Friday, October 12, 2012

Political protest art

Graffiti art is showing up as a form of political protest around the world--brilliant stuff from Egypt to Palestine to Yemen to Mexico to Brazil to Russia. Graffiti art transforms our understanding of what “art” is. It is not an aesthete thing but a fundamental expression of human life & experience. It includes protest art on the barrier wall between “Israel” & Palestine; it is outrage art against tyranny on cement barriers in Tahrir Square, Cairo; it is thousands of portraits of victims of oppression in hundreds of countries demanding justice.

In 1983, during the prison hunger strike in Northern Ireland, I was traveling in the Republic of Ireland. I was a rookie politically & in a Dublin cafe ran into Gerry Foley, a US radical & political partisan of Irish freedom. He suggested I go north to Belfast. Belfast was then a civil war zone, a web of metal fences around everything where one could not even easily get money exchanged. I headed to the Catholic neighborhood where I was traumatized by caravans of armored British vehicles with mounted guns directed at women shopping & babies in strollers. I pointed my camera at one vehicle & saw that turret directed at me.

In every society, children are the truth-tellers & I approached a group of young boys to tell me what was going on. This band of little boys spent the day showing me every of the many murals painted in support of the hunger strikers. Most murals were profoundly religious; all were political protests against occupation. Youth is ardent & also reckless in opposition & I was terrified at every passing British armored vehicle when the boys let loose with rocks.

At the end of the day, parting with the boys, I asked them, “Where can I send photos of the murals to you? A small boy--no more than 10-years-old--answered: “No need; just use them to tell the truth about what is happening here.”

Many people object to the form of graffiti art where riot cops get pelted with paint bombs. I consider it a form of protest, maybe preferable to rocks (maybe not), but with a much greater sense of insult. Police shields are here splattered with paint thrown by protesters during the protest against austerity policies at the parliament in Athens. The day Greek working people go beyond insult to expropriating power is the day of solidarity forever. (Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

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