Various posters and ephemera on view in Agitprop!. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
“Agitprop” is a word I never learned in my art history classes, despite the fact that there has pretty much always been political art. I guess the term sounds too Communist for the classroom. Historically, political motivations were generally seen in portraiture, monuments, and materials, with artwork intrinsically linked to wealth, power, and faith. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists have increasingly found ways to create politically charged artwork that speaks for the oppressed rather than the privileged, often moving into the public sphere with poster campaigns, performances, protests, and press. Now more than ever it seems harder for new artists to operate in a world separate from their surroundings, with ever-present media over-saturation and the volatile state of current affairs, and increased awareness of how race, gender, class, and sexuality affect personal experience (and therefore, artistic production).
On view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 7, 2016, Agitprop! is a thought-provoking group exhibition that collects together over 100 years of work made “as a call to action to create political and social change.” There are posters and newspaper clippings, films and documentary photography, performance records and public sculpture, with work from long-established artists like Jenny Holzer and Yoko Ono, as well as newer collectives like Occupy Museums and Not an Alternative. Participating artists were invited to recommend others for the show, making even the curatorial process a study in collaboration and egalitarianism. The resulting exhibit is organized loosely by theme, connecting decades and different activist approaches, addressing both domestic and international issues.
Posters by Valentina Kulagina, 1931. Right-hand image via The Charnel House.
Still from Misery and Fortune of Woman, 1929. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Eduard Tisse.
The first room I went through greeted me with a series of Soviet propaganda promoting women’s health and labor, with vintage posters for International Working Women’s Day, and an educational film by Sergei Eisenstein advocating for safe abortions across the world (the USSR had legalized abortion in 1920). The posters were created by Valentina Kulagina, a leading Constructivist designer in the 20s and 30s. Her work combines monochrome photo-collage with brightly colored illustration in the bold social realist style, pairing real women of the USSR with the ideal, sturdy working woman seen in official advertising. The sharp diagonals, stark text, and heavy use of red are perfect examples of the Constructivist aesthetic popular in the early years of the USSR, which endeavored to establish its own unique art style that visually symbolized utilitarianism, unity, and strength. Meant to be inspirational, Kulagina’s imagery also highlights the struggle women still faced entering the workforce after the revolution, while still expected to retain domestic duties. The artist’s creative output was later restricted under increased Stalinist scrutiny and her progressive revolutionary ideology was rejected.
Communist messages were further represented by a section on Tina Modotti’s photography, taken in Mexico during the 1930s. Born in Italy, Modotti immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager and, after a brief career as a film and stage actress, she moved to Mexico City with photographer Edward Weston. There she became part of the revolutionary avant-garde alongside artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. She was known for her documentary photographs of murals, peasant farmers, and laborers, and her work was often used in Communist literature and propaganda. Agitprop! features a selection of her photographs paired with magazines and newspapers that featured them, including The New Masses. Her style is characterized by its empathy, stark contrast, and attention to details.
Woman With Flag and Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle by Tina Modotti, seen in issues of A-I-Z and The New Masses, respectively.
Standing Together… by the National Women’s Party, 1913-1920.
Lesbian Americans: Don’t Sell Out, 1998, and Do You Love the Dyke in Your Life?, 1993, by Dyke Action Machine.
Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From it by Gran Fury, 1991; When Racism and Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?, 1989, and Dear Art Collector, 2015, by the Guerrilla Girls.
#DalitWomenFight by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, 2014.
Feminist messages are represented in various ways throughout the show, with historic and contemporary activism side by side. Vintage suffragette banners hang high above a mural by Dyke Action Machine that wryly inserts lesbian themes into 90s advertising imagery. A poster by Gran Fury (displayed in various NYC bus shelters in 1991) calls for more inclusive treatment and discussion of AIDS by the Center for Disease Control. Several pieces by the Guerrilla Girls highlight trenchant sexism in the art world, employing sarcasm, statistics, and advertising to target collectors, art scholars, and museum leaders. Formed in the 1980s, their message continues to be relevant today as museums and galleries remain heavily white and male in their collections and major exhibits. Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s LED text-based sculpture references her project, #DalitWomenFight, which fights caste-based sexual violence in India and promotes the stories of Dalit women across the world.
In the center of it all is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a sculptural installation that is permanently on view as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection within the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This room-size work represents the artist’s idea of a dinner table set for important women throughout history, including some mythological figures. Each place setting features an embroidered banner with the woman’s name and symbols connected to her culture or experience, and a porcelain plate with painted or sculpted yonic imagery. The floor is painted with names of many more women, some connected to the major figures with plates. Within the realm of feminist art history, this is a landmark, a quintessential work of second wave feminism with its focus on the body, on vaginal motifs, on goddess culture, and on women’s history. Today many recognize this brand of feminism as being too exclusive, generally prioritizing cis white women, equating vaginas with womanhood and Western-centric historical figures. I definitely agree with this criticism, but I do still view the movement as significant and influential, and I feel art being made by women like Chicago was radical for its time, and I was moved by her sweeping vision when I stood within The Dinner Party. So there that is. The lack of women of color (I think there are, like, three?) is a big distraction while viewing it, though.
The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.
The Dinner Party (detail – Virginia Woolf) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79
The Dinner Party (detail – Sojourner Truth) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.
The Dinner Party (detail – Hildegarde von Bingen) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.
The Dinner Party (detail – Amazon) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.
The Dinner Party (detail – Sacajawea) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.
Moving back into Agitprop!, there are works linking decades of police oppression and government inaction regarding black deaths in this country. One display compiles film (Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates), photography, illustration, and painting to starkly remind viewers of our history of ignorance, prejudice, and, especially, lynching. Wall text relates how the NAACP “made a cultural campaign for hearts and minds” a central part of their strategy to “end the terrorism of these unprosecuted mob-driven murders,” resulting in plays, films, songs, and artwork that sought to combat stereotyping and misinformation about African Americans in the early twentieth century. On a nearby wall hang photographs from Dread Scott’s 2014 performance, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, which links recent incidents of police brutality (indicated by the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture) with 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, AL, when anti-segregation demonstrators were met with high-pressure fire hoses. In an earlier gallery, a piece by Otabenga Jones & Associates reminds viewers of the Free Breakfast Program launched by the Black Panthers, sabotaged by J Edgar Hoover. (Recently, this inspired their own “People’s Plate” educational nutrition program in Houston, TX.)
A variety of other social and political issues are addressed in further works, again both historical and contemporary. Posters from the WPA advertise theatrical productions about housing and labor concerns during the Great Depression, while a “Mili-Tent” from the Not an Alternative collective is displayed as a sculpture, having been used as a symbol in protests against foreclosure, eviction, and displacement in New York City. Cartoon illustrations by Coco Fusco relate to her infamous performance piece from the early 90s, in which she and collaborator Guillermo Gomez-Peña presented themselves as fake “Undiscovered Amerindians,” with stereotypically “primitive” clothing and language, kept in a cage and put on display in the tradition of World’s Fair displays. Viewers were told that they were indigenous to an island untouched by Western culture, and for a fee they would perform dances and take photos with the crowd. Adejoke Tugbiyele’s sprawling gay pride flag addresses homophobic persecution in Nigeria, made of women’s headscarves (gele) traditionally worn at funerals. In another gallery, a huge mural collects together drawings by Egyptian graffiti artist Ganzeer, responding to violence in his own country as well as in the US. Across the room a powerful piece by The Yes Men and various collaborators imagines a peaceful, utopian future after Obama’s first election through a fake newspaper with headlines like “IRAQ WAR ENDS” and “ALL PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES TO BE FREE.”
Flag, announcing lynching, flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave, New York City, 1936. Via Brooklyn Museum; and The People’s Plate on the Move by Otabenga Jones & Associates, 2015.
Federal Theatre Project posters, late 1930s. Right-hand poster via Wikimedia Commons.
Mili-Tent by Not an Alternative, 2011.
The Undiscovered Amerindians: “Oh Please!” Begged the Gentleman at the Whitney Biennial by Coco Fusco, 2012.
Gele Pride Flag by Adejoke Tugbiyele, 2014.
Urgent Visions by Ganzeer, 2015.
The New York Times Special Edition by The Yes Men with Steve Lambert, et al, 2008.
Agitprop! is jam-packed with work, and at times can be overwhelming as a viewer, but only because the emotional content is so high. Almost everywhere I turned I was met with evidence of people who cared, deeply, about the world around them, and who earnestly try to effect change through their art and activist practices. In many ways the exhibit moved me, and there were moments when I had to turn away because the subjects were too upsetting. But that’s good, that’s the point, we should be upset by what we see here, especially the realization that so many of the historical issues are still relevant today. Often when confronted with such knowledge and imagery of suffering, I shut down and try to take my mind off it, because it’s too much, and I feel helpless. But seeing a show like this makes me realize I can be hopeful that things can get better, and that people from all around the world are using what skills they have (in this case, their artistic and collaborative abilities) to gradually make things better, bit by bit.