Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of Design Thinking. Designers inspire me by their inherent optimism to create effective solutions for people. This year, in my role as a teacher for Media Literacy through STEM, I’ve been really thinking about the power of graphic design and how Graphic Designers tell stories through their work. Graphic Designers have a specific message for a specific audience and use what they know of their audience to design specifically for them. I recently happened upon the book, Art of Protest by De Nichols. I was so amazed by this book and my personal learning of how art is used in social movements. In this post, I share some of my learning from this book. In order to respect the author and the content outlined, I’ve merely shared a small portion.
Why Art Matters in Social Movements
One of the goals of art created in protest is challenging the status quo. Throughout this book, there are so many symbols that are representative of social movements and their desire to challenge current societal rules, norms or what is perceived as acceptable. In reading this section, there was mention of artists repurposing materials to bring awareness of societal flaws. One artist that I took the time to learn about was Elizabeth Vega. On New Year’s Eve in 2019, a group of organizers constructed an altar with a Christmas tree made out of water bottles. This was done in honour of Jakelin Caal who was a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died on December 1st, 2018. Beyond the Christmas tree, they also created a blockade at the entrance to the facility, made out of water bottles that were lit with Christmas lights. In this art installation, the use of the water bottles was symbolic of the issues related to various water crises in America. This section got me thinking about how we investigate and explore messages within current art pieces created in protest and how we might support students in understanding the idea of symbolism.
What Exactly Is Protest Art
This was by far the most robust section that got me thinking about various art forms that are used to object to an idea or concept. From street art to poetry, photography to music, the history of protest art outlined in this book, blew my mind. In this section, there are prompts that invite you to think about what you see in different art. After taking some time to consider what you see, you have the opportunity to learn about the use and history of different symbols within. One symbol that I had no idea of was the umbrella. “During protests for democracy in Hong Kong in 2014, activists used umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas and other aggressions by police. Since then, the umbrella has become a symbol of the protests and gave the movement its name” (page 32). In Visual Arts periods, I’ve often taught students to reflect on the different emotions evoked from different colours. There’s a great graphic within this book that explains some of the symbolism of colours and movements associated with them. This was incredible learning for me and something that I have definitely been looking out for as I explore art and learn more about social movements.
Youth Leadership and Protest Art Around the World
Earlier this week I had the chance to connect with a former student and was asked why I wanted to become a teacher. While my explanation spoke to my long journey to this point, the one thing that I know for sure is that working with students is honestly the best part of the job. I often say that children are the best humans on earth. From their ability to empathize with others to their desire to call out the wrong they see in the world, children are candid and when passionate about an issue, are eager to bring about change. One thing that I loved in this chapter was the Try This prompt – Wear your cause: Paint a t-shirt with a protest message that shares your vision for positive change. Anyone who knows me well, also knows that I have a variety of t-shirts with powerful statements that resonate with me and who I am as a Black woman. I choose carefully which spaces I wear my shirts. While reading this, I envisioned students feeling safe enough to create their own messages for ways in which they would like to see a more just world, and wearing them. What conversations would be sparked by their shirts? What changes would be made within our schools?
Protest Art Beyond Today
People are getting more and more creative in their use of technology in art forms. The quote on page 74 is filled with the inherent optimism I mentioned at the start of this post: “Our world right now is ripe for change, for progress, and for new ideas of what tomorrow can bring”. One of the many questions I am left with is how might we meaningfully engage students in Art, using technology, to bring about social change for which they are passionate?
To say this book had an impact on me would be an understatement. I think every teacher wanting to support students in social change should take a read, for their own learning and for some of the great ideas within. As for my next steps, I’ll continue to take some time to learn. I’m also thinking of ways to use this book with students to support them in using elements of design to bring awareness around social issues that are of importance to them.