dissent and protest through visual media

LoveLowry is The Lowry’s platform to promote virtual theatre, gallery and studio space, by presenting a series of performances, artworks, exhibitions, tours, workshops, comment and blogs, curated by our creative team and special guest curators.

Michael Simpson – Director of Visual Arts

As The Lowry’s Director of Visual Arts, I have the great job of leading a small team that looks after Salford’s collection of paintings and drawings by LS Lowry, and presents a programme of modern and contemporary visual art exhibitions. In this context contemporary means ‘new’ and modern means ‘newish’!

As a venue that is home to both visual art and performances – and works creatively every day with our local communities – we are always looking to bring different artforms together and to support everyone to be creative. Artists and performers can have opportunities to express themselves on stages or in galleries (at least they could pre-COVID-19) but our message is that any of us can find a creative way to articulate how we feel.

Our online Days Like These exhibition is an example – with paintings, photographs, poems, blogs, drawings, collages and films all contributed by members of the public, giving us insights into their feelings, hopes, fears, frustrations and resilience.

And there’s a lot to go at. The last 12 months has seen our world face extraordinary challenges, not only in terms of the impact of the pandemic on how we live our lives, but also on fundamental political, personal and social issues, prompting protests around the world.

Today I thought I would take this opportunity to look at some of the different ways that artists have expressed dissent and protest through visual media; and also have visual arts can be used to show support and solidarity.

Jenny Holzer: “I do tend to make work that focusses on cruelty, in hopes that people will recoil”

Jenny Holzer is an artist whose work focusses on presenting words and ideas in public spaces. Her large-scale outdoor installations include illuminated LED displays, advertising billboards and projections on buildings. Recent events have reminded us that words have consequences and Holzer’s work uses the words of others to inspire, reflect or condemn.

In this extract from a PBS documentary, Holzer talks about her work and creates a new gallery exhibition based on classified redacted government documents following the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York. It includes testimony from the investigation into the death of Afghan prisoner Jamal Naseer, whose death in custody from ‘natural causes’ was later found to be a fiction.

Hew Locke and others: “What to do about problematic statues?”

In June 2020, protestors at an anti-discrimination demonstration in Bristol toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader who is believed to have sold around 100,000 west African people in the Caribbean and the Americas between 1672 and 1689. The statue was thrown into Bristol Harbour. This was only one example of a wave of protests across the world that saw the dismantling of statuary following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but as this article from The New York Times demonstrates, it wasn’t a new phenomenon.

The artist Hew Locke has been making work about disputed statuary for many years, and he talks about this in conversation with The Art Newspaper, along with Richard Benjamin of the International Slavery Museum In Liverpool and Astrid de Bruycker, Alderwoman for equal opportunities in Ghent, Belgium, where a bust of Leopold II, the king responsible for one of the most brutal of all the colonial regimes, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was in the process of being removed.

Rock Against Racism: “Love Music, Hate Racism”

My own first engagement with protest came when I was a teenager and I embraced Rock Against Racism. This movement emerged in the late 1970s, following Eric Clapton’s own ‘protest’ speech on stage in Birmingham – a speech that was in fact a racist tirade calling for the expulsion of black people from Britain. Almost immediately a multiracial, community-led movement fought back against what was a rising tide of British fascism. Rock Against Racism organised gigs where black and white bands would share the stage but the fanzines and visuals were just as important. Pauline Black of The Selector described it as a moment when ’white people [were[ finally waking up to the fact that there was racism here’.

The Guerrilla Girls: “The history of patriarchy, not the history of who we are”

The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of feminist, female artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world.

Following an exhibition at the Museum of Modern The group formed in New York City in 1985 with the mission of bringing gender and racial inequality into focus within the greater arts community. The group employs culture jamming in the form of posters, books, billboards, and public appearances to expose discrimination and corruption. To remain anonymous, members don gorilla masks and use pseudonyms that refer to deceased female artists.

Jeremy Deller: “I’ve always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem”

One of the most famous artworks in recent years that examined protest was Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a partial re-enactment of a confrontation between striking miners and police near Rotherham in June 1984. At the time, scenes of police violence, including horse charges and officers beating miners with truncheons, dominated television news. No police were charged for their actions. Instead, the incident led to the prosecution of 55 miners who were arrested at Orgreave and charged with riot. However, the prosecutions collapsed after the trial of the first 15 miners fell apart. The miners’ lawyers accused the police of unprovoked assaults, and subsequently of perjury and perverting the course of justice.

Deller and his collaborators recreated the violent standoff 17 years later in a bid to spotlight the events that day and the subsequent legal proceedings.

You can see a documentary by Mike Figgis about Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave here:

Tuesday Smillie: “A search for a history in the wake of cultural erasure’

Another artist who has shone a light on historical activism and protest is Tuesday Smillie, an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, New York, whose work focuses on trans-feminist politics and the aesthetics of protest.

She has celebrated the work of Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a trans activist group founded by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in the wake of the Stonewall riots in 1969. The riots followed a police raid on The Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village.

The clashes, which continued for days, were barely covered in the news, but they altered the course of history, leading to the foundation of the Gay Liberation Front and the original discussions to create the first Pride (then called the Christopher Street Parade), which took place on 28 June 1970 in new York City, a year after the riots.

Smillie set out to pay homage to Rivera and Johnson as pioneers of trans activism. “With these works, I hope to help lift Rivera and Johnson out of the historical shadows, celebrating their courage and beauty, while pointing simultaneously to the violence they virulently fought against and to the violence of historical erasure”.

Finally, a reminder that the digital space is witnessing the creation of new, loud, shareable opportunities to protest. Explore for yourself, contribute if you are moved to, and perhaps bear in mind Arthur Ashe’s words:

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can’