The Enduring Power of Posters to Promote and Provoke

As Carol A. Wells sees it, “The best posters are powerful and influential. The worst are quickly forgotten.” Wells is an art historian and curator who also oversees the largest collection of socially engaged post-WWII graphics in the U.S. And she’s one of seven design experts who curated Serigrafía, a survey of posters that focus on issues of political, economic and cultural change that opens this weekend at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The show gathers together of the California Latino community’s most significant, persuasive silkscreen prints from 1970 to today.

Xavier Viramontes: Boycott Grapes, 1973

Xavier Viramontes: Boycott Grapes, 1973

Wells is founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, an educational and research archive in Los Angeles. With a collection of more than 80,000 documents spanning well over a century, CSPG is an enormous resource for museums, schools, designers, and just about anyone with a love of the ways in which images inspire and persuade.

Wells will be at PMCA Sunday afternoon, March 2nd, to discuss “The Chicano Silkscreen in the Struggle for Justice.” And for our interview she covers the scope and depth of CSPG, the process of curating Serigrafía, and the importance and future evolution of purposeful protest graphics.

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All images are from PMCA’s Serigrafía exhibition, which runs through April 20th.

To read my Imprint interviews with the curators of PMCA’s fourth Design Biennial exhibit, click here.

And my Imprint feature on CSPG’s Peace Press Graphics exhibit is right here.

Estér Hernandez: Sun Mad, 1982

Estér Hernandez: Sun Mad, 1982

Q: Tell me about some of CSPG’s older artifacts.

A: The 19th century pieces are satirical lithographs by Honoré Daumier. Political posters did exist at the time—for example, the abolitionists produced many—but we don’t have any of these. Our earliest posters are from World War I and the Russian Revolution. Ninety to 95% of CSPG’s collection dates from the 1960s to the present.

Q: And how do you see these posters functioning?

A: The intended audiences—then and now—are people who agree with the poster’s message, people who are undecided or know little and people who are willing to rethink their positions. And at a minimum, posters educate about an issue. They can also inspire people to action. People may agree with a poster’s position without acting on it, and posters can encourage their involvement. They also let viewers know that others share their position.

La Raza Graphics: Viva La Raza National Chicano Moratorium, 1970

La Raza Graphics: Viva La Raza National Chicano Moratorium, 1970

Q: Now, Serigrafía‘s survey begins in 1970…

A: The Chicano Civil Rights movement began in the 1960s, and art was central to this from the beginning. The earliest Chicano art centers and collectives formed in 1969, and by 1972 there were seven major Chicano centers and collectives throughout California producing silkscreen posters.

But the 1970 Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles was a turning point for the movement. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people marched along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles to protest the Vietnam War and the disproportionate number of Chicanos who were being drafted. Although the march was peaceful, the LAPD launched an unprovoked attack against the demonstrators, and L.A. County Sheriffs murdered Ruben Salazar, L.A. Times journalist. Two others were also killed and an unknown number injured.

As this was such a key event for both the Chicano Civil Rights movement and the entire Anti-Vietnam War movement, it’s the perfect starting point for the exhibition. The only poster from 1970 announces the Chicano Moratorium. It’s important to note that Belvedere Park, where the march began, was renamed Salazar Park after the murdered journalist.

Q: What were some of the issues of concern when CSPG first incorporated in 1988?

A: One of the primary issues for Chicano artists in the 1980s was opposing U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean. The Reagan administration created the Contras to overthrow the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, and provided military training, weapons, and millions of U.S. taxpayers’ money to the ruling dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala, to destroy the liberation movements. U.S. troops were sent to Grenada and Panama, and U.S. bases were in Honduras. This also led to an enormous influx of refugees from these war torn countries, and so organizing around immigrant rights was also a big issue at that time.

Women’s rights and international human rights was also a consistent theme.

Rupert García: ¡Fuera de Panama!, 1989

Rupert García: ¡Fuera de Panama!, 1989

Q: How does CSPG work with communities in general, and graphic designers in particular?

A: We’ve created a unique and accessible resource for activists, artists, curators, educators, researchers, students, and the general public. While over a thousand posters are available through our website, this is a fraction of the collection. So for complete access, people need to come to the archive. And people from all over the world do come to research with us.

Whenever we develop a new exhibition, we send out a notice that we’re looking for old and new posters about a particular theme, and we receive submissions from all over the world. We also form a community advisory board for each exhibition that’s comprised of artists, activists and academics who specialize in the theme we are working on. This committee will see what we have and help determine which issues are lacking, and then help us locate additional work.

We’ve also worked with graphic design classes in several states. The instructors will assign the students to design posters around the theme CSPG is developing, and then they will send us what they’ve produced at the end of the semester. Often the student work is so powerful that it will become part of the permanent traveling exhibition.

Ricardo Favela, of the Royal Chicano Air Force: ¡Huelga! Support the UFWA International Boycott, 1976

Ricardo Favela, of the Royal Chicano Air Force: ¡Huelga! Support the UFWA International Boycott, 1976

Q: In assembling Serigrafía, what primary criteria did you and the other curators consider?

A: Serigrafía is a small show—only 30 pieces—and it was a tremendous challenge to select from the hundreds of powerful graphics produced since 1970. There were numerous criteria to consider. There were iconic pieces that everyone agreed had to be included, like Xavier Viramontes “Boycott Grapes,” “Sun Mad” by Ester Hernandez, Ricardo Favela’s “Huelga!” and Barbara Carrasco’s “Dolores.”

There are also artists such as Rupert García and Malaquías Montoya, who’d produced an extraordinary body of work. We all agreed they needed to be in the exhibition, even if we all had different opinions about which pieces to use.

Historically, most silkscreen artists were men, and if women made posters they were often unsigned, recalling the slogan that “anonymous was a woman.” It was therefore important to have a strong representation by women artists, and one-third of the exhibition is by women.

We also didn’t want to only have the most recognized veteran artists of the movement, but to include younger artists such as Jesus Barraza, Melanie Cervantez, Favianna Rodriguez and Ernesto Yerena, as well as emerging artists such as Daniel González, Gilda Posada and Celina Rodriguez. In addition, it was important to include a broad range of issues, as Chicano artists support very diverse causes.

Last but not least, we wanted to include some posters that use humor, as satire and irony are powerful tools for challenging government and corporate policies.

Xico Gonzalez (Royal Chicano Air Force): ChePATA, 2006

Xico Gonzalez (Royal Chicano Air Force): ChePATA, 2006

Mark Vallen (Shock Battalion): Nuclear War?! There Goes My Career!, 1982

Mark Vallen (Shock Battalion): Nuclear War?! There Goes My Career!, 1982

When I asked Wells about poster art as a force of influence in today’s digital world, she offered me an updated excerpt from her “Why the Poster in the Internet Age?,” originally written in 2005, which you can read below. The full essay was published as an introduction to an exhibition catalog titled The Graphic Imperative: International Posters for Peace, Social Justice, and the Environment.

Because the Internet offers a paperless means of communicating almost instantaneously to an international audience unimaginably larger than any piece of paper could ever reach, it makes sense to ask, “Is the Internet replacing the protest poster?” The ability to mobilize masses of people quickly for protests has increased exponentially due to the Internet, and international coordination was inconceivable prior to the early 1990s.

But not everyone has access to a computer. In general, the poorer a community is, the fewer computers it has available. Internet access is another expense, and designing a visually engaging issue-specific website requires certain skills or the financial means to hire someone to create the site. In addition, issue-specific websites generally attract those who are actively looking for them and are rarely stumbled upon accidentally, unlike a poster prominently displayed on a corner. And at the risk of stating the obvious, a computer terminal cannot be carried in a demonstration, pinned onto a bulletin board, stuck into a lawn, or placed against a window for the neighbors, the community, and the world to see. Political posters are definitely still needed.

The Internet, however, does offer some exciting possibilities for the protest poster, and not just for simplifying the design process. Many artists are using the web to disseminate graphics and create poster designs that can be downloaded by whomever is moved by them: no longer must the design wheel be constantly reinvented for shared causes. An unprecedented amount of non-copyrighted graphic material was made available on numerous websites prior to the 2004 elections in an attempt to defeat Bush; as long as the images were not used commercially, they were free. These Creative Commons  images are even more widespread now, and were used extensively to promote the Occupy movement and continue to be used to support the Immigrant Rights movement. And the graphics can be forwarded indefinitely, to an infinite number of people. Still, if people want those outside their email list or list-serves to see the images, they must print them out on paper and then hang, carry, or post. Many of the posters seen in recent demonstrations have been downloaded, enlarged, and printed. The inclusion of websites onto posters is a 21st century phenomenon, enabling the viewer to download a specific image, or to connect with the issuing organization in order to learn more, join, or make a contribution.

Protest posters are more consistently used internationally than in the United States, where their popularity is directly related to the prevailing political climate and therefore more cyclical. Republican administrations also engender more protest posters than Democratic ones, with the notable exception of the Vietnam War era when both administrations were targeted by massive demonstrations. With the recent extraordinary coordination of worldwide protests—such as those against the practices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the World Bank, the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Occupy Movement—there’s been a dramatic increase in street theater, with protesters using highly innovative visual props such as masks and puppets. Amidst these eye-catching items, however, there continue to be many posters, both hand-made and those mass-produced by organizations: These graphics continue to entertain, educate and provide dramatic focal points for the news media and people driving or walking by the demonstration. Political posters are still integral visual components of protest.

Favianna Rodriguez, Jesus Barraza, and Estria Miyashiro: Resist U.S. Imperialism, 2007

Favianna Rodriguez, Jesus Barraza, and Estria Miyashiro: Resist U.S. Imperialism, 2007

Leonard Castellanos (Méchicano Art Center): Celebracion, 1976

Leonard Castellanos (Méchicano Art Center): Celebracion, 1976

Barbara Carrasco: Dolores, 1999

Barbara Carrasco: Dolores, 1999

 

 

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