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When and how did you begin collecting political posters? In the summer of 1981, University of California, Los Angeles art historian David Kunzle, my husband Ted Hajjar and I were en route to Nicaragua to document the art production of the young Sandinista revolution. Muralist Eva Cockcroft joined us in Mexico City and introduced me to Fanny Rabel, considered the first modern female muralist, and a friend of Frida Kahlo’s. Fanny gave us a poster she had just finished that commemorated Alaíde Foppa, a poet, writer, feminist, art critic and teacher who had “disappeared” in Guatemala six months earlier. The poster read, “Secuestrada por el Gobierno genocida de Guatemala, ¡Presente!” (“Kidnapped by the genocidal government of Guatemala. You are still with us!”). I had never heard of Foppa until then. Thanks to that poster, I will never forget her and the price she paid for her political commitment.

In Nicaragua, posters and murals were everywhere that promoted the goals and ideals of the revolution, which included literacy, health care, self-determination and women’s rights. Despite the flood of commercial images that bombards us as we go about our daily lives, posters have the power to refocus our thoughts. They grab our attention through colors and graphics, making us read the text. Whether or not we agree with the message, it can provoke us into asking questions—and asking questions changes us.

I became obsessed with collecting protest posters. I wanted to use them for educating and organizing people in the United States in the same way that the Sandinistas were using them in Nicaragua. My political activism became intensified through cultural activism. In 1988, seven years after I had collected my first poster, in Mexico City, I founded the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) as a resource for activists, artists, students, researchers and curators. Today, the archive contains more than 90,000 US and international posters going back to the nineteenth century, with most of the collection dating from the 1960s to the present. The posters function as a graphic novel, teaching viewers a history they do not learn in school. There is an African proverb that says, “Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.” Political posters tell the story of the lions in the lions’ own words.

‘Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.’”
What are some of the important things you needed to learn about curation? One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that curation is extremely political. I’ve seen curators borrow some of CSPG’s most provocative posters and depoliticize them by arranging them by color or typeface instead of by theme. The meaning of a poster can be diluted or enhanced depending on what is next to it.

I first learned this lesson in 1989 when viewing a poster exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was displaying contemporary international posters, including commercial advertisements, art posters and political posters. All were mixed together. There were no translations and no explanations. I remember a stunning Amnesty International (AI) poster from Germany, featuring a thumb as large as a person’s head, with a razor blade pushed behind the thumbnail. My husband, Ted, was able to read the German, which demanded an end to torture. Immediately next to this AI poster was a striking Japanese poster featuring an orange in the palm of a woman’s hand, her long, bright green fingernails enveloping the fruit. We had no idea if this was an art poster or a poster for nail polish. I stared at the two posters and joked to Ted, “Is this about fingers? Hands?” By displaying the posters in this way, the curators depoliticized a powerful AI poster into a discourse on style, type font and aesthetics.

Contrary to the prevalent attitude in many museums today, art does not speak for itself, and political posters definitely do not speak for themselves. A good political poster doesn’t need to be explained at the time it was made, and it may still make sense a decade or two later. But the original meaning is rarely apparent a generation after it was made.

For example, I consider Q: And Babies?, by the Art Workers’ Coalition about the 1968 My Lai Massacre, to be one of the most important posters of the twentieth century. It helped stop the Viet Nam War. I show it to every class that comes to CSPG, including a graduate class in graphic design that visited a decade ago. When I brought out this poster, the students gasped. I naively thought they had gasped out of horror. When they began asking about the technology that allowed those babies to look “so real,” I was the one who was horrified. They thought it was a digital manipulation. The teacher and I explained how this poster was made in 1970, years before digital images and Photoshop.

We live in what I call the “post–Forrest Gump” world, where it is possible to create a completely fictitious but totally real-looking image. Without knowing about the Viet Nam War and the My Lai Massacre, the now-iconic Q: And Babies? poster would at best be a generic atrocity of war—but at worst, it could be seen as an exercise in digital manipulation.

What are some of the rarest posters in CSPG’s collection? This is difficult to answer because most posters were made in the 100s or 1000s, but very few have survived. Because posters are ephemera, they are often made on cheap paper and posted publicly—between the elements and high acid content, they disintegrate. Because they are intentionally provocative, they are often destroyed by those who oppose their messages. They are also often neglected by the people who make them, who will post the new posters on top of the old ones, so the survival rate of posters is historically low.

So, rather than describe the rarest, I’ll describe those whose messages and the fact of their survival make them exceptional. We have a linocut made in 1952 by Francisco Mora of the artist’s collective Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) in Mexico. The poster, titled Ayude A Impedir Este Crimen (Help Stop this Crime), opposed the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were targeted during a treacherous time known as McCarthyism, a virulent period of anticommunism in the United States when many people lost their jobs and were blacklisted. Most US posters supporting the Rosenbergs were handmade—it would have been dangerous for a print shop to produce them. But the Rosenbergs were an international cause célèbre—as Free Angela Davis or Free Mumia Abu-Jamal became decades later—and posters were mass-produced internationally, including one designed by Picasso, which we only have as a reprint. CSPG has another TGP linocut, produced by engraver and painter Ángel Bracho in 1953 after the Rosenbergs were executed, that states, “!No Olvidemos! A Julius Y Ethel Rosenberg Asesinados Por El Gobierno De Guerra De Los Estados Unidos Porque Amaron Y Creyeron En La Paz” (“We Won’t Forget! Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, assassinated by the government of war of the United States because they loved and believed in peace”).

In the early 1960s, Danny Lyon was the official photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an important civil rights organization. SNCC used his photos in a series of five offset posters. The Smithsonian Institution is one of a handful of organizations with the complete set. In 2000, when Danny learned that CSPG had only four of the five posters, he sent us the missing one, One Man One Vote.

What other pieces would you like to add to CSPG’s collection? That’s probably the hardest question you’ve asked. There are so many protest movements around the world, and most of them produce posters. Where does one start? We don’t have any Works Progress Administration posters and very few Spanish Civil War posters. But as much as I’d like to have some of these, there are a lot of books and images on these available, so it would be more important—but not as dramatic—to have pieces from little-known or unknown struggles throughout the world. Posters from the Catalan independence movement or the efforts to evict US bases from Okinawa, Japan, and from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean would be very important. The archive also needs more posters on Asian social movements.

How do we maximize public access to political posters? The internet has made it easier to distribute political posters, but the people who see them online are generally looking for them. Prior to the internet—and prior to the growing legal restrictions—posters were literally posted on public walls and were therefore seen by many diverse audiences who randomly came across them. We need more “free speech” wall space where we can install posters without fearing thousands of dollars in fines. Corporations can buy ads on TV. Movements need to recapture public space.

What does the current tumultuous political climate mean for political poster design? There is a political poster renaissance going on right now—and I credit both Trump and the internet for facilitating this. Not since the Viet Nam War period has the United States—and the world—been so divided and passionate about issues, and the internet enables activists to share ideas, strategies and graphics. But there are many life-threatening issues right now: immigration, climate change, homelessness, racism, homophobia, police abuse, domestic violence, the prison industrial complex... the list goes on. The good news is that people are becoming inspired and active. Artists are putting their talents to support critical causes.

I would like to see more understanding of what makes an effective political poster. Some designers nail it. Others use too many words—no one wants to read a treatise while standing or driving by. Others prioritize the aesthetics over meaning, and the result is too often an ambiguous poster. A good protest poster cannot be ambiguous. Its meaning must be immediately clear. A good poster needs the right balance between content and aesthetics.

What’s one poster you recently collected in person at a demonstration? I attended one of the more than 700 immigrant rights rallies held across the United States on June 30, 2018, to end the separation of families and to support refugees and immigrants. While listening to the speakers, I wandered through the thousands of people in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles, looking for posters. Two posters I hadn’t seen before were leaning against a wall, produced by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. One was very striking—the red, white and blue image featured a photo of the Supreme Court, overlapped with silhouetted rows of protesters with their fists, placards and open hands of greeting raised into the air. The text above read, “NO BAN,” and the text below was “NO WALL.” I took both posters back to CSPG.

Carol A. Wells is an activist, art historian, curator, lecturer and writer. She has been collecting posters and producing political poster art exhibitions on a variety of human-rights themes for more than 30 years. Trained as a medievalist at the University of California, Los Angeles, she taught the history of art and architecture for thirteen years at California State University, Fullerton. In 1988, Wells founded the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, an educational and research archive with more than 90,000 domestic and international human-rights and protest posters going back to the nineteenth century.

Wells’s articles on art and politics have appeared in numerous publications and catalogs, including Peace Press Graphics 1967–1967: Art in the Pursuit of Social Change, which she coedited as part of the Getty Foundation’s 2011 Pacific Standard Time initiative. Wells was featured on the Public Broadcasting Service’s Artbound in 2015 and the History Detectives in 2011. In 2015, she gave a TEDx talk titled “Can Art Stop a War and Save the Planet?” Since 1981, Wells has produced or co-curated more than 100 traveling theme-based political poster exhibitions covering many human-rights issues and movements. She believes that the power of graphics can combat public apathy and feelings of helplessness and help open up a truly democratic arena for political debate.


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