Newcall Gallery

Friday, November 13, 2009

MATTERS 3 - 4. John Minto - A portrait of protest for the young artist

A portrait of protest for the young artist

Art arises from life. It may simply reflect on events, experiences, feelings and emotions but it can
also challenge and provoke.
There’s an insightful cartoon by Australian Michael Leunig which shows a person sitting
enthralled watching a beautiful sunset on TV while outside the window the real event is taking
place unnoticed. Art sometimes resembles the televised sunset which is a pale substitute for the
real experience and which fails to excite in any meaningful way. It is on the other side of art as
conscience and critic, prodder and challenger where it reaches its most important role. In a
musical context these two sides of art could be the difference between a Hayley Westenra and a
Gin Wigmore.

It is this power of art to incite, annoy and confront which is the subject of this contribution.
Every protest group I’ve ever been associated with has had its artists who, as part of their
activism, have designed posters or produced individual pieces of art which have helped carry
important messages to a wider public. It’s not a case of emphasising artistic style over political
substance but the political communication needs a carrier pigeon and while people like me can
usually do OK with the words, the visuals are what carry the day. It is the image which links to
internal human emotions and subliminal feelings which has greater impact for most rather than
the rational argument. More often than not it’s the poster or image which is the essential effective
vehicle for the message.

Advertisers know this better than anyone. They are paid very well to subvert our best intentions
and our noblest ideals with seductive images to manipulate our inner emotions. They also work
hard to associate a brand with these emotions such that the brand becomes the medium for their
buy, buy, buy messages.

So what role does art play in a protest movement? A much greater part than you might think is
the short answer. A few illustrations from my experience.

During the protests against the 1981 Springbok tour a sub-group called Artists Against Apartheid
(AAA) formed from mainly Auckland based artists. They spearheaded a large protest march on
the eve of the final All Black/Springbok test and the outpouring of artistic talent on the side of the
oppressed was incredible. There were puppets, masks, posters, caricatures, fancy dress. The
entire march of some 20,000 was itself a piece of colourful, provocative, challenging street
theatre. Among the most memorable images the following day was a black zeppelin-like balloon
which floated across Eden Park emblazoned with the single word Biko. (It was 12 September
1981 and the anniversary of the murder of black activist Steve Biko in South African police
custody). It could be argued that mini-zeppelin had a greater protest impact than much of the
street-level action. It carried a message seen by millions as the game was broadcast around the
country and around the world. This was a case of artists as a group joining forces to act together
as activists on the streets as well as produce powerful, evocative and influential works of art.
If there were any artists on the other side of the debate it wasn’t obvious. Their efforts in any case
consisted of just half-witted slogans saying “Fart on HART”. (For those of you who under 35
HART (Halt all Racist Tours) was the main anti-apartheid organisation co-ordinating opposition to
sports links with apartheid South Africa)

The artworks from that period were stunning, not just for the variety of campaigning images and
posters but in the more traditional works as well. For example the late Tony Fomison produced a
small but striking image of a rugby ball on an altar for an art auction to raise funds for the anti-tour
campaign. The idea here could be read in several ways. Do New Zealanders really see rugby as
a national religion? How much was New Zealand sacrificing for rugby?
When Nelson Mandela came to New Zealand in 1996 we presented him with a framed poster
produced by Stanley Palmer of a young tagger who had just completed spraying the words Free
Nelson Mandela on a wall.

(Which reminds me - where has all the great political tagging gone? Has it really died? Are we
just left with territorial tagging and changing Peter McCracken’s first name to Phil?)
Auckland artist Peter Lange produced and fired drinking mugs telling the story of the young black
man sentenced to several years in a South African prison for scratching the words Free Nelson
Mandela on the side of his enamel mug at work. We sold these mugs as fundraisers – again art
was a vehicle to carry the issue.

The peace movement produced a similar outpouring of artistic expression later in the 1980s.
There were thousands of images and art works of all kinds which couriered this issue through the
community. Art made relevant what happened in Washington and Moscow to us in the South
Pacific. The images more than the words told the story. Again art was the carrier pigeon for the
message.

Artist Ralph Hotere’s work reflects two ways of using art to convey political challenges.
Sometimes the meaning is in your face (eg his works using Polaris missiles or Moruroa as
themes) while at other times it is much more subtle (eg the mournful images reflecting on war
which he produced after visits to Sangro in Italy where his brother was killed in the Second World
War. For me the pieces are desolate but warm with conflicted emotions).

The artists of each generation find their own voice based around their own experiences and the
issues of their day. I’m not an artist but I’d like to think any artist reading this would be encouraged
at the power of art as a means of expression to carry critical communications to thewider society.
These ideas will never be carried by art which is well paid to produce. It’s usually only artists working
for advertisers who are well paid. Instead the most important art will be from an artist’s own time and
talent because the challenges we need are not those telling us what to buy but those evoking inner
beliefs which subvert the consumer and empower the citizen within. To all young artists out there –
you have a lot more power than you think. Be courageous and use it.