Amnesty International is 50 years old. And its exhibition, Change This World! 50 Years of Posters for Amnesty International, tells the story of artists who work for social justice. A PDF of the catalog can be found here. Below is a short essay I wrote for the exhibition:
Limited in their collective ability to defeat repression, artists and designers are routinely frustrated by the retaliatory strength of their oppressors. Contrary to an idealistic belief that poignant prose and powerful picture can help thwart or unmask injustice, art and design is easily censored by well-oiled dictatorial machines – of which there are always far too many in the world at any given time.
Yet despite the harsh reality of political struggle, it is a mistake to underestimate the power of subversive images to trigger unrest – or unease. A truly startling and strident poster advocating social justice and freedom, for example, can potentially leave an indelible mark on the eye and mind. While this ability to influence may not wrest freedom from those who are committed to withholding it, polemical imagery is an essential means to foment dissent.
For 50 years some of the most resonant images against tyranny imposed by those ever-present unyielding ideologies and relentless theologies have been created for Amnesty International.
Since these posters started rolling off the presses, Amnesty International has encouraged idol worship. Not the false idolatry that inevitably gives rise to demagogues, but the equally volatile kind that serves as a mnemonic against them – and reminds us that human rights are being violated somewhere in the world. Some of the images were inspired by specific acts of repression (of which there are enough to keep artists occupied for centuries); others are more general and universal responses to state-imposed inhumane policies and conditions. Yet the most effective long-acting missives are at once timeless and timely, speaking to then, now and tomorrow.
Artists and designers who have contributed to Amnesty International do not follow a single dictated creative route. How could they? That itself would be an artistic betrayal and oppression. Rather each artist or “messenger” in the service of Amnesty’s goals determines his or her own message and the means of communicating it.
Although frustrated by the retaliatory strength of their oppressors, artists and designers continue taking stands. Poster making is admittedly more passive than standing on the barricades. But without the images of protest and advocacy – on banners, flags, posters – the barricade is just a mass of people. Posters – and especially Amnesty’s 50 year collection – are in the service of their struggle. With them the message is given graphic weight and authority. Without them the voice of freedom could easily be drowned out.
[Images: Cover, by A.I. Japan by Teruhiko Yumura. Bottom, detail of poster by A.I. Netherlands c. 1980 about Syria’s state of emergency. Top, poster by A.I. Norway for the 1986 campaign “Stop Torture in Afghanistan, litho by Oyvind Rauset.]