on both the ideal of symmetrical female beauty and the terror of being turned into a mere object, one on which cultural wars might be played out. Kruger, who started in the 1960s as a graphic designer for Condé Nast magazines including Mademoiselle, has always aimed to introduce subversive meaning into media — shaking up the drone of images and words with which we are inundated. But this message, which has none of the irony she often employs to drive home her point, arguably is her most nakedly powerful. — N.H.
TLF: Shirin, you named Barbara Kruger, as did other people — why did you choose that work?
SN: I find Barbara one of the most successful public artists. Her smart and witty images/texts resonate in such a subversive and powerful way to a wide range of people. What I love about her work is that it feels timeless and relevant and can cross cultural boundaries whether it’s to do with women’s rights or capitalism or political corruption. “Your Body Is a Battleground” could not be a more accurate depiction of the situation of women in Iran throughout our modern history. Look at how Iranian authorities (always ruled by men) have been exercising their political and religious ideologies directly on women’s bodies. In many ways, by studying what has happened to Iranian women’s bodies, you can understand the different political systems of Iranian history. For example, our king, Reza Shah (1925-41), forced women to “unveil,” to dress in Western outfits and become more European, whereas later, after the 1979 revolution, Iranian women were forced to wear the veil and inflicted with other heavy regulations both in their public and private lives.
18. Martha Rosler, “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” 1975
A wonderfully lo-fi work, Martha Rosler’s landmark single-channel video is a grainy six minutes that spits in the face of America’s gendered social hierarchy. In a kind of parody — or perhaps a nightmarish version — of Julia Child’s cooking shows in the 1960s, Rosler stands in a kitchen, dons an apron and walks through the alphabet, assigning letters to various objects found there — “A” for “apron,” “B” for “bowl,” “C” for “chopper” — as she holds these objects up to the camera with an eerie lack of expression and emotion. But as she continues this exercise, her movements become increasingly contrived and violent. By the time she gets to “fork,” she’s stabbing at the table aggressively with the utensil. When she arrives at the letter “R,” for “rolling pin,” she thrusts the object at the camera. By the end of the alphabet, she’s brandishing other kitchen tools like weapons, stabbing the air. The video ends with the artist offering an exhausted shrug, an ambiguous gesture that feels less like a resignation of fate and more a way of asking, “What is wrong with us?” — M.H.M.
NS: I think a lot of protest art has a lot to do with popular culture. With Martha Rosler, for example, her set reference points are the Julia Child cooking shows. Today, in the YouTube, TikTok era we’re in, people are doing these kind of semiotics of the object — I was watching a video the other day where someone is fondling a bicycle, in what they called a “Semiotics of the Bicycle.” There are actually many different “Semiotics of the Kitchen.” It’s a reproducible activity.
CO: It becomes comic, right? Or, think about Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (1936) and what that held at a certain point in terms of representation. One of the things I’m always curious about is our relationship to nostalgia. Because that’s something Rosler did really well — she hooked into the nostalgia of America, which, in a weird way, is exactly what has made Trump so successful. He’s tapped into this nostalgia about America being great again or whatever. There’s so much danger in that right now, especially in relation to protest art.
19. Andreas Sterzing, “David Wojnarowicz (Silence = Death),” 1989
This portrait of the artist David Wojnarowicz was made by Andreas Sterzing in 1989, a year in which AIDS was estimated by the Centers for Disease Control to be the second leading cause of death among men 25 to 44 years of age. Wojnarowicz started out as an avant-garde painter and filmmaker in Lower Manhattan, but his work became far more politically charged after he discovered, around 1987, that he was H.I.V. positive. His sewn-up mouth became a recurring image in his art and activism, a gesture that took the slogan “Silence = Death,” which had been adopted as a rallying cry by AIDS activists and serves as the picture’s subtitle, to its logical, literal extreme. (The image also appears in Wojnarowicz’s 1986-87 short film, “A Fire in My Belly,” which was censored as recently as 2010, during an exhibition of gay art at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Anti-censorship protesters carried signs outside the museum that displayed Wojnarowicz’s sewn mouth.) The task of educating the public about the crisis was largely left to activists and artists like Wojnarowicz. “I think what I really fear about death is the silencing of my voice,” he once said. “I feel this incredible pressure to leave something of myself behind.” The artist died of an AIDS-related illness three years after the completion of this portrait, at the age of 37. — M.H.M.
SN: I was hoping we could talk more about the difference between protest art and politically proactive or politically charged art. To me, protest art speaks to your opposite, to your enemy, to the people you’re fighting against. A politically proactive work is something that is politically correct. It talks to your peers. There’s a huge difference. There are a lot of people making fantastic political work, but I don’t know if they consider themselves activists: William Kentridge, Kara Walker, Robert Longo. But David Wojnarowicz, to me, was a protest artist in the way he went after the AIDS crisis. Nicky Nodjoumi is a very political artist who worked with the Iranian Student Association. They created these posters leading up to the revolution and they blasted them all over the city and they were organized as protest artists. Their work was very intentionally designed to be that way. How do you distinguish protest from political art?
20. LaToya Ruby Frazier, “Flint is Family,” 2016-17
The Flint water crisis had mostly stopped making national headlines by the time the photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier traveled there on assignment in 2016, but the Michigan town’s water supply was still tainted by deadly bacteria and lead, forcing residents to buy bottled water when it should have been safely available in their homes. Frazier spent five months with a family encompassing three generations of women, chronicling daily life at the heart of a man-made ecological disaster. The project was a natural extension of her already well-established commitment to social justice — Frazier had grown up in Braddock, Pa., a Rust Belt community ravaged by unemployment, toxic pollution, white flight and discrimination, and she first won acclaim for a series of photographs, begun when she was 16, capturing the effects of poverty and environmental racism on her own family. Frazier’s photo essay on Flint first ran in Elle magazine; she then exhibited the images at the gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 2018. Some artists might have stopped there, but this was only the beginning of Frazier’s campaign. “I knew it was going to take more than a series of photographs on my part to bring relief to the people in Vehicle City,” she said in a recent TED Talk. Frazier issued fund-raising prints to help residents spread awareness, and she flew flags stating the number of days the town had been without safe water at art institutions nationwide. Finally, Frazier donated the proceeds from her “Flint is Family” exhibition to help bring an atmospheric water generator to the town. Now, residents are welcome to use the machine, which collects 2,000 gallons a day, free of charge. — Z.L.
RH: I don’t think an artist who, in their practice, engages in thinking about politically-charged concepts or histories, has to define every single work as protest art.
I’m very interested in discussing LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “Flint is Family” in the context of the Dorothea Lange you mentioned, Cathy, just in terms of how LaToya’s work pushes back against the disinterested observer who comes and takes a picture, where the condition of a person photographed is left unchanged even though her image is now all over the world for generations, which is what happened with “Migrant Mother.” In “Flint is Family,” LaToya thought about how the series was in the tradition of her own work, in documenting her own community, her family and this kind of postindustrial America. But after she went to Flint, she learned that there was this water purification system that the town really needed and that nobody could afford. And the government was not doing anything about it. So she donated all the proceeds of her show — with a matching grant from the Rauschenberg Foundation — and bought this water purification system for the community. It’s still there. It’s still purifying water. It’s incredible that artists — our creative peers and our community — are coming together for mutual aid. But we are doing services that we have every right to expect our government to do. It’s insane that they don’t have clean water in Flint at this point. It’s insane that people are going hungry in the richest country in the history of the world. And it’s insane that artists — who have no health insurance and who have no job security and are in an even more precarious situation now than they were six months ago — are leading the charge, you know? This is the world that we live in. Shirin, to answer your question, I think it’s a work-by-work difference, not an artist-by-artist difference.
SN: In the last few years, with my work, I’ve placed myself within certain communities in New Mexico, which is one of the poorest states in America. Finally, after all these years that I’ve lived in America, I’ve gotten to know the Native Americans and the reservations and the conditions that they live in, along with the African-American community in Albuquerque. Aside from the work itself, and whether it will be good or bad, the experience of being in contact with the people that I’m making narratives about is a very fulfilling one, as opposed to being in a studio. Having said that, I question my own work in terms of: Who is its audience? Is it the same people who already think like me? What am I planning to change? What is it that I’m trying to establish other than making a nice work of art? I don’t have the answers. More and more, as this country is becoming more like an authoritarian society like Iran, I feel responsible to do something. I don’t want to sit in a studio and just imagine the world.
21. Faith Ringgold, “American People Series #20: Die,” 1967
Ringgold’s second entry on this list is a harrowing, monumental painting that the artist once described as “a prophecy of our times.” The last in a cycle of 20 paintings begun in 1963 and called “American People,” “Die” was partially inspired by Ringgold’s almost weekly viewings of Picasso’s 1937 antiwar painting, “Guernica,” during its long-term loan at MoMA beginning in 1943. There is a blunt force to the work — it spans 12 feet across — that makes it impossible to look away from: the splatters of blood, the woman clutching a bleeding child by the head, the two children cowering at the center of the picture, one of them making eye contact with the viewer as if asking for help, the fact that everyone is dressed, disturbingly, in the era’s basic uniforms of middle-class order (shirt sleeves for men, minidresses for women). Ringgold painted “Die” during the long, hot summer of 1967, as disenfranchised Black Americans, exhausted by a racist status quo, began rebellions in cities across the country, most notably Detroit and Newark. The press framed these actions as, to quote The New York Times in July of that year, “the mob rule and violence that have spread through the urban ghettos.” But in her painting, Ringgold implicates everyone, both Black and white. The painting held a mirror to America then, and it is sadly no less relevant now. MoMA acquired “Die” in 2016, and when the institution rehung its collection last year, the work was placed right at home next to a Picasso. — M.H.M.
TLF: Let’s address why Faith Ringgold was nominated multiple times.
DS: Ringgold may be the most known artist on the list and perhaps in an odd way, the most well-known living American artist, since she writes children’s books. So many parents have read “Tar Beach” (1991) to their kids. That work is subversive in talking about the Black Harlem experience in really great ways. One thing that is really special about Faith is that she had her feet in two camps — radical activist and celebrated/collected artist — and it is often hard to do both at the same time. “The United States of Attica” is a poster. It situates the Attica prison uprising and the violent repression against it in the context of the long history of genocide and brutality by the U.S.A. And it connects this to Garvey’s Pan-Africanist colors. And that was not a one-off dive into politics, either. Ringgold was one of the key organizers of the “People’s Flag Show,” and she along with the other organizers, Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche, were arrested for putting that on. She walks the walk.
I selected “American People Series #20: Die.” Fine artists are told to stay away from being critical of the U.S. and to stay away from radical activism. That’s changed in the past couple of years, but from the 1970s up until a couple of years ago, artists were told in no uncertain terms that making work like this is bad for your career. So it’s precious that Faith hasn’t heeded that advice. It’s also very important that she’s managed to get equally radical work on the walls of MoMA, the Whitney, etc.
“#20: Die” shows the profound violence that defines America. It is clear in this work that race is central to a lot of that. At a time when vigilantes are murdering people protesting police violence against Black people, this work from over 50 years ago is tragically relevant today. It’s difficult to make any of the work that Faith makes. I hope more artists learn from her. More artists should learn to connect with radical movements and make art that resonates with them and amplifies what the activists are doing. But what’s really special about Faith and “#20: Die” is that the edge is brought not just to people who are seeking it, but also to the school kids, tourists and a broader art-going audience attending the MoMA.
RH: Faith is very much devoted to civil rights, but she also called herself a feminist when a lot of Black women artists did not identify as feminists. I selected “For the Women’s House,” a piece that she made in consultation with incarcerated women at Rikers Island. She proposed to city agencies creating a work of art for the prison. Instead of just making it, she went and met the women in ways that are now very familiar to us — in that category of social practice where you engage with the community — and she spoke to the women about the painting and the topic of it. Much of it came out of what they said about the lack of opportunities in their lives because of their gender, as well as a dearth of positive female role models at that time. Her idea was to depict all the professions or arenas which women were not able to be a part of — there were limited opportunities for female professional athletes, construction workers, police officers, doctors, politicians, etc. Women were not able to fully participate in public life. That painting was made in 1971. We forget how quickly change has happened. I think a lot about how quickly — in the grand scheme of the world — women have gone from not having credit cards in our names to seeing Ruth Bader Ginsburg sitting on the Supreme Court. In our mother’s lifetime, really. So yeah, Faith painted it, installed it and everyone is happy, and then fast-forward — that facility at Rikers was changed to a men’s prison, and the men didn’t like the painting. They began to paint over it, and a guard called her and said you need to get over here, now. And she did, and it was restored and moved to the new women’s prison. So it has this other story to it. But that’s really interesting to me, too — why didn’t the men like it? There are allusions to female revolutionaries in it: The bus is going to Sojourner Truth Square, for example. But you know, Faith said something like, “If I hadn’t done it for the Women’s House, I would have done something more radical.” To her, what was so radical about a woman police officer? A woman bus driver? How much does context matter and how much does your own positioning influence your perspective? That’s extremely radical and extremely self-aware of her.
22. Forensic Architecture, “Triple-Chaser,” 2019
Presented as part of the 2019 Whitney Biennial, “Triple-Chaser” — by the London-based collective Forensic Architecture, along with Praxis Films — is a short but powerful video investigation into Warren B. Kanders, the C.E.O. of the weapons company The Safariland Group and, at the time, the vice chair of the board of the Whitney Museum. Calls for Kanders’s resignation — including an open letter signed by over 100 staff members — began in November 2018, after the website Hyperallergic reported that Safariland-produced tear gas had been used by immigration officials against asylum seekers, including children, at the U.S.-Mexico border. By May of 2019, on the Biennial’s opening night, Kanders remained on the board; protesters marched from the museum to his townhouse nearby while chanting, “You can’t hide.” In July, several artists asked the museum to remove their work from the show because of the institution’s ongoing support of Kanders. Tear gas is a chemical weapon that is banned from international warfare, but Safariland’s tear gas grenades called “Triple-Chaser” (and others like them) are routinely used against citizens by police forces across the world. The video provides damning evidence of Triple-Chaser grenades, branded with Safariland logos, being used against innocent civilians, and of Kanders’s additional involvement as executive chair of the parent company that owns Sierra Bullets, which, as shown in the video, has been investigated for “aiding and abetting war crimes through the sale of their products” by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. The video was a harsh indictment of Kanders’s attempts to profit off violence and to hide his complicity behind the walls of the very museum in which the video was presented. It remained on view for the show’s duration, outlasting Kanders himself, who resigned from the museum’s board two months before the Biennial’s run was over. — M.H.M.
TLF: I’d like to touch on the art market, and how it has grown, and how complicit the art world is in the laundering of power and reputation. Ru, you nominated Forensic Architecture, which made a work with Praxis Films critiquing Warren Kanders and his company Safariland Group. At the time, Kanders was on the board of the Whitney and now he isn’t.
RH: I don’t know another work that has had such a tangible effect. Of course, the events that unfolded with Warren Kanders and the Whitney didn’t happen just because of that work — but I do think it was incredibly important. We invited them to be in the Biennial. We didn’t ask them to make a work about any particular topic. We simply said, “We love what you do, and we love what you’re about, you operate in these multiple spheres,” which is something I’ve mentioned — the architecture space, the computer science space, as well as the justice space. They’ve made work that has been cited by international tribunals on human rights and used as evidence. They share their work and information on the internet for anyone to see, they believe in open source. With protest art, one of the questions I find very difficult to answer is whether it’s important if there is an impact. Of course, something might happen in the heart and mind of an individual, and if I didn’t believe in that then I wouldn’t do the work that I do. It’s the most profound thing about art, period. But it can be hard to say something is really political art if nothing really changed externally in the world. I’m really proud of Forensic Architecture and I’m also still intrigued by that work. I return to it.
As for the market and the art world — we are all entrenched in the capitalist system that dictates our lives and how we move through the world and the decisions that we make. I don’t think the art world is separate from that at all. I’m just not sure it’s so unique.
DS: Questions of the art world and money are not that interesting. There’s a lot of money in art. There are a lot of people who use their money to try and shape the world in a particular way. And it takes money to make art. Some people are more willing to make work that doesn’t challenge anything because, as Cathy was saying earlier, they’re worried about getting a teaching job. Fortunately, Cathy chose to make the work she needs to make.
I think the question of how change happens and what change you’re trying to have happen, is important. The Forensic Architecture piece was great. I’m glad that it contributed to Kanders’s going, that’s fantastic. But if our litmus test is we did A and B happened — I mean, can you say that the Freedom Riders directly led to the breaking down of Jim Crow? No you can’t, but you can say that was pivotal for the civil rights movement going where it went. Likewise, you can’t say that Emory Douglas’s work directly translated to Black Lives Matter, but you can say that without that work and iconography, the generation that came up afterward and thought about systemic change wouldn’t have had the same foundation to stand on.
When Shirin said America is becoming more like Iran: I do genuinely respect the perspective of somebody who’s lived in a country where it’s assumed that if you say certain things, the government can disappear you or kill you. That’s different than the modern U.S. But let’s be real, in the United States, ownership of human beings and having individuals do whatever they wanted to do with those human beings was perfectly normal for the first 80 years. It was perfectly normal for lynch mobs to kill people and then go to trial and even admit what they did but then say, “Look, we’re white people, this is what we do, we’re cool, right?” That’s what America is. The art I’m most interested in challenges our foundational assumptions — whether that’s the AIDS crisis or the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement. Art that changes people’s ideas, that helps them see more presciently the world we live in and how it could actually change. Whether that work exists in a revolutionary newspaper or on the streets, whether it exists in providing water for the people of Flint or in a museum space — like the Jacob Lawrence work I nominated, which challenged how people saw enslaved people. The ideas matter tremendously on where your feet are planted. Are you reinforcing the status quo or are you challenging some fundamental supposition of how we see ourselves?
CO: One of things that Dread said that’s really important is that even if we’re all here in our little window boxes on Zoom during a friggin’ pandemic, is — what is collectivity? That it’s not necessarily about a singular voice or that kind of singularity, so to speak, but it’s about that collectivity. It’s about us as artists and curators and thinkers and writers as we begin to form an opinion of the times that we’re living in. I teach and I’ve been teaching for 30 years now. I constantly hear the concerns of young people, because I’m with 18- to 26-year-olds on a regular basis. They really, really feel that it doesn’t matter anymore to be an artist. It upsets me that so many of their opinions are like, “Oh my god, this is all just too much, you know?” Between climate change, global warming and racism, you know, they just feel like, “What can I add to it?" I constantly say to them that it’s about a collectivity in relation to you individually answering the questions that are important to you and then trying to create representation within that. That’s what we have to remember, which is a small bit of optimism within an incredible sea of calamity, so to speak.
RH: That is really heart-rending. Dread, when you brought up the Freedom Riders, I was thinking about how, as they prepared to do the sit-ins, they were performing mock scenarios for themselves. They and other civil rights activists rehearsed things like having someone blow smoke in their face or smash a plate onto the ground. And I think about the choreography it required to prepare to do those actions. Cathy, I’m so curious about how we talk about creativity and how we talk about art in the world because those young people were thinking creatively in ways that are perhaps different from artists but still analogous. We’re in this moment now where we’re seeing people of all ages asking what they can do differently. But also — what does a world without artists look like? Nobody wants to live in that world, even if we watch Netflix all day. Everything we do to keep ourselves sane, especially in this pandemic, comes back to being an artist.
SN: That makes me think about Iran after the revolution where, you know, we were immediately at war with Iraq, we had this horrific government, we were isolated from the world, the economy was a nightmare, there was oppression, there was no freedom of expression. And oddly enough, the cultural community was completely activated. It was really incredible. It created this thriving culture. A crisis — and we’re facing every kind of crisis right now, social, political, environmental — is actually very conducive to creating great art. This is a moment for transition in American society. For those young students who are disillusioned, considering everything that we are going through — and you know, even I, during these last six months, was questioning the value of being an artist anymore. It’s no wonder they’re asking those questions. But I’m very optimistic that this environment is going to be conducive to more radical work and rethinking what art is outside of just galleries and museums. To find ways in which artists will be more engaged in this society, in their communities, and be far more effective than we used to be.
TLF: Nikil, you’re an editor and a writer, but you recently won a Democratic primary for a seat in the Philadelphia State Senate, which would be your first political office. Can you tell us a little about your perspective?
NS: The staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art just organized into a public sector union. And the faculty, which includes adjunct faculty from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, are also organizing and forming a union. That comes partly out of a disenchantment, I think. It speaks to what you were saying, Cathy, that these art world institutions, fundamentally, are real estate — that they can feel anti-democratic in really material ways, not just cultural ways. So if you feel like there’s no point to any of this, maybe the point is actually more horizontal. It’s not I need to make it, I need to win as an artist. Because you start to see that winning has costs, and only a few people win and there’s a mass of people who are scraping by. Once you start to understand that, once you see that your fate lies with the other people around you, I think you understand some of the radicalism that Shirin was speaking to. I can only speak as a writer and editor — and I’m not immune to the same forces that are affecting the art world — but I think you start to feel like there’s a certain meritocratic lie at work here. People start to understand that it’s not just talent that helps you succeed, that you’re completely fractured by your race and class and status. So we need to start taking over institutions and dismantling them so that we can change things.
CO: I think that that’s really important to say. One of the reasons people should go into politics and especially why people should vote, is that if we don’t use the existing democracy that we have, including the democracy of our voices as artists, then where are we gonna end up? I’ve been on the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s board on and off — I left in protest a long time ago but went back on — and even though my fellow artists have criticized me, I do think that if all of us stay away from these boards, then what is left? Is it better to be active within it, and creating those discourses, than just throwing our hands up and saying, “I can’t create change.” I’m constantly saying to my students, “Go ahead, get in there.” Look at something from all different sides because there’s not any one answer. And change takes an enormously long time, unfortunately.
TLF: I’m wondering: could we define protest art by its response? A lot of the work listed here has prompted censure or outcry. Dread, George H.W. Bush said your first flag work [“What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” (1988)] was —
DS: Disgraceful. Which I thought was a tremendous compliment.
TLF: Can we take the response to some of these works and use that as a prism to look at how effective they are?
DS: In some cases, I think so. Having the president of the United States single out the artwork of an undergraduate student from a Midwestern art school as being disgraceful, was, for me, it was like, “Well, if the president doesn’t like what I’m doing and he knows I exist, I wanna do this for the rest of my life.” But I think that work presaged a lot of what we are still talking about now. Look at someone like Colin Kaepernick, whose protest is a redux of that, in a certain sense.
The reaction to a work can’t be the sole litmus test. I don’t think Act Up would have existed the way it did and had the effect it did without “Silence = Death.” It shaped how the movement got out in the world, which is really important. So “response” isn’t just the reaction to suppress, it’s also how it’s embraced by community. For example, some of Ai Weiwei’s most interesting work is what the Chinese government hates the most. He’s celebrated in Western art circles as being a Chinese dissonant, and there are ways to commodify that, but I think his most interesting work is when he engaged with the community to list the names of everyone who was killed from the government negligence surrounding the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. His work wasn’t just critiqued by the president, it was literally outlawed. That’s significant, but I also think there’s really great work that doesn’t get that response but is still really important. Especially work that, at various moments in history, concentrates people’s ideas or understanding of something that hadn’t really been articulated. Think of the song “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright,” which people were singing during the George Floyd protest. There’s a lot of work that has resonance in ways that don’t necessarily connect with the movement but then becomes important.
SN: I haven’t been back to Iran since 1996 because the government finds my work problematic. I have family there and I always think about how the Iranian government will perceive my work. My critics are the Islamic Republic of Iran, but then I also have art critics in the Western world. So that’s been an interesting challenge over the years and I’ve learned how to deal with it. Sometimes, I avoid talking to the media because I’m worried about my mother and my family in Iran. I’ve had to self-censor, even though I’m living outside of Iran, because I’m afraid of the government and how it will retaliate.
TLF: I want to throw out one last question — perhaps it’s a little naïve — but is there a work of art that brings you some sense of optimism for this moment? A lot of the work we nominated has a lot of anger, but there is also a lot of joy. What brings you joy?
CO: I’ll go first. I’m not going to pinpoint a work, actually. I’m thinking, again, of our collective voice, that collectivity of opinion, and how we reflect upon it, through all different media — whether it’s a newspaper article or a novel or artwork. I’m optimistic about the continuation of voices to fight for humanity and justice for all. But I can’t pinpoint a piece, because I’m hoping for all of it to wash over us in some way.
SN: I’m not a painter and I’m not an expert on painting, but Marlene Dumas is an artist whose work stirs so much emotion in me. As Cathy said, there are works of art that transcend political, social issues and become more primal in addressing our humanity — the pain, the mystery and our collective suffering — as well as capturing beauty. Her work moves me and it’s inexplicable, really. I don’t know who she is, I’ve never met her, but her work just goes right to my stomach. I think the emotions of her art are very powerful, especially in these times.
23. Roy DeCarava, “Five Men,” 1964
Among the New York artist and photographer Roy DeCarava’s many subjects were the March on Washington in 1963 and activists from Amy Mallard to Malcolm X. His most searing image of the civil rights movement, however, is a picture of five anonymous men emerging from a Harlem memorial service for the four young girls killed in the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala. We can only see two of their faces in full, but the pain and horror of those deaths is clearly etched into the features of the man on the left. DeCarava’s motivation to press the shutter, he said, was his “political understanding of the treatment of Black people and their response to injustice.” DeCarava was not in Birmingham but “wanted to make a picture that dealt with it. The men were coming out of the church with faces so serious and so intense, and the image was made.” When DeCarava was born in 1919, it was rare to see images of African-American life in museums. “One of the things that got to me,” he told The New York Times in 1982, “was that I felt that Black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.” Over the course of six decades, many of DeCarava’s images corrected the absence of Black representation, capturing everyday people, neighborhood scenes and domestic moments with rare tenderness. — Z.L.
DS: Music is more inspiring to me in many ways. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” the Clash’s “Clampdown” — those are my go-to jams when I want to feel good. As far as visual art, a piece we haven’t talked about is “Five Men” by Roy DeCarava. It’s a photograph of five men coming out of a Harlem church in 1964, after the four girls were bombed in Birmingham. There’s this very determined look on the faces of those men — I loved this photograph before I knew the story behind it — and it’s that look of determination to not be oppressed, to change. I look at that photograph and I’m like, “Yes, the world does not have to be the way it is.” People can change it.
24. Hank Willis Thomas, “All Power to All People,” 2017
A kind of response to America’s long history of erecting monuments to racist white men, Hank Willis Thomas’s “All Power to All People,” an eight-foot-tall Afro pick with a Black Power fist raised to the sky as its handle, was first installed in Philadelphia’s Thomas Paine Plaza, not far from a statue of Frank Rizzo, the city’s former mayor and police commissioner. Starting in 1967, Rizzo presided over a police department that was known across the country for its unhinged racial violence, and when he was elected mayor in 1972, he only helped perpetuate and cover up this violence. The Philadelphia Inquirer cited a grim statistic that “police shot civilians at a rate of one per week between 1970 and 1978,” roughly the period in which Rizzo was running the city. Thomas’s statue was a remarkable rejoinder. Though it was only on view in the plaza for about two months, it has since become a kind of roving monument to equality. Versions of the sculpture have been shown at places ranging from Burning Man to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign. Meanwhile, after protests over police brutality against Black Americans erupted across the country this summer, Rizzo’s statue was vandalized and, finally, taken down. — M.H.M.
RH: What Cathy said resonates with me very strongly. I’m biased, but a work that brings me great joy is one by my husband, Hank Willis Thomas, “All Power to All People.” I’ve seen that work unfold over many years, from when it was first installed in Philadelphia as part of Monument Lab’s citywide engagement, right next to the Frank Rizzo sculpture, which is, of course, now gone. But it’s also been installed all over the country. It went to Burning Man and had a soundscape that included speeches by civil rights and Black Power leaders. It’s had all these different lives, and it continues to have all these different lives. Having seen the way in which people, specifically Black people, but not exclusively Black people, engage with it in person — as well as its proliferation on social media — is something that quite literally has brought me joy. Just to see, especially to have young Black people see, this symbol and to make that immediate connection to themselves, to their own history, to their own community and to have it belong in art spaces everywhere — from a plaza to a sidewalk — and how in each place it’s in, it has new resonance and new meaning, but it also carries that initial charge of specificity.
25. Agnes Denes, “Wheatfield — A Confrontation,” 1982
In the spring of 1982, the Hungarian-born New York artist Agnes Denes, now 89, trucked in 200 loads of topsoil to the landfill created mostly by the construction of the World Trade Center Towers. She and a handful of volunteers cleared the site of garbage and hand-dug 285 furrows on the two-acre rectangular plot to plant “Wheatfield — A Confrontation,” the astonishing earthwork that for a single golden summer turned a patch of Lower Manhattan into a wind-whipped farmstead. Once the wheat had matured over three months, the group harvested it on Aug. 16, with a yield of more than 1,000 pounds. After providing hay to the mounted New York City police, they took the crop on the road to 28 cities to distribute it to people who would spread the seeds. Denes, who was born a few years before the rest of the (almost entirely male) land artists, has a different agenda than theirs: Her work, starting with 1968’s “Rice/Tree/Burial” in upstate New York (she planted a field of rice, wrapped chains around trees and buried a time capsule filled with her haikus) and most recently including “The Living Pyramid” (2015), a 30-foot triangular tower of wild grasses at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, is intended to be an ephemeral comment on ecological destruction and the twisted priorities of modern existence. “I decided,” she once said, “that we had enough public sculptures of men sitting on horses.” — N.H.
NS: I chose Agnes Denes’s “Wheatfield,” which I was not alive to experience. It was several things at once: It was a confrontation, it was on landfill that was in large part created by the erection of the first set of the World Trade Center towers, which was one — I mean, it has a different resonance because of 9/11 — but it’s one of the worst speculative projects in New York City history. It was among the tallest buildings in the world, it was barely filled after it was completed, and it occurred in the middle of a financial crisis. It makes you ask: What are we doing? What are we doing with our city, with our lives? It focuses on the use of land. Decades later, we are still thinking about how we use our land, certainly in New York City but also in cities all over. But the other thing it does, and the reason it brings me joy, is that it is just this field of wheat. Which is a very striking image. Wheat has this sound to it — or silence to it — that brings peace. It’s used to make bread and so, it brings to mind the slogan of the Russian Revolution, which was “Peace, Land and Bread.” It’s just all there in this one artwork. We just have to think about what we’re doing to the land. It’s not ours and it will survive us, depending on what we do.
Rujeko Hockley is an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian-born visual artist and filmmaker living in New York.
Catherine Opie is an artist and the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Endowed Chair in Art and professor of photography at University of California, Los Angeles.
Dread Scott is an artist whose work has been exhibited or performed at the Whitney Museum, MoMA PS1, BAM Fisher as well as galleries and street corners across the country and has previously been outlawed by the U.S. Congress.
Nikil Saval is a writer and the Democratic nominee for State Senate in Pennsylvania’s First Senate District.
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