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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

A Brief History of Protest Art – Aindrea Emelife

I particularly enjoyed this book which my Dad gave me for my birthday. It was small and succinct but had some great content that is very relevant to me creative research.

The bag was also a gift from my Dad - he knows me too well!

In her introductory essay ‘My Life is My Protest’, Emelife begins with a statement which echoes Joseph Beuys’ sentiment, ‘It seems unquestionable to consider that art can be made and not be political in some sense, especially when we are living in times like these.’ Whether ‘all art is political’ is a statement I have contended in a previous blog post exploring George Orwell’s essay ‘All Art is Propaganda’ – I’m not convinced given the commercialised nature of the art sector, that all art is political but nonetheless… Emelife continues, ‘recently, around the globe, radical and revolutionary movements and uprisings, urging actions from police reform to climate change to racial equality with the Black Lives Matter movement, have commanded a place in the mainstream.’ (page 7)


Emelife then writes about an issue close to my heart, which I dedicate a lot of energy to overcoming, ‘but once apathy takes hold of us, we must be wary. Apathy presents real danger. Apolitical, apathetic…. We must distance ourselves from being a-anything. But to the artist, there should be no danger of apathy. Through art, the artist has been given the freedom to communicate and disseminate powerful messages. For art and protest are forms of political thought. They are both potent and make apparent the deep inequities, injustices and truths of our time.’ (page 8) Again, I take issue with this point; the proliferation of commercial galleries such as, ‘Castle Fine Art’ which predominantly stock pop-art-esque or cartoonish works created for mass appeal, or works by artists such as Jeff Koons, and various celebrities (Bob Dylan, Billy Connolly, etc.) which will sell mainly for their name recognition potential, and as I noticed the last time I visited one of these galleries, almost exclusively works by male artists. I find most of these artworks to be vapid and entirely apathetic.


I agree with the following point, ‘To many artists, art is a sign of resistance to a hierarchical, global standardised political model. Art is the most raw and potent when it acts as a secret agent, luring us in with beauty or some other pretence, and then intervening with our inner-held conventions, some of which are undoubtedly, and unbeknownst to us, intertwined with histories of dominance and subordination, and inclusion and exclusion. In this artistic intervention, the artist destabilises and challenges the status quo.’ (page 9) This is the case for ‘many artists’ but certainly not all artists, as explained above – those we have lost to the trappings of commerciality, consumerism and capitalism. Perhaps you could argue that those “artists” who have “sold-out” to the capitalist system aren’t really artists in their true nature. I agree with Emelife’s arguments in this essay, my main criticism is the tendency to make extrapolative assertions that all artists are inherently political or all artworks are protesting for change – some, yes - but not all. For example, she writes, ‘creating art is a civic act – at its conception, production and execution. Protest is fluid, forceful, snappy and provocative. It is ever present, and recurrent, and appears when the social contract has been violated. It disrupts the structure that seeks to control. It is a revolt; a rupture that emerges when a society is demanding that something needs fixing.’ (page 13) Yes this is the case in some instances, but not all – I’d challenge her to explain how Damien Hirst’s dot paintings (which he didn’t actually paint himself) is demanding that something needs fixing in society. Emelife later makes the point, ‘there is a critical ingredient to protest art or a moralising intention. Simply, the art or the artist must seek to catalyse political change.’ (page 18) and I would contend that a lot of art lacks that ingredient.


Emelife then uses Beuys as a direct example, ‘Protest is not the same as political engagement by an artist; many or most artists are politically engaged. Joseph Beuys (1921-86) is a great example. He gave lectures and made art about ecology prior to co-founding the Green Party. The legacy of the Green Party lives on today and can be considered his most enduring work.’ (page 11) I love this sentiment that sees beyond sellable “products” as having the capacity to be artworks – for example, social artists, whose “artwork” is facilitating connection and community engagement.


I appreciated the inclusion of the ‘votes for women’ protest art, having read about the suffragettes recently as part of my research into banner-making (Threads of Life and Women for Peace), as well as having performed at the opening of the centenary exhibition at the National Justice Museum in 2018 and having performed alongside an actor, Kate Willoughby, who performs as a suffragette. ‘Some of the best protest art was done by activists we may never know the names of. In 1903, you may have been handling coins in your purse, and on closer inspection of one of the coins, you might have discovered the invocation, the demand for a right, ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’ engraved on the shiny surface. These coins, perfectly ordinary pennies from the Mint, were civil disobediences (defacing a coin was a serious criminal offence) that discreetly impacted when you might least expect, circulating the message of the campaigners via small change.’ (page 14) I think this example of protest is particularly powerful, because it is embedded in a currency which everyone in society is obliged to handle – making it highly visible and able to “reach outside of the echo chamber”. I also loved its subversive nature, defying the law to fight for change – I wonder if I would ever be that brave in my own work?


Emelife makes an interesting point about the use of text in protest art, ‘to define protest art we can consider the parameters of an artwork that uses canonical or identifiable forms to protest against or disrupt politics, or educate and/or encourage the viewer to look at the world in a different way. This is probably why so much of protest art includes words; it is the familiar language of protest whether printed or disrupted via projections, employing the visual language of marketing or punched into coins in the name of suffrage. Words are captivating and instantly arresting as our eyes naturally seek to decode and decipher texts. To disrupt the traditional modes of reading, and make it look different, is to grab and keep their attention.’ (page 16) Text is something I have incorporated in a lot of my protest performance work, dressing in attention grabbing costume and choosing bold and provocative text for a placard to communicate my message. There is a particular art to the selection of text for protest art – just think of the time and money political parties invest in strategizing their campaign slogans. With my own choice of text, I try to write as succinctly as possible and chose a message that is contemporarily relevant, amusing and/or witty.



Emelife writes about the role of the institution in supporting protest art and advocating for political change, ‘but we – our museums and curators alike – must be aware that cultural institutions are part of the structures of power that protests often seek to undo. In recognising this, museums must do away with neutrality – we all have a lot to learn from the way artists look at the world, and to the future. We cannot rest on our laurels; we must grow, and fight.’ (page 20) This argument is made in a great book ‘Culture Strike - Art and Museums in an Age of Protest’ by Laura Raicovich – and has reminded me that I need to re-read it.


Emelife describes protest art as a ‘a bludgeon. It is designed to wake us up and make us look at the world differently. Events, the subjectivity of history, and narratives that have been taken for granted without question find vivid interrogation through art. Protest is dialogue, and so the power of protest rests not just in the physical objects, but in the thoughts and conversations they provoke. That is the enduring legacy of great protest art.’ (page 21) I would testify to this, for me the most powerful thing to come out of the protest art I have created is the connection with other people, the conversations and exchanges I’ve had with strangers, the brilliant friends I have made as a result and the community I have built through my social media. I appreciate that it’s probably not healthy to rely on external validation for your creative work, but honestly, when friends and strangers give me words of encouragement or tell me that I inspired hope in them or motivated them to take action themselves – it means E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. It’s why I do what I do.


The Art Works


Below are some of the works I found particularly inspiring from the book, or which are relevant to my research along with some comments:


Gloriosa Victoria, 1954, Diego Rivera

‘The Guatemalan people are shown as soldiers or peasants, apart from the man in the centre, with his slick brown leather jacket and a wad of cash in his pocket… In fact, there is money everywhere, from inside the satchel of the director of the CIA to the pocket of the Guatemalan. Rivera’s warning against greed and power toured Eastern Europe in 1956 before going missing. It was later discovered rolled up in a store room at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, Russia, in 2006. Rivera’s social realism was propaganda as protest; he filled Mexico with his ideas and fought for what he believed in, one wall at a time.’ (page 29)


  • I first learned about Diego Rivera through a BBC documentary about his wife,and artist, Frida Kahlo. Unimpressed by how he treated her in their relationship, I did nonetheless have to commend his artistic talent and the political messaging in his mural artworks.

Riding Around, 1969, Philip Guston

‘Philip Guston’s provocative Klu Klux Klan pictures makes us look at the face of evil and laugh at their ridiculosity. Wildly political, after working with abstract expressionism, he returned to figurative representation with a scathing and satirical outlook…  Prompted by the violence and civil unrest in the late 1960s, Guston felt compelled to tell a story of America ‘run afoul of its democratic promise’. The result was the clan paintings… Fully immersed in a political reality, the Klan, who have served bilious attacks for so long, look markedly foolish and pathetic in the banality of the day-to-day… In their simplistic caricaturing, we are called to laugh in the face of evil – a powerful repositioning of power that still makes us uncomfortable.' (page 47).

  • Satire and ridicule is one of the most powerful tools in the artist's arsenal to respond to political (physical or rhetorical) violence.


Insertions into Ideological Circuit: Coca-cola Project 1970 – Cildo Meireles

‘The Brazilian artist removed [Coca-cola] bottles from circulation and added to them critical statements and, in one case, even the instructions for making a Molotov cocktail, or in one case, even the instructions for making a Molotov cocktail, or a petrol bomb, and then put them back into the circuit of exchange. In so doing, phrases such as ‘Yankees Go Home’ on everyday objects of mass circulation became a powerful revolt, not only against US imperialism but capitalist consumerism, since Coca-cola was a symbol of both in Brazil in the 1970s.’ (page 51)

  • Similarly to the Sufragette's stamped coins - I was impressed by the impactful method of delivery for this political messaging.


Women Demand Justice! n.d and Never Forgive! Never Forget! 1980 – Anonymous Artists

‘On 11 September 1973 Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile via a coup d’état. His military government then executed, ‘disappeared’ or tortured thousands of citizens. Armed with needles and thread, the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD) in Chile started to make Arpilleras; narrative quilt squares protesting the injustices of the regime... Like blog posts or diary entries, the arpilleras depicted the bloody side of the regime, detailing instances of disappearances and torture, but also the daily indignities of living under Pinochet. They were also used by prisoners as coded messages for the outside world; to tell their stories of the oppressive, unjust and bloody life under the dictatorship to the wider world and garner the attention of those who could act on their behalf or pass messages to loved ones.’ (page 57)

  • I first read about the Arpilleras in the Threads of Life book by Clare Hunter and they are definitely an artwork I need to do more research into... I find the juxtaposition of bright coloured illustrative style with the imagery of pain, suffering and oppression to be particularly hard-hitting.

  • I have a friend who is a Chilean artist whose practice focuses on "applied live art". I am considering interviewing him for my research paper.


The men bent in prayer to God and the government airplanes arrived, 1977 – Ardeshir Mohassess

‘The cultural ecosystems in which protest art takes place have great impact on what their protest art looks like. Imagine, for example, protest in a place where freedom of expression is incomprehensible and prohibited, where public outcry is explicitly against the law, or how expression is stifled and conversely, how it flourishes under a democracy (though, truthfully, this is contestable even under the purportedly free regime of the West.’ (page 63)

  • I thought it was particularly important to note the point about the extent to which protest art can be freely expressed even in the West - as censorship can exist in the most subtle forms, especially in a capitalist system which requires financial resources to make and disseminate art.


Destruction of the National Front, 1979-80 – Eddie Chambers

‘The 1970s saw a prolific increase in nationalist sentiment , encouraged largely by the rapid rise of the National Front in the UK, a political party that advocated for a ban on non-white immigration and for enforced repatriation….. Refuting the association of the flag with discrimination, he tore up and reconfigured the image of the Union Jack into a swastika. In so doing the artist draws attention to the connection between the National Front and Nazism… However, as the fragments scatter, the collage becomes reminiscent of neither flag nor swastika. The dispersal of the flag’s fragments becomes symbolic of disillusionment.’ (page 67)

  • Given my research into flags and also knowledge of the British Far-Right, I was particularly drawn to this artwork. I love the idea of tearing symbols of nationalism and fascism to pieces - I have had a similar idea for my UK General Election music video (to shred photos of the Tories along with their manifesto). It's very simple but powerfully unambiguous messaging.


Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), 1989 – Barbara Kruger

‘Barbara Kruger’s media-based works force us into feeling. Politics is her native tongue and her evisceration of cultural hierarchies harness her ideologies. She makes us question our inherent consumer desires and the violence of the male gaze. Untitled (Your body is a battleground) is her timeless and iconic declaration which, like much of her work, employs tabloid-like language and the aesthetics of popular media to mock propaganda by turning it into protest.’ (page 85)

  • I've nearly finished reading a book dedicated to Barbara Kruger's work, so I was glad to see it get a mention in this one too. Reflections to come in a dedicated blog post on that one.


African American Flag, 1990 – David Hammon

‘African American Flag, one of David Hammon’s most iconic works, is a subversive subsumption of the US flag into the colours of the Pan African flag. In keeping with Hammon’s enthusiasm for transforming politically charged found objects and refashioning them to form intricate allegories, the work was conceived for the watershed Black USA exhibition in 1990 at the Museum Overholland, Amsterdam… Hammons disarms the symbol of the American flag. He imbues it with further meaning – expanding, not reducing, the content and presenting a sharp socio-political commentary relating to themes of representation, race, injustice and visibility in equal measure.’ (page 89)


  • I had to mention this one due to my research into the Power and Politics of flags. I love the amalgamation of flags in this artwork - I think hybrid flags are a great way to express duality of complexity of identity.

Execution, 1995 – Yue Minjun

Execution is one of Yue Minjun’s most politically rousing works. His trademark grinning clones gather in two groups; one set laughing in white underwear, and the other wielding invisible guns, as one member turns towards and laughs in the face of the viewer… They don’t fear death, and join in the laughs with the opposition. A sense of fear and disturbing unknown pervades this image. Laughter can counteract helplessness; it is a coping mechanism and unveils some absurd aspects of the human condition – but can it be a sort of resistance?’ (page 97)

  • I was really taken by the use of joy and ridicule in the face violence in this work. It's something I have considered a lot recently, the way that joy can be an act of defiance in the face of oppression bud also how laughter can be empowering in the face of cruelty. I've been thinking about creating a performance piece where I "re-speak" the trolling comments left on my social media, using laughter as a tool to ridicule their obnoxious, hateful words.


State Britain, 2007 – Mark Wallinger

‘It speaks the same language as all good art – it advocates for change. In addition to the hand-painted placards and teddy bears wearing T-shirts emblazoned with peace slogans, Wallinger even went so far as remaking with complete attention to detail Haw’s makeshift tarpaulin shelter and tea-making area. Stages as one long line, 43 metres in length, it perfectly mirrors the site opposite the Houses of Parliament where Haw’s protest camp held ground. Haw created the art, Wallinger made us realise it was art. Protest is like a readymade; it deserves contemplation.’ (page 113)

  • This artwork makes me feel validated.


A Man Was Lynched By The Police Yesterday, 2015 – Dread Scott

‘The stark, white text on black banner, printed with the words ‘a man was lynched by police yesterday’, is a refashioning by the artist Dread Scott of the iconic flag that, in the 1920s and 1930s, the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) flew from the window in its New York headquarters the day after someone was lynched… After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the world woke up to the plight of police brutality, as the circulation of video footage made wilful ignorance implausible. This artwork presents a poignant déjà vu and was created in response to events in 2015, when fork-lift operator Walter Scott died after being shot in the back by a police officer… Representing a past that still haunts the present, the artwork has come to represent police brutality and the racially motivated deaths of Black people. It harnesses the visual language of protest and puts reality in very plain terms that we cannot ignore. Its call for the end of terror is direct and potent.’ (page 123)

  • I was touched by the use of textiles to communicate this harrowing message. I've been researching feminist banner art, so it was powerful to see an example finding for racial justice made by a male artist.


Installation Views of Project Row Houses, 2017 – Rick Lowe

‘Art as a mechanism to reshape social sculpture made its first strong appearance in the 1970s with German conceptual artist Jospeh Beuys, who coined the phrase ‘social sculpture’. Beuy’s theory was that everything in the social realm is art, and so every corner of our lives can be approached in a creative way. His investigations into social sculpture and the role that communities can play in their own development had marginalised communities – their regeneration and socio-political engagement – as it’s main concern.’ (page 132)


‘Houston’s Third Ward is home to arguably one of the most impressive and visionary social sculptures in America. Project Row Houses was founded in 1993 and is headed by Rick Lowe and a group of African American artists (Kames Bettison, Bert Long Jr., Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples and George Smit) who foster and encourage creativity, as well as providing a platform for change and visual protest…The artists rescued the houses from demolition with the idea to use them to promote social transformation…. The houses became exhibition sites, too. During the twice-yearly ‘Rounds’, local and international artists respond to themes at the heart of the neighbourhood, such as gentrification, Black motherhood, and perseverance. The exteriors of the houses are emblazoned, in colourful revolt, with bold phrases such as ‘WHAT WASHNIGTON NEEDS IS ADULT SUPERVISION’. Important reminders about the ethos of the project can be found in other phrases that appear, such as ‘WE ARE THE PROPLE’ or ‘YOU GOTTA LOVE US OR LEAVE US ALONE’.’ (page 133)

  • I was extremely happy to see this artwork included in the book as I was recently sent a short film about the artist and the artwork by one of the trustees of the arts charity I work for, with the message 'thought you might enjoy it'. He was right!

  • I love the anti-capitalist values and sense of community embedded in this project. The messages painted on the sides of the buildings are particualrly powerful.

  • 'YOU GOTTA LOVE US OR LEAVE US ALONE' seems particularly pertinent to my current interest in the use of psychological and emotional abuse to achieve power and control.


Ice Watch, 2018 – Olafur Eliasson & Minik Rosing

‘Does public art have the power to inspire action against climate change? Or is it a waste of energy? … Ice Watch is an installation by the artist Olafur Eliasson, which comprised twenty-four glacial blocks…. As the ice melted away, minute by minute, over the duration of the installation, the urgency of the climate crisis was laid bare.’ (page 137)

  • I don't particularly like this artwork, although I get that it is trying to raise awareness of climate change. However, I recently watched a talk by an artist, Sean-Roy Parker whose practice is entirely sustainable and he made the following very powerful point about this artwork. The ethical problem is not the messaging but how it delivered it - shipping blocks of ice from an arctic glacier half way across the world is not a sustainable way to deliver a message about sustainability. Does the end justify the means?


Reclaiming the Monument, 2020 – Dustin Klein& Alex Criqui

‘The juxtaposition of those who have faced cruelty at the hands of police with Robert E.Lee, a slave owner, is a powerful protest for change as well as a transformation of the site into a place of healing and remembrance. And the presence of influential Black figures forces us to question who gets remembered and commemorated, and how narrow the catchment really is for those who are immortalised… Reclaiming the Monument will continue to make us question how we perceive public statues and the legacy of cruelty against Black people, and calls for greater representation in the public realm.’ (page 151)

  • I have seen many examples of projection protest art, for example the work of anti-Tory campaigners Led By Donkeys. But this one, with it's bold and impactful words is the most powerful example of projection art I have ever seen.


Black Lives Matter Plaza, 2020 – various artists

‘the DC Public Works Department of Washington, assisted by the Murals DC programme, painted the words BLACK LIVES MATTER in eleven-metre-tall yellow capital letters, stretching two blocks, on 16th street Northwest… The bright yellow letters are. A daily reminder to the citizens of DC to heed their message. The message is poetically simple, and a shining example of how public art can impact society. It is a permanent protest placard, its potent political message crying out underfoot as pedestrians and drivers pass by.’ (page 155)

  • I am incredibly happy that this artwork exists but genuinely stunned that they managed to get the city's bureacracy to approve its creation.

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