On Jan. 21, roughly four million people took part in Women’s Marches around the world, raising their voices and a motley collection of signs to spread messages of solidarity. Many artists, professional or otherwise, lent their talents to the marches as well, setting a new standard for creative, passionate protest art.
The term “protest art” encompasses the multitude of posters, banners, signs, and other printed materials activists create to express political dissent or approval. The works themselves, which are often made on scraps of paper or cardboard, rarely last long. But their messages sometimes do. In 2008, Shepard Fairey spent about a day creating a red, white and blue stencil portrait of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, the word “hope” rendered beneath the portrait in large, block letters. Soon after, Fairey placed a downloadable version of the image on his website for Obama supporters to print and share. And share they did. Hundreds of thousands of copies soon proliferated online and at rallies around the country, the image eventually becoming one of the most recognizable emblems of Obama’s presidency.
Even quickly scrawled signs or drawings can help spread ideas that might be shared years after their initial creation. In 1917, for instance, the Industrial Workers of the World — a labor union headquartered in Chicago — displayed an illustration of a prominently raised fist in one of their publications. About three decades later, in 1948, an artist working for the revolutionary Mexico City-based print collective Taller de Gráfica Popular simplified the image and began disseminating it more widely. In the years since, thousands of other artists have continued adding to or altering the image, and activists around the world have adopted it as a symbol of resistance. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Power movement used the image extensively. Around the same time, though, second-wave feminists also began using a repurposed version of the symbol (a raised fist combined with the international symbol of womanhood) as an emblem of female empowerment. The image has essentially taken on a life of its own, inspiring countless activists across generations.
I saw hundreds of raised fists at the Chicago Women’s March, alongside more city-specific signs emblazoned with messages like “Trump puts ketchup on his hot dogs,” and several artfully realized renditions of the president and other high-ranking politicians (including a particularly memorable life-sized cardboard cutout of Mike Pence wearing nothing but a necktie and fetish gear). I saw many more iterations of Fairey’s work as well; the artist teamed up with the Amplifer Foundation and two other artists to release free poster designs a few days before the marches. Each of the three designs that Fairey created features a portrait of a woman representative of a population group that has historically been marginalized in this country — Muslims, Latinx and African Americans — and appears above an inspirational message: “We the people are greater than fear,” “We the people defend dignity,” “We the people protect each other.”
A new standard for creative, passionate protest art
The protest art and the Pussyhats were only two components of a much larger equation, of course. The Women’s Marches would not have been successful without the hard work and enthusiasm of all those who helped organize and participate in them. But the art on display certainly helped spread messages of solidarity, of resistance, and I found myself grinning whenever I rounded a corner and encountered another wave of brightly colored, creatively rendered signs and hot-pink hats.
Near the end of World War II, Pablo Picasso famously said art “is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” And all those who participated in the Women’s Marches demonstrated that protest art can be exactly that. They reminded us that, though art-making is not necessarily a radical act in and of itself, it can certainly be used as a tool to achieve radical ends.