Art and politics can be a mixed bag. Art with political messages can be truly powerful and may inspire change. And it can be derided as mere propaganda. I’m inclined to agree with George Orwell’s famous quotation “all art is propaganda.” It’s just a matter of how overt the political message is (and absence of political ideas is also a political choice). Of course, I’m not talking about politics solely in the guise of elections, legislation; the personal is clearly political.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to see a press walk-through of Faith Ringgold: American People exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I was thrilled to finally see her famous story quilts, which were even more astonishing than I expected.
Faith’s posters were used to advocate for women’s rights and other causes.
But what took my breath away was Faith’s posters. The show had several posters from the 1960s/1970s where she had used bright colors, paper collage, and her characteristic lettering to advocate for women’s rights and other causes.
In a brief conversation with Manilow Senior Curator, Jamillah James, she pointed out that with some of these posters, “they’re difficult to read. In some instances, it’s really pulling you in and slowing you down to really grapple with what she’s proposing, which is positing as something worthy of concern.”
The posters are really pulling you in and slowing you down to really grapple with what she’s proposing.
But what really caught my eye were posters to free Angela Davis, an American political activist, author, and professor at University of California Santa Cruz. She was charged with murder in the failed escape of George Jackson in 1970; she spent 18 months in jail where artists, academics, and even the Cuban government called for her release.
The reason I stopped in my tracks is that Cuban government connection. I’ve previously written about my interest in Cuban poster propaganda, having studied it for my master’s thesis. While Cuban posters may best known for their film posters (which are truly incredible), I was always partial to the more overtly political posters — the ones published by the Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples Asia, Africa and America Latina (OSPAAAL).
There are at least two OSPAAAL posters advocating for the release of Angela Davis (who would later be invited and travel to Cuba). One poster was designed by the creative director of OSPAAAL himself, Alfred Rostgaard in 1972. The other “Liberty for Angela Davis” was made by Felix Beltran, known for his pop art style, for the Cuba Committee for The Freedom of Angela Davis (1971).
Felix Beltran’s posters seemed to be in harmony with Faith’s, both using bright bold colors, and simplified forms (whether shapes and letters or Angela’s face). It’s a reminder how small the world actually can be; both of Faith’s Angela Davis posters and Felix Beltran’s posters were in the same year. Understandably, they would reflect much of the artistic influences swirling around them (such as pop art).
But as I read a little more about Faith’s poster art, I found a fascinating anecdote about one of her posters in the show called The Committee to Defend the Panthers (1970). The poster features a Black man’s face with his mouth open, flanked by the silhouettes of other men on either side. Faith’s website noted her decision to choose red, black and green for they were the colors of the Pan-African flag. Again, she used cut-out paper to make the poster. On the website, it noted that The Committee to Defend the Panthers “was a group formed by predominantly well-to-do white people to raise money for the legal defense of members of the Black Panther Party.”
But what was more interesting was the recollection from Faith below the poster:
“The musician Leonard Bernstein had formed a group called Committee to Defend the Panthers, because they were getting killed, beat up, put in jail and really brutalized. I wanted to help them, so I made posters for the committee so they could sell them. When they first saw the poster Committee to Defend the Panthers (1970) they said, ‘Look, you’ve got our name on here, you’ve got our address, our phone number. This is dangerous. We can’t use this.’ I’ve always found, and I don’t know whether it’s still true today, that people who were heavily into politics in the 1960s weren’t interested in art. Visual art wasn’t their thing. And so, whatever I did, they weren’t going to like it.”
It reminded me of that tension between the arts and politics. Going far into either direction can raise people’s hackles. Also, if she made the poster for them, presumably with their consent or her offering, what changed? Did they not expect the information about the group would be on the poster? Were members of the committee suddenly worried about their safety? Or was the core issue that supposed the uneasy intersection between arts and politics? I feel we are still seeing that divide today though things might be changing.
One of the most amazing parts of the show was the role that Faith Ringgold had trying to defend freedom of speech. She designed a poster The People’s Flag Show in 1970 for a special show at Judson Memorial Church where artists were asked to make their own versions of the American flag (her poster was printed and sold). Only a few years earlier in 1968, Congress passed the Federal Flag Desecration Law which criminalized any destruction or defiling of the flag. Artists had to sign waivers that they would “assume full responsibility and release the independent Artist Flag Show Committee from all responsibilities.”
But on the penultimate day of the show, Faith Ringgold, Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche were arrested, found guilty and fined $100 for desecration of the flag; eventually the charges were dropped thanks to the ACLU. What does Faith Ringgold do? She created another poster The Judson 3 (1970) with the red and green colors integrated into the American flag with the words Judson 3 made to look like prison bars. Under the poster, she was quoted, “How dare you tell artists what they can do? That’s the beginning of some really bad funk — bad, bad, bad.”
What an incredible woman with an incredible show.
LeRonn P. Brooks summed it up in the essay The People’s Art Show: “While [Faith] Ringgold, [Jon] Hendricks and [Jean] Toche had intended for the show to call attention to, and contest, flag desecration laws, they now found themselves prosecuted under them.”
I’m so impressed and thankful for her advocacy on this issue and of course for all of her incredible art works. What an incredible woman with an incredible show.
The exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is open until February 25th.
© Elisa Shoenberger (2/3/24) — Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago’s Faith Ringgold: American People exhibit.
Learn more about Angela Davis here.
Read more about the Cuban Poster Propaganda show at Paris Museum of Decorative Arts.
Read the exhibition guide and essay from LeRonn P. Brooks about The People’s Flag Show here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured/Middle Photo: Faith Ringgold’s The People’s Flag Show on display in the exhibit. Photo by Elisa Shoenberger for FF2 Media & used with her permission..
Bottom Photo: Faith Ringgold’s The Committee to Defend the Panthers on display in the exhibit. Photo by Elisa Shoenberger for FF2 Media & used with her permission..
Bonus Photo (below): Faith Ringgold’s 1965 Self-Portrait