Street Art Beyond the Art Market is Political

Banksy's mural on Brexit in 2017. Photo courtesy of Simon Dawson, Bloomberg and Getty Images.
Daniel Feral, The Feral Diagram: Graffiti and Street Art, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.
Dmitri Vrubel, My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love, 1990. Image courtesy of Adam Berry and Getty Images.
Banksy’s mural responding to Brexit in 2017. Image courtesy of Simon Dawson, Bloomberg and Getty Images.
Tyler’s mural in Mumbai. Image courtesy of the artist and Prashant Waydande.
Jaque Fragua, This is Indian Land, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
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THE 2020 SOVEREIGN ASIAN ART PRIZE

Whether it is used to hold up a mirror to society or reiterate a specific message, street art is a potent political tool.

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Daniel Feral, The Feral Diagram: Graffiti and Street Art, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

With the art market today increasingly in love with street art in all its myriad forms such as graffiti, stencils, prints, murals, street installations, performative and video art, it is easy to forget that street art is often used as a political tool, wielded by all manner of personalities, ideologies and communities.

Almost everyone is familiar with American artist Shepard Fairey’s Hope (2008), a poster of former US President Barack Obama which became a “viral piece of presidential iconography,” gaining parodies and even legal trouble for the artist. Recently, at the end of 2019, Fairey had a retrospective of his work spanning three decades at Over The Influence in Los Angeles, showcasing works that addressed campaign finance, the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives and more.

Following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the artist created a poster as a free download using his previous work Make Art, Not War (2015) but in the colours of the French flag, with the words, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” The work went viral with even French President Emmanuel Macron putting up a painting of it in his office.

Political leaders endorsing street art is not an entirely contemporary phenomenon. In fact, even political leaders we don’t necessarily associate with progressive regimes have done so. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was known for using stencils to push his propaganda across the country. Memories of these works were a major influence on French pioneer street artist Blek le Rat.

However, more often than not, street art is anti-establishment in nature, taking to task political leaders, policies and governments.

Possibly the most famous mural of the Cold War is by Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel featuring the Soviet Union’s Communist party general secretary Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German Socialist party general secretary Erich Honecker. Located on the East Side Gallery, a section of the former Berlin Wall, the imagery, created in 1990, is accompanied by the following words in Russian: ‘My God, help me to survive this deadly love.’

 

Dmitri Vrubel, My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love, 1990. Image courtesy of Adam Berry and Getty Images.

 

Banksy, who has become something of an art market obsession, is no exception. He often addresses migrant and refugee issues in his work from the 2019 mural in Venice of a young child in a life jacket holding a pink flare up in the air, to the 2015 mural of Steve Jobs at the refugee camp in Calais, France as well the Brexit-inspired piece which appeared near the port of Dover illustrating a man chipping away at a star on the European Union Flag in 2017. Let’s not forget how in 2017, Banksy opened The Walled Off hotel next to the barrier wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, offering lodging and artworks on display.

 

Banksy’s mural responding to Brexit in 2017. Image courtesy of Simon Dawson, Bloomberg and Getty Images.

 

Closer to our side of the world, in Mumbai, India, there is a street artist known by his pseudonym Tyler, who has been making waves for his street art with blatant political imagery. Inspired by Banksy himself, Tyler’s works include a colourful image of Bart Simpson writing “I must say Jai Shri Ram to prove my nationality” which is a response to Hindu nationalists using those words as a rallying cry against Indian Muslims recently. There is also the illustration created during the 2019 elections of Indian political leaders Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi tearing up a map of their country.

As inspiring and moving as it may be, we cannot ignore the dark side to street art taking a political stand and daring to have a voice, especially in divisive and restricted societies.  When VICE interviewed Tyler, he talked about “being trolled online, to fears of being arrested and even getting beaten up by Hindu extremists.”

 

Tyler’s mural in Mumbai. Image courtesy of the artist and Prashant Waydande.

 

Yet political street art persists, even in areas filled with conflict and violence.

Bassim al-Shadhir, an Iraqi-German abstract artist, is one of a slew of artists filling the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, with their raw art. Located on a wall on Sadoun Street, one of the city’s busiest streets, his work shows a man shot by the security forces, with a vast amount of blood pouring out of his heart, too much to be concealed by the masked military man standing behind his dying form.

In the 21st century, street art becoming an accessible artistic language that transcends both physical and online spaces has made it even more useful as a political tool.  This is definitely apparent in Hong Kong during this city’s ongoing period of unrest. Inspired by the human chain protests in August and local subway signs, a Hong Kong designer known as Phesti created a logo featuring figures holding hands with the words ‘HongKongers stand as one’ below. The image went viral. He is one of many artists who created posters and images which drew attention all over the world.

Admittedly, the use of street art in political discourse takes on even more potency in the hands of marginalised communities. Native American artist Jaque Fragua is most famous for his 2016 graffiti of bold red words, “This is Indian Land” on a temporary construction wall in Los Angeles. A number of his public artworks involve neglected highway billboards with words such as “Stop Coal” or “Sacred” placed in reservations beyond major cities where the messages resonate with the people in residence.

Fragua, who was raised in a town near the Petroglyph National Monument filled with art as old as thousands of years, told Artnet in an interview that he views “making art outdoors is an inherently indigenous act.”

“I see graffiti as a primordial art form of mark-making that started on caves and rocks as petroglyphs or pictographs. The language is a bit different in modern times, but the spirit of visual storytelling is still there,” he said.

 

Jaque Fragua, This is Indian Land, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

This primordial nature could be the reason why in spite of pushback and restrictions, street art is one of the most potent political tools throughout time. Whether it is used to hold up a mirror to society and its atrocious behaviour or reiterate a specific message, street art has proven itself useful, transcending history and borders, for better or for worse.

 

 


 

Reena Devi Shanmuga Retnam is a Singaporean arts journalist and critic who writes for regional and international media such as ArtAsiaPacific (HK), Hyperallergic (NY) and Artsy (NY). Previously she was a full-time reporter with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore and TODAY newspaper (SG), breaking stories and exploring issues such as leadership, race, funding and censorship in the Singapore arts scene.

 

 

 
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