Art has been a medium of protest for centuries. From anti-war posters of the 1940s, to the clenched fists of the Mexican Revolution, to the illustrated pins worn on backpacks around the world today, protest art has become ubiquitous throughout the globe.
I had my first powerful experience studying art as protest in a college course entitled Time Based Art - art that manipulates the aspect of time and audience participation to portray a message. In this class, I studied a number of impressive female artists who put themselves in the public eye with astounding visual and performance artworks. At times, they even put their lives on the line.
Today, in a time when anger acts as currency, protest art is as present as ever. Because we are inundated with images on the news and social media, it can be incredibly hard to filter through. So, I wrote this piece to highlight incredible women using art as protest from 1970 to today.
Carolee Schneeman (1973)
Carolee Schneeman is one of the most famous female protest artists. She is known for her grueling performance pieces, and experimental visual and film works. Her work mostly explores the power of the female nude, which has earned her a celebrated spot in the feminist art canon. In one of her most famous works, Up to and Including Her Limits (shown above), Schneeman manipulated her nude body into a hanging tree surgeon’s harness. She swings herself around the white walls and extends her arms to mark on the walls with crayons. She says this was a direct response to Jackson Pollack’s physical, active painting process; her entire body becomes the artistic agent.
Ana Mendieta (1977)
At the age of 12, Ana Mendieta was forced to flee her native city of Havana due to dangerous political turmoil. She was forced into an orphanage Iowa with her sister and hundreds of other displaced Cuban children. Mendieta is most celebrated from her rich performance art works. In her Silueta Series, Mendieta imprinted her body’s outline into the landscapes of Mexico and Iowa as a means of “reclaiming her roots.”
Miriam Schapiro (1981)
Miriam Schapiro is a Canadian-born artist known as a pioneer of the feminist art movement. From the 1970s on, her work consists largely of collages made of fabrics that Schapiro calls “femmages”. These fabrics are collections of materials that women saved and assembled. She highlights traditional women's creative techniques: sewing, hooking, cutting, cooking, knitting, etc.
Barbara Krueger (1990)
Barbara Krueger is a conceptual artist known for layering photographs. Her work often speaks against commercial culture through a feminist lens. Her use of bold fonts and black and white gives her pieces an advertising feel, which is reminiscent of her earlier career as a graphic designer. Her piece I Shop Therefore I Am plays on Descartes’ famous philosophy “I think, therefore I am.” The famous photograph has been printed on thousands of shopping bags, t-shirts, and other consumer materials.
Catherine Opie (1994)
Catherine Opie is most well known for her portraits of LGBTQ+ people affiliated with California’s ‘90s leather sadomasochist subculture. Many of the portraits were incredibly jarring, showing self-inflicted injuries. However, the photographs are celebrated today for raising awareness of oppressed sexual identities and promoting inclusion.
Vanessa Beecroft (2010)
Vanessa Beecroft is known for her large-scale performance pieces, often involving nude women. Her work is focused around body image and female psychology. She creates these gorgeous tableaus, in which the models are meant to be seen as replicas of one another. She comments on the commodification of the female body, connecting art, fashion, and photography.
Sarah Levy (2015)
Sarah Levy, originally from Portland, “believes in the power of faces”. She mostly paints portraits of people who the media vilifies or ignores. However, Bloody Trump, (shown above) is her most famous exception. She painted this portrait of Donald Trump in 2015 from her own menstrual blood, in response to the misogynistic comments he made in his campaign run. Levy remains passionate about the fight against white supremacy, war, and women’s rights.
Sonia Boyce (2018)
Sonia Boyce is a black female artist based in London. Since the 1980s, she has been creating photography, installation, and text work exposing modern cultural tensions. She is an important figure of the 1980s Black British Cultural Renaissance. Her piece 2018, featured above, is a drawn letter that exhibits the rising racial tensions not only in the UK but around the world today. It is a simple piece, but it is incredibly powerful and affective. Her personal example of a racist attack is relatable to millions around the world, and it highlights a frightening rise of these instances in today’s political landscape.
In a time of political unrest and turmoil, we see news of protest almost every day. It is important to exercise your civil rights, and these female artists protested in creative, genuine ways. It is crucial to not disregard the power of art in political and social protest. However, far too often, protest art is still dominated by white, male voices. In the context of protest, it is absolutely critical to raise voices of that are often silenced. Support female protest artists of today, and look into these incredible protest artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists for even more courageous art inspiration.