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When, in 2013, the Oakland, California–based, employee-owned creative firm Design Action Collective was tasked by Black Lives Matter (BLM) organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi to create a visual identity for the incipient movement, the challenge was enormous. How to visually represent a movement that was an outgrowth of historic civil rights and progressive political protest movements? How to capture the energy and rage aimed at a fundamentally broken justice system, as well as instill hope for profound, systemic change? Daunting though the brief may have been, within three days Design Action Collective had produced a stirring work of graphic design.
Initially, the BLM logo comprised two parts, each given equal space but exhibiting distinctive visual strategies. The first, the best-known and most copied, was a wordmark consisting of bands of bright yellow and black spelling out “Black Lives Matter” in the open-source, sans serif Anton font. Josh Warren-White, one of the designers, discussed this aspect of the logo in a 2016 article for FastCompany.com: “Being easily replicable was the main goal since we know within movements people don’t have budgets to do professional printers—they’re hand painting logos, and the level of skill to replicate a logo by hand varies. We wanted to make something that people could pick up and use in myriad ways.” And in the same place, BLM cofounder Garza positioned design accessibility as central to political efficacy and accountability: “For Black Lives Matter, we see accessible, sharable design that is accountable to the communities that are impacted [by injustice] as a core component of movements.”
The second and lesser-known aspect of the early logo was an illustration of a black figure in a hoodie raising their fist in the air, mouth wide open to the sky. A dandelion held in the figure’s fist sheds its seeds, blowing to parts unknown—an image of regeneration that speaks allegorically of the velocity and fertility of social movements. Behind them, a crowd of people mirrors the individual’s action by raising their own fists in protest. The figure is meant to evoke Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old aviation enthusiast murdered by George Zimmerman, a twenty-eight-year-old mixed-race man, in the winter of 2012. Undergirded by the rage and horror pent up from hundreds of years of unrecognized and unpunished Black homicide at the hands of putative authority, the formation of BLM was directly spurred by Zimmerman’s acquittal. Since the logo’s creation, however, this second part of the initial design has fallen by the wayside, because of either its specificity or its difficulty in reproduction.
This history of the BLM wordmark and its abandoned pendant speaks not only to the urgency of the task of political graphic making but also to the need to continually balance competing aesthetic and political imperatives of movement organizing. Such tensions likely informed the nearly two dozen protest signs and graphics comprising Protest in Place, an exhibition curated by Peggy Sivert for SoLA Contemporary (an artist-run nonprofit gallery in South Los Angeles). Using the modest installation materials of fishing line and binder clips, Sivert hung the signs at various heights, free-floating in the middle of the gallery space. Some, like the red, white, and blue poster exclaiming “End White Silence / Defund the Police” and the cardboard sign reading “No Justice No Peace,” were handmade iterations of protest chants and rallying cries that can still be heard at any number of BLM protests. Others took a more personal tone. One cardboard sign read: “Keep those racist killers away from my kids.” That “those racist killers” is synonymous at this point with “the police” within the American Left is evidence of the continued and egregious malfeasance of juridical authority. Personal appeals and testimony play an important role in convincing ever more people in the United States and abroad that the fish stinks from the head. Looking at this poster, I was reminded of another parental appeal, this one written and carried by Jeanne Manford in the 1972 Christopher Street Liberation March; it read, “PARENTS of gays UNITE in SUPPORT for our CHILDREN.” This poster jump-started one of the most robust and (still) active ally groups in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) political life: Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Although the contexts of each movement are somewhat unique, Manford’s example speaks to the generative capacities of political critique and communication; Manford did not go into the street with the aim of founding an organization, but her participation at the side of her son Morty was the necessary empathic act that brought the possibility of such an organization into being.
Some signs in the exhibition were made by self-identified artists and graphic designers—for example, Ernesto Yerena Montejano’s poster, which appropriates the BLM logo’s colorway, combining it with an illustrated portrait of a dark-skinned person wearing a blue medical mask. The printmaker created the image in collaboration with the photographer N. Musinguzi and the model for the photograph, Akpos. Like many graphic designers creating movement work at this particular moment, he offers his creation as a free, printable download via his website. Just a few paces away hung a photograph by the Inglewood-based photographer Adrian White showing Montejano’s poster faceup on the ground, with white lines and a parking bumper articulating a contrapuntal frame around the graphic. Two more of White’s photographs were to be found in SoLA Contemporary’s storefront window, providing critical context for similar protest signs in media res—that is, as activated by the people who make and carry them.
Stephanie Godoy’s hand-painted posters memorializing the lives of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Iyanna Dior, and Breonna Taylor were carefully rendered and joyous (in contrast to the circumstances of each woman’s death), and the artist made prodigious use of the fluorescent ground of the poster board. The portrait of Fells, especially, is noteworthy, as Godoy lavishes attention on the texture of Fells’s coat, creating a fitting tribute to a Black trans woman who nurtured ambitions to be an artist, dancer, and fashionista. Aine Lynn-McEvoy’s poster depicting the eleventh card in the tarot deck pictures a seated Black woman as the allegorical personification of Justice. In one hand she holds a sword that crosses her field of vision, rendering her blind. Between her legs is a balance scale, and an enlarged heart has been placed into one of its pans, weighing it down.
Montejano’s, White’s, Godoy’s, and Lynn-McEvoy’s contributions point to the broad coalition of identities brought together in this most recent uprising. (Montejano claims Chicano as well as Indigenous heritage, White is Black, Godoy is first-generation Mexican American, and Lynn-McEvoy is Irish, having only recently moved to Los Angeles from Northern Ireland.) Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as white artists are represented in this exhibition, yet one would not immediately know this from the work itself or its curatorial framing. For those of us able to be out in the streets in Los Angeles during these months of protest, this range broadly tracks with the multiracial gathering of people who are fed up with the status quo.
Sivert’s installation (a literal forest of signs!) was amplified by an audio track that was once a component of a video work by Giovanni Solis, Eren Cannata, and Phil America titled Watch Me Rise Up. By the time this reviewer arrived at the exhibition, SoLA Contemporary had closed for a second round of California business closures related to the pandemic. While I could imagine the “subtle sound scape [sic] taken directly from the recent protest,” as described by the exhibition’s website, only the sounds of traffic were audible as I gazed through the storefront windows. In fact, this mode of viewing is purposeful on the gallery’s part, in providing an example of an installation that privileges the viewer’s health equally with visual access. Although the versos of some of the signs were not visible, most of the show could be enjoyed from this distance. Trawling through Instagram and Facebook revealed what was difficult to see from outside the gallery. For example, one small brown sign of a black fist was painted in a rainbow colorway on the reverse, intimating the entanglement of Black and LGBTQIA political struggles—a happy surprise.
The final aspect of Protest in Place that warrants mention (and merit) is its economic model. Of proceeds from the posters that were for sale, the artist kept 40 percent, with Black Lives Matter Global Foundation Network, Inc., getting 40 percent, and SoLA Contemporary the remaining 20 percent. In word and action SoLA Contemporary is putting the needs of artists and the political movements they care about ahead of their own bottom line. This is not insignificant at a moment when the rampant exploitation and racism of the US art world is up for vigorous critique and, one hopes, change. Here in California we have grown accustomed to Governor Gavin Newsom’s charge to “meet the moment” in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. Repeated ad nauseam, “meet the moment” means nothing specific and recommends no clear action, the opposite of the kind of depth and richness accrued by the repetitions of “Black Lives Matter.” Situated in South Los Angeles’s View Park–Windsor Hills neighborhood (colloquially referred to as the Black Beverly Hills), SoLA Contemporary did much more than meet the moment with Protest in Place—it directly participated in it.
Assistant Professor of Critical Studies, Roski School of Art and Design, University of Southern California