On December 15, the Delhi Police brutally attacked Jamia Millia Islamia students protesting against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act. Their targets included a young freelance journalist in a housing colony located near the university. As they rained blows on him with their lathis, five of his female friends formed a cocoon around him to shield him from these blows.
Within minutes, video footage of their bravery sped across the internet. By the next day, actor and painter Povannan had produced the now iconic image of the incident.
This image is a perfect example of the urgent new protest art that is being produced around the world, from Sudan to Chile, Lebanon to Hong Kong, and beyond. The agitations in these locations would be unimaginable without the poetry, music, craft, creative slogans, street theatre, murals and sartorial displays that have underpinned them.
A mature digital culture has brought together technology, social media and the internet in complex and interesting ways, revolutionising the way protest art is produced and consumed. It has enabled protest art to manifest in an almost guerilla-like manner, imbuing it with a distinctly spontaneous quality. It has democratised protest art by greatly expanding its reach and access. An advanced digital ecosystem has also exposed protest art to resistance motifs, tactics and ideas from other geographies and cultures.
Protest Art 2.0
As the Jamia image demonstrates, near-real-time access to news footage from the ground has dramatically reduced the time taken by artists to creatively respond to an incident. Smart phone and digital technologies allow moments to be easily recorded on-site and shared almost instantaneously across multiple channels of distribution.
Prompted by a proposed tax on the widely used internet-based calling service provided by Whatsapp, the people of Lebanon took to the streets on October 17 of last year to protest against what they considered to be a nepotistic, sectarian and corrupt political system that had failed to deliver basic services to its people. On that same day, a female protestor kicked a Minister’s armed bodyguard when he fired a shot in the direction of the protestors. Within 24 hours, a London-based Lebanese graphic designer, Rami Kanso, produced this powerful digital image to immortalise that moment of defiance. It quickly went viral.
In some cases, news footage can itself be deftly edited to resemble a work of art. In Lebanon, a number of video editors and videographers are working directly with raw footage of protest-related violence, converting video clips into cinematographic works, complete with background scores and narrative arcs.
One popular video by Lebanese videographer, Ali Khalife, for instance, uses footage of the protests to present them in a theatrical and almost farcical way. As digital technology brings news and art closer together, protest art feels more pressing, timely and spontaneous.
Imagination is a powerful leveller. Of the many groups and communities that have engaged with protest art, one demographic has stood out in particular: women. From the songs of resistance sung by the women of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, to the chants of thawra, meaning “revolution”, and the graceful moves of the now famous Sudanese protestor, Ala’a Salah, who was part of a nation-wide revolution that was triggered by an escalation in the price of bread and fuel and a deteriorating economic situation, women have been at the forefront of protest art initiatives.
In many cases, female artists have created protest art to honour the role of women in these resistance movements. This spectacular photograph of Ala’a Salah, for instance, was taken by Sudanese photographer, Lana Haroun, who states that when she first saw the image she had taken on her phone, she immediately thought, “This is my revolution and we are the future”.
Women have been mobilising traditional crafts and art forms to express political dissent: from using Rangoli patterns to convey opposition to India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, to inscribing anti-government slogans on one’s hands and feet using henna in Sudan.
They have also been re-appropriating traditional sartorial practices and transforming them into performative acts of resistance. In India, for example, revolutionary poetry has been inscribed in calligraphy on scarves and headscarves, while in Sudan, the popular revolutionary slogan tasqut bas, meaning “just fall, that’s all”, has appeared on the toub, the traditional robe worn by Sudanese women. Its political and cultural symbolism is amplified by the fact that Sudanese mothers and grandmothers had also worn the toub during their struggles against the military dictatorship in the sixties and the decades that followed.
As a low-cost form of expression, protest art is by default inclusive. Where access to materials is prohibitive or inaccessible, resources – pens, paper or yarn – are often pooled together in protest locations. Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square have evolved into open-air art galleries and theatres, where protestors create street murals, perform songs of resistance and enact street plays. With the transformation of public spaces into hubs for artistic expression, ordinary people have morphed into creative visionaries and artists.
In Hong Kong, where protestors’ demands have evolved from a specific call to rescind the Extradition Law to demands for democratic reform and an independent investigation into alleged police brutality, more than a hundred “Lennon Walls” have spontaneously sprung up across the cityscape, lining walkways, underpasses and other public infrastructure.
Inspired by the original Lennon Walls in Prague on which anti-communist protestors of the 1980s painted messages and images of peace and freedom influenced by John Lennon’s work, the “Lennon Walls” of Hong Kong comprise an assemblage of colourful sticky notes with similar messages of peace and solidarity, creating an overall impression of a large colourful mosaic.
Protest art is not just being created or performed within the confines of the studio, gallery or theatre, but in public squares and on the streets – and, crucially, by people who do not necessarily identify as creative professionals or artists.
For their part, those who do identify as artists have rejected the comfort of their ivory towers and private studios. Artists and collectives across India, from Assam to Delhi to Chennai have taken to the streets to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act, creating and performing art for and also with, other individuals, communities and civil society groups.
For instance, in December 2019, actor Naseeruddin Shah and Carnatic musician T M Krishna collaborated with the civil society collective, Karwan-e-Mohabbat, to release a music video in which lines from the Indian Constitution are powerfully interwoven with the lyrics of the Indian national anthem and juxtaposed against a montage of visuals, including images of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
When Bollywood personality Varun Grover produced the now-ubiquitous poem Hum Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge on 21 December, 2019, he did so with the objective of encouraging its adaptation by others: “There is no copyright on these words – feel free to use them, adapt, sing, modify, create”, Grover announced in a tweet.
Blurring the lines
Protest art has blurred the distinction between the artist as creator and the public as audience. As creative professionals deploy their craft to serve the public interest, and members of the public look to the arts as a medium for political self-expression, protest art has emerged as a tool for the many, not the few.
Part of what has enabled protest art to engage audiences at scale is the digital culture in which it is deeply ingrained. Digitally produced protest posters, such as those generated by the Kadak Collective, can be shared via social media channels as well as printed and taken to protest venues, creating new avenues for engagement with both online and offline audiences.
The anonymity offered by social media can also act as a powerful enabling condition for the distribution of protest art in more restrictive, political contexts. In Hong Kong, for instance, the LIHKG website resembles a Reddit-like forum on which citizens can anonymously exchange and share protest art, memes and even protest tactics.
It was here that a preliminary version of the now widely popular anthem Glory to Hong Kong was released by a local artist under a pseudonym. After receiving suggestions from the forum’s users, the lyrics were amended. A flourishing digital and social media culture has facilitated the generation of a creative commons of protest art: art that is to be created, shared and used by all.
In a globalised world, it is not unusual for creative resistance in one location to draw on resistance iconography, symbols, ideas and motifs popular in other cultures. Artists from Lebanon and India, for example, have repurposed the iconic “We Can Do It” poster from the 1940s featuring a woman flexing her arm in a gesture of self-empowerment. In one of the many protest posters created in India, the image of this woman has been replaced by one in a hijab.
A likeness of the same image has also appeared in a digital protest poster produced by a Lebanese artist on Instagram, in which the English phrase “we can do it” is replaced with its Arabic translation: “The revolution is a woman”. A wall painting in Sudan features a crowd of screaming faces, in what appears to be a creative adaptation of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”.
In Kolkata, demonstrators against the Citizenship Amendment Act have produced a Bengali adaptation of the nineteenth century Italian song of resistance, Bella Ciao. Inspired by the hardships faced by the female paddy field workers, the Mondina, of Northern Italy, Bella Ciao was eventually adopted to serve as an anthem for the anti-fascist resistance movements of the 1940s.
The localisation of cultural motifs from different geographies and historical epochs has characterised much of the protest art that has been generated, with the appropriation of feminist motifs and iconography being especially notable.
Creative resistance in the contemporary period has also been remarkably receptive to stories, symbols and themes drawn from global popular culture, particularly those that are centred around metaphors of good and evil. Marvel Comics’ villains, Thanos and the Joker, for instance, have appeared in protest art in several locations across the globe including Delhi, Lebanon and Hong Kong, serving to act as personifications of the governments whose policies and actions are being resisted.
Popular culture references have also been mobilised to express dissatisfaction in a more tongue in cheek way: one poster in New Delhi, for example, read “this government doesn’t spark joy” in a reference to the central premise of a popular Netflix programme on housekeeping.
In some instances, popular culture motifs have emerged more organically to acquire symbolic and even near-iconic status. In Lebanon, the popular children’s song, Baby Shark, originally produced by a South Korean company, has evolved into something of an anthem for the Lebanese revolution after it was sung by protestors to a toddler during one of the protests to calm him down. In Hong Kong, Do You Hear the People Sing? from the musical Les Miserables has emerged as a song of protest.
Of course, not all works of protest art in the contemporary era draw on motifs derived from global popular culture: many rely explicitly on indigenous ideas and symbols, particularly in places and communities where resistance is intrinsically connected to the preservation of one’s culture, identity or heritage. In Assam, for instance, the gamosa has featured heavily in several protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, enacting the very cultural indigeneity it seeks to protect.
In general, however, a more interconnected world has facilitated the transfer and exchange of ideas, motifs, iconography across borders for those who wish to draw upon multiple sources of inspiration.
In search of a better world
Even as a culture of protest art flourishes, it provides only a glimpse into the larger story behind resistance more generally. More often than not, resistance exists outside the realm of the aesthetic. It involves bodily harm, abuse, torture, trauma, and even death. For its part, protest art often acknowledges this, and seeks to bring visibility to the structures, systems and institutions that abet violence. One especially graphic street mural in Chile, for example, displays a bloodied eye as a reference to the damage caused to more than 200 protestors’ eyes by rubber bullets and tear gas cannisters used by the police in November of last year.
In India, a miniature replica of India Gate has been created to honour those who have died in protest-related violence in India. In Sudan, tear gas cannisters have been transformed into flower pots, pencil jars and electrical connectors. Protest art does not shy away from the violence of resistance but engages with it.
Despite its seeming ephemerality, protest art can provide a visual and aural vocabulary for a political vision or an alternate reality. Even as it draws upon the rhetoric of opposition, it seeks to articulate a vision for what could be.
Protest art is but one tactic in a broader strategy of creative resistance involving other tools such as public education campaigns, grassroots mobilisation and legal advocacy. Across India, for instance, a number of public information sessions led by prominent lawyers, advocates and activists have been taking place to educate people on issues relating to citizenship and constitutional rights. Open-air libraries have sprung up in Sudan, and India, featuring literature on politics, power and rights that has enabled deeper engagement with the issues that triggered these protests to begin with.
Protest art may not single-handedly overthrow regimes or “shift the world on its axis” as music writer Dorian Lynskey states in 33 Revolutions Per Minute. But all protest art, at the end of the day, seeks to change a perspective, shift an opinion or illuminate a previously ignored angle. As performance artist Marina Abramovic so eloquently put it, “the function of the artist in a disturbed society is to is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, and to elevate the mind”. A shift in the way we perceive and imagine the world can go a long way in setting into motion the changes we wish to see.
Supriya Roychoudhury is a political geographer who lives in Goa.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.