As promised, the second issue of Art Etc. news & views will deal with Groups and Movements as part of the three issues on Protest Art. Right from the time of the French Revolution or, years later after the atrocities of the World War II, Protest as a phenomenon has largely been a Movement—a part of which has been its expressive face, which comes in the form of Art and Letters. In this context, I thought of including the photomontage art of Helmut Herzfeld who was an important voice of protest against Nazi atrocities and extremes. What one found fascinating was that this man was creating New Art back in 1935, when there was no Adobe Photoshop. Yet his photomontages can be compared with the best examples of Cutting Edge art of today.
Coming back to the importance of Groups, Movements etc. in Protest Art, it has historically risen from political and social excesses—basically as a voice against authoritative injustice.
And that authority can be a discriminating government or a discriminating patriarchy. It is in this context that this issue carves out a niche for itself—with two exclusive interviews. Those of the group of anonymous female artists, the Guerilla Girls and the South African Artist, Willie Bester. Bester is known for his reticence, and it was a challenge to get him to speak exclusively to us. And in the process, he has revealed the various layers of Protest Art in South Africa, during and after the apartheid, explaining the significance of some of his best known works, including the Trojan Horse. Born in 1956, this resistant artist, now known internationally, visually records the historical events in South Africa. By using found objects, metal scraps and personal items and arranging them Bester creates his art. His art is a subtle comment on the social situations and the history of the coloured people in South Africa. For him the city becomes a site where he seeks out threads of history and makes a collage out of them.
It was also hard to get the Guerilla Girls to talk. Firstly, it is an international group, and the artists involved, some of whom maintain a dual existence of anonymity and personal fame in the same person, choose to remain anonymous, wearing Gorilla masks. But they have been forthcoming, detailing how they have been fighting gender discrimination in the art world since its formation in 1985. It began with the exhibition titled An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture hosted by the Museum of Modern Art where out of 169 artists only 17 were women. Later the Group’s area of protest included women artists of colour as well. The group, working internationally, arranged for protest marches, surveys and used mass advertising media such as posters, stickers, billboards, slogans etc.
The members of the group, once they joined, took up pseudonyms preferably of dead women artists. In 2011, the group split into three independent organization as the original group ceased to exist.
Studies in this issue will also include the Chinese Artists protest in 2010, when Beijing saw a demonstration of artists after their homes in artists’ village gallery were demolished. Masked men brandishing iron rods physically harassed them and demolished their houses and studios. This particular patch of land, spread over 4000 square feet of land that houses more than 2000 contemporary artists was resisting urbanization and development within the heart of a very industrialized city. Many of the artists were given long term lease, in many cases 20 years, and most of them invested their lifelong savings in order to acquire a place to work and live. Protesting this event, two dozen artists marched towards the Tiananmen Square. But eventually the police intervened to stop them from reaching their destination. This incident in Beijing was not the first occasion where a demonstration of people venting their frustration against the authority and real estate agents destroying their homes was systematically thwarted. However, despite the iron hand with which the Chinese Communist regime curtails such protests, artists in that country continue to raise their voices undaunted, bringing back memories of the old black-and-white photograph of the nineties of a lone student standing in front of a fleet of approaching tanks at Tiananmen Square, during the students and artists protest movement against suppression by the authorities.
In the creative impulse section, beside Bester, I have also included two German filmmakers, Julia Lesser and Clarissa Seidel, who have filmed a documentary named Radioactivists: Protest in Japan in Fukushima. This docu-film takes a keen look at the culture of protest in a country like Japan, with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that happened in 11 March, 2011 as the background. The protests around the Fukushima disaster are heralding new phases in Japan’s fight for political and social justice. The two film makers have been shooting in Tokyo, accompanying rallies, demonstrations and talking to people from various fields.
In the same section is included an interview of Rameshwar Broota—whose photographs and artworks have been creating quite a stir. We have let all of them talk—from the Guerilla Girls to Bester to the German filmmakers to Broota—in order to let the reader understand each artists’ perspective.
In the light of all these protests, we were curious to know about the art during the Partition Period but to our surprise, we couldnot find works by any eminent artist on this subject except a few works by Satish Gujral. This feature tries to understand this irony and comes up with yet another example of institutional apathy—when Art Colleges established during the British Period churned out mostly craftsmen rather than free-thinking artists. These graduates thus went on looking at Europe for inspiration, turning a blind-eye to the physical and geographical butchery perpetrated by their Rulers.
I have also tried to document other aspects of Protest Movements and Groups in this issue, like the Bengal artist of the ’40s, Transgressive art as a form of protest, Ai Weiwei, Communalism as a movement which started in India after the Best Bakery and Babri Masjid incidents and the canvas of Manjit Bawa after the Sikh riots in Delhi. It also focuses on the contribution of Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali and van Gogh as artists of angst against social injustice. I have also included French art movement post May 1968 as well as Warhol and his contemporaries protest against rampant consumerism in America. A feature on Art Cries Out—a website dedicated to Protest Art is also included in this issue.
Photo essay on Occupy Wall Street and a feature on Reza Aramesh, an Iranian photographer are also included in this edition. We have also revisited the exhibition, Art Against Terrorism.
Hope this issue brings you the same reading gratification as the earlier one and satisfies your query of studying and documenting the whole spectrum of this largely underground but intensely important movement in the perspective of global art—which, appearing in ghettoes or bylanes and on walls of sidestreets, is as important as those that ornament the walls of the rich and famous.