The Art of Protest


Nina Simone once asked, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

Art has been around for a long time and it’s difficult to pinpoint when it was first used as a form of protest. Each person who creates art to protest has a unique, personal reason behind their protest, and their creation, whether it’s music, dancing, or traditional painting, reflects it.

The emergence of art to protest is evident today. When Donald Trump was elected as president, hundreds and thousands came to the streets to protest controversial policies and they used art to express their views.

President Trump has certainly done a lot in the few weeks he has been in office. Implementing a travel ban from seven Muslim majority countries, rolling back federal protection for transgender students, and advancing the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are only a few of the policies he has implemented.

In many ways, he was implementing the same rhetoric he had preached throughout his campaign—to fix a “crippled” America, to unite people, and of course, to make this nation great again.

The one thing he managed to do the most successfully was connect people, that is, unite them against him. Hundreds of thousands around the world have come together in feminist, anti-travel ban, planned parenthood, LGBTQ rights, and other marches against the Trump administration.

Attend any one of the protests occurring around the world, and you will see images of different sizes and colors. Often, protesters choose humor to convey their frustration and create art that exaggerates specific aspects of Donald Trump’s body. These include his lips (President Trump is known to be quite talkative) or his hair. Others depict him as a toddler or the poop emoji. Some strike a more serious and symbolic tone. One poster depicts President Trump with a toothbrush moustache and another shows him surrounded by swastikas, a reference to Hitler and the Nazi party.

However, people who attend these marches are not the only ones who use art to protest President Trump. Notable artists and institutions are also making statements with their artwork.

Take Shephard Fairey. A street artist, Fairey is the founder of OBEY clothing and designed President Obama’s 2008 “HOPE” poster. His work has been featured in the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art, The National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Before President Trump’s inauguration, he produced a new set of images featuring Muslim, Latina, and Black women—groups he specifically chose because he felt President Trump targeted and neglected them the most.

Fairey also teamed up with The Amplifier Foundation, a self described “art machine for social change,” to create these posters. The goal of this collaboration was to distribute these images across the country before President Trump’s inauguration to remind everyone that “we the people” refers to all types of people.

The Museum of Modern art also made headlines when it decided to display artwork from the seven Muslim majority countries that were a part of President Trump’s travel ban. The artworks are opposite Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” one of the most popular paintings in the world, ensuring that visitors notice the installation. When people enter the museum, they receive a card which states, “[artwork on the] fifth floor galleries … affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”

MoMA’s defiance of the Trump administration did not slip by the media. By replacing artwork from artists such as Picasso and Matisse with work by artists from Muslim majority countries, it managed to grab international headlines. MoMA’s chief curator of drawings and prints Christophe Cerix wanted this gesture to be “inclusive and not disruptive,” as traveling serves as inspiration to many artists, writers, and scholars.

The use of art to protest against Trump is not limited to painters or illustrators; musicians and singers are also taking a stance. “30 Day, 30 Songs” was a project started by Dave Eggers where popular rock musicians recorded music advocating against Trump. The band Green Day released a music video for “Troubled Times” on Martin Luther King, Jr. day and blasted Donald Trump without mentioning his name.

“Quiet” was a song composed by Connie Lim under the stage name MILCK in 2015. It was based off of her experience of abuse. Though initially advised by her management company to not release it, she released it after Trump was nominated as president. The song became an anthem to many women who attended the various women’s marches after Connie and 25 women sang it in a rally on January 25.

“Dreamers of America” was a song released by Adam Torres, whose family had migrated to the United States from Mexico. It was inspired by the rhetoric President Trump spread about Mexican and Latin American immigrants during his campaign. When asked about this song and its political ties, Torres stated that he did not want to be a spectator as “Trump, Pence, and Bannon are making sweeping attempt[s] at power consolidation while attacking and dismantling the fabric of our nation’s values.”

During the Grammys, A Tribe Called Quest, Anderson Paak, and Busta Rhymes made headlines when they sang “We the People,” a protest song released after President Trump was elected, along with a diverse group which included women in hijabs, black women, and others.

Protest art, whether it is an illustration, music, or dancing, has a rich history. Picasso’s “Guernica” revealed the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. “We Shall Overcome” was a gospel song that became popularized in the 1960s when it became the main anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Bob Marley released the song “War” in 1979 to protest war and used Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I’s speech to write its lyrics.

Art moves people. It provokes emotions and inspires new ideas; it incites curiosity, questions, and feelings. From well known artists to average people, people in the world are using art to protest the radical changes occurring around them.

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