Strong Imagery: Visual Activism in Black Lives Matter Movement
The term ‘typography’, in its early days, was used to refer to “the technique to produce printed texts with movable type (as opposed to woodcut, lithography, etc.)” (Spitzmuller,2016). Later it was defined as “the visual attributes of written, and especially printed, language” and is “…concerned with how letterforms … are organized visually regardless of how the letters are produced.” (Walker, 2001). Today, the concept of typography, as a whole, refers to an indexical system that provides the interpreting with a set of symbols and structures referring to an interpretative framework that is contextual, making it an exclusive arrangement that allows individuals, concerned with the signs being represented, to feel a communal sense of belonging. This automatically encourages typesetting to be an integral aspect of identity politics and protests. An example of this is the Protestant movement in Germany that was represented by the symbolic use of the Blackletter typeface in significant canonical texts like the Luther Bible.
In the contemporary political landscape, the use of particular typefaces and fonts has become integral in protest cultures due to the extensive exposure that tools like social media provide. An example of this phenomenon is the Black Lives Matter movement. This paper will explore the importance of aesthetics in the contemporary understanding of protests by focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States of America. This movement, focused on combating systematic racism and violence against black individuals, can be seen as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Black Arts Movement, not just due to the largely similar political concerns but also due to the focus on the concept of creating a particular aesthetic consciousness as an intrinsic aspect of the struggle against unjust structures of oppression. This paper is concerned with the incorporation of the history of Black liberation struggles in the present day Black Lives Matter movement through the use of typefaces and poster design. Another important aspect of this paper is regarding the importance of typefaces to the ‘branding’ of social movements across time and mediums (especially social media). The overarching theme that the research is focused on is the intertwined nature of design and activism in today’s technologically driven, socio-political climate.
The concept of art and aesthetics as being relevant to politics has been an integral part of political philosophy due to the fact that both of these concepts, in theory, are focused on the idea of imagining and creating a mass culture. Jacques Rancière, the French structuralist philosopher, in his work The Politics of Aesthetics addresses this relationship between these two significant aspects of culture generation. He explains the psychology of protest politics as being based on the struggle of an unrecognized party for equal recognition in the state and its various institutions. The construction of an aesthetic consciousness automatically becomes important in this confrontation due to the fact that the conflict is mainly about the mass perception of society; what is considered as being acceptable in terms of dialogue and, visual language and communication. Jacques Rancière argues that art is one way through which society determines its own sense of inclusivity and exclusivity is by regulating language, deciding what enters it and what does not, as well as who has access to it and who produces it. All in all, art, as a whole, conveys a ‘distribution of the sensible’. He explains that art “…is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time” (13). Art has its own structure of production and perception, and any sort of evolution in aesthetics causes an epochal change in the way people understand and reflect on society and its various institutions.
In a way, art and literature become a tool in the hands of both the oppressed and the oppressor used to address their discord in the public sphere thus ‘creating’ a sense of exclusivity in their respective circles. This occurs when those perceived as the ‘other’ to the state’s Self contest the mainstream ideologies. Politics, in this sense, is ‘created’ when the actors concerned raise awareness of the concepts, spaces and subjectivities that were “not previously identifiable within a given field of experience, whose identification is thus a part of the reconfiguration of the field of experience” (35). Today, the field of visual culture and semiotics provide an understanding of how these political and cultural messages, both direct and subliminal, are communicated through the visual medium.
This understanding of the constant interaction of politics and arts is integral to the contemporary view of how social movements have been constructed over time. According to Fanon in his text The Wretched of the Earth, dehumanization of the oppressed occurs when the subjugated group ends up imitating the dominant body resulting in alienation due to cultural imperialism and assimilation. In this sense, Fanon states: ‘The oppressor, through the inclusive and frightening character of his authority, manages to impose on the native new ways of seeing, and in particular, a pejorative judgment with respect to his original forms of existing’ (Fanon, 1964). In order to ‘regain’ a sense of history and cultural identity, the oppressed look to the modes of artistic production as a tool in generating a distinct community with its own set of ideologies and principles that directly oppose the dominant narrative. This conscious construction of identities is one that has been employed by activists time and again.
The Black Panther party, active in the United States from 1966 to 1982, can be taken as an example of an alternative aesthetic. The politics of the Black Panther Party was one that was focused on the idea of being visible in society. This rigorous struggle to be “seen” and recognized was the main motivation behind the creation of the image and rhetoric used by the Black Panthers. According to Bederman, the mainstream society is so entrenched in the dominant and established cultural and political paradigm that only “certain types of truths” and “certain possibilities for action” are “imaginable,” however, possibilities for “dissent and resistance always remain” (24). The Black Panthers focused on creating an alternative culture opposing the dominant paradigm of White society, conveying a sense of vibrancy of Black culture through the use of its own language thus taking power over their representation politically and socially. This language was articulated both visually and textually in the pages of the Black Panther newspaper which was regarded by the Black Panthers as an “instrument of political education” for the main purpose of “countering misinformation,” as it was “free from the distortion, bias, and lies of the oppressor controlled mass media.” The paper comprised of information concerning the Party’s ideologies, news, and political editorials. The layout of the paper was encoded with cultural signs and various visual images that were accommodating towards a community that was not literate in the Western education system and communicated in a language that was not universal. However, the African American visual and linguistic vernacular can be easily deduced. A May 1968 article from the newspaper describes the significance of having a visual narrative as far as conveying their ideological message is concerned and explains, “The Black Panther Party calls it revolutionary art-this kind of art enlightens the party to continue its vigorous attack against the enemy, as well as educate the masses of black people – we do this by showing them through pictures” (Foner,1995).
The most significant pieces published in the Black Panther newspaper were designed by its primary artist and Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas. The encoded visual signs and text in the images of Emory Douglas led to an important cultural discourse within the African American community of the time. His artwork illustrated the ‘myth’ of the party, paying tribute to the signifying tradition of Black figurative linguistic use. The use of traditional signifiers of the African American visual paradigm and techniques such as parody and role-reversal were portrayed in his artwork. The use of visual iconography and art as a way of conveying the Panther ideology was a direct attack on the concept of the white man’s knowledge systems that relied on a standardized system of language, script and vocabulary. This also served as a way to reach the Black community, most of which was not very well versed in the linguistic traditions of the dominant social group. Most of the visuals depicted in the newspaper were focused on a conscious reconstruction of black masculinity as being one that was aggressive and portrayed a sense of revolutionary rage as opposed to the previously regarded notions of passivity and non-violence that Martin Luther King Jr. supported. This visual nature of the Black Panthers’ ideology can be seen as a precursor to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, most of which has been focused on photography and art as this medium provides them with the means to convey their message directly to the public all over the world without getting into the trap of language and translation that automatically places limitations on their audience.
There is a blatant effort on part of the Black Lives Matter activists concerned with the movement to relate it to the historical tradition of demonstrations undertaken by Black campaigners in the 20th Century. An example of this can be seen in the reclamation of banners and slogans by the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, which were first used during the 1900s. A banner used by the NAACP during the protests against black lynching in the 1920s was used again by the artist Dread Scott to demonstrate against the murders of black individuals by the police. The use of the same font, color scheme and almost the same content drives the message home that the threat that lingered over the black community regarding unwarranted murders that remained unaccounted for during the Jim Crow era, still exists and is more intimidating due to the evolution of the systematic nature of violence against people of color.
The construction of an aesthetic narrative is concerned with the field of visual activism, a form of street protest that is directly influenced by visual mediums of communication and is focused on transmitting meaning through visual means. This particular term ‘visual activism’ is borrowed from Zanele Muholi who was the first one to use “…this phrase as a flexible, spacious rubric to describe her own practice, which documents and makes visible black lesbian communities in South Africa” (Bryan-Wilson et al, 2016). Furthermore, the framework of ‘visual activism’ and the relationship between political art and activism is conveyed through scenes where the idea of political dissent is portrayed through the use of images and performance arts that point out direct and subliminal meanings. An important aspect of this ‘visual activism’ is the use of text within the images used in structuring protest movements. Most of the messages used in protest banners and online are abstract ideas narrowed down to graspable phrases.
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