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Stephen Somerstein, “Two mothers with children watching marchers on porch” (1965) (courtesy the photographer and the New-York Historical Society)

Three uptown cultural institutions in New York City this summer have had significant exhibitions devoted to the history of art and social activism. Taken together, they paint an arresting portrait of the role of artists in affecting social change.

El Museo del Barrio’s ¡PRESENTE! The Young Lords in New York highlights the radical Latino rights movement of the 1960s. Using archival images of the Young Lords group and extensive interviews, the exhibition presents the struggle for dignity and recognition during the social revolution. While this show shapes and communicates the voice of a specific group of activists, Activist New York at the Museum of the City of New York takes a broader look at the history of activism in New York from the 17th century to present day. An ambitious multimedia, interactive permanent exhibit, it contains fascinating history and archival materials but suffers from being over-designed: the exhibition bombards the viewer with video footage of protests, audio recordings of speeches, objects like early protest handbills and protest buttons, and touch screens illustrating contemporary social justice NGO groups in New York City. It’s not that the exhibition attempts to cover too much ground. New York has clearly had a long and important role in the nurturing of protest movements. It’s the chaotic display that dilutes the exhibition’s power. A bit of visual respite would have allowed the visitor to absorb and reflect upon this extensive history.

On the other hand, at the same museum, Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival is a charming show that traces the folk music scene of the Village in the ‘50s and ‘60s. By definition, this turns into an exploration of the political music of the era, featuring the lives of musicians such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Odetta, and Judy Collins, to name just a very few. Musical instruments, audio, film footage, and posters all combine to make this a show that is both informative and delightful.

Stephen Somerstein, “Hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers” (1965) (courtesy the photographer and the New-York Historical Society) (click to enlarge)

It is the New-York Historical Society, however, that really hits the ball with its two exhibitions. Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein is deeply moving. These stunning photographs of a world-changing event resonate today as much as they did 50 years ago. Somerstein’s “Two mothers with children watching marchers from a porch” (1965) and “Hecklers yelling and gesturing at marchers” (1965) have stayed with me as haunting moments in history.

But it is Art as Activism: Graphic Art from the Merrill C. Berman Collection that gives us something more unusual: one man’s collection of 72 protest posters that span from 1932 to 1975, the end of the Vietnam War, and follow the graphic development of the American protest movement. This is an exhibition whose wall text is worth the time to read as it explains in great detail the visual and political evolution of the political broadside of the mid-20th century.

Originally conceived of as ephemeral objects designed to raise awareness and draw public attention to social issues, these posters are often ascribed simply to an “Unidentified Artist.” Beginning with the 1932 “Equal Rights For Negros Everywhere,” we see the growth of activist graphic design and progressive political consciousness in the United States.

Lester Beall, “Cross Out Slums” (1941) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

The first room of the three-room exhibition is devoted to the rising social issues of the post-World War ll era. Workers rights, support for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and a nascent American Communist party are the dominant themes. The most striking poster, entitled “Cross Out Slums,” dates to 1941 and is by the great graphic designer Lester Beall. Strong modernist design, bold primary colors, and distinctly modern use of typography combine to drive home the message in a most contemporary way.

The second room is devoted completely to posters about the Black Panthers. We see a huge shift in design and intent in these works. The pieces in the first room, though powerful, have a formality of both design and message. They are “polite,” and this is no diss on the message — they reflect the era in which they were made.

The second room also reflects the era in which these posters were made, as well as the emotion that fueled the making. There is raw power, urgency, and palpable anger in these posters. Among them are iconic images of Huey Newton, founder of the Panther party. One in particular — of Huey sitting in an African chieftain’s chair, holding a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other — became emblematic of the Panther movement and was widely reproduced in both the underground and mainstream media.

Installation view of ‘Art As Activism’ at the New-York Historical Society (image courtesy New-York Historical Society)

Stark images of Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver, among others, are printed in dull black ink on newsprint. This room of posters is almost entirely monochromatic. There are few hints of red and green, but, for the most part, the palette has been reduced to the bare message, made all the more powerful by the lack of color. Many of these posters were produced as political events were unfolding; they tend to be physically smaller than the WW ll era posters, which also suggest that they were produced cheaply and rapidly, and in mass quantities. The emphasis here is on getting the word out — fast.

The only identified artist in the room is Emory Douglas, who was Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers. He was the art director, illustrator, and designer of the Black Panther newspaper, several copies of which are included in the exhibition. Douglas masterminded the “look” of the Panther publications and his posters are still powerful some 40 years on. His visual “branding” of the Panthers was raw, provocative, and designed to instill fear and respect in the viewer.

Tomi Ungerer, “Black Power/ White Power” (1967) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

This final room of the exhibit is a bit of a grab bag of objects and subject matter, with posters from several different radical movements, including AIM (the American Indian Movement) and various anti-war groups. While historically interesting, we don’t see images with the same graphic strength as in the first rooms (like “Labor Defender,” 1931 by Louis Engdahl or “Pigs/ Bobby Seale circa 1969–71”). There is one notable exception: the extraordinary “Black Power/ White Power” poster from 1967 by the great graphic designer Tomi Ungerer. It’s shocking and strangely funny, a combination that Ungerer used frequently to convey his politics.

Much of the work in Art as Activism asks to be viewed as historical document, rather than pure graphic design. As a whole, the exhibition conveys the deep roots of ongoing radical and progressive movements in the US and it is gratifying to see, through these posters, how American progressives have strived for so long to make the country more inclusive with political messages that have such style and power.

Emory Douglas, “All Power To The People” (1969), lithograph on paper, Collection of Merrill C. Berman (© 2015 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)

Vera Bock, “Haiti; A Drama of the Black Napoleon by William Du Bois at Lafayette Theatre” (1938), screenprint on board, Collection of Merrill C. Berman

Art Rice, “Red Power” (1970), silk screen on paper, Collection of Merrill C. Berman

Art as Activism: Graphic Art from the Merrill C. Berman Collection continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through September 13. Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein continues at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through October 25.  ¡PRESENTE! The Young Lords in New York continues at the El Museo del Barrio (1230 5th Ave, East Harlem, Manhattan) through December 12. Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival continues at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 5th Ave, East Harlem, Manhattan) through January 10, 2016. Activist New York  is a new permanent exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. 

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Melissa Stern

Melissa Stern is an artist, writer, curator and anthropologist living in NYC. As an artist she works at the intersection of story- telling, drawing and objects. As a writer she is focused on the collision...