New Generation of Activists visits the Gallery

“I know that the people that created those pieces feel that they have something to say.” – Emma

“I was surprised by how much … you could learn from one picture.” – Amara

These powerful words are from two of the forty eighth grade students who visited the exhibition RELIGION & RESISTANCE last week, as part of their studies on protest at UC Berkeley. The group, from Berkeley middle school Black Pine Circle, was split into two, with twenty students taking part in a gallery walk-through, while the others went on a tour of Cal with printmaker David Lance Goines and liberation psychologist Adrianne Aron who provided a first-hand account of their activism during the Free Speech Movement. The activity the students were given while in the gallery was a simple one, but effective, centering close looking and prompting discussion based on visual examination. The students were encouraged to ask questions and to think about how the work on display connected with current events.

While all the visiting students had intelligent insights, oftentimes raising questions and drawing connections that we in the gallery would never have considered, two students agreed to talk to me more after their visit, to give an honest review of what they experienced in the gallery.

I was curious to learn whether viewing an exhibition dedicated to religious protest art would have any effect on the way the students saw religious people. What were their ideas of people of faith before going into the show, I asked? Did these change at all after having seen the works on display? Emma and Amara had interesting, and almost contradictory responses, focusing on the individual versus collective nature of religious practice. Amara stated that, “Before I came there I thought of religion as someone doing their practice. … But after [visiting the gallery] I believe that religion is not something that you have to be taught but something that you believe in.” Emma, on the other hand, initially saw religion as “something people did by themselves” but came away from her visit with a curiosity to learn more and an appreciation that “people have gone into arguments” due to their religious beliefs.

Antiwar rally, Washington D.C., 1971, © Ken Light, What’s Going On

A prudent question raised by Emma was whether merely designing posters is enough to get across the severity of the social or political situation. The example was made of the photograph of an anti war rally held in Washington D.C. in 1971, that shows “a black man on a cross and everyone around him holding him up.” Emma says that she can imagine “something like that day happen[ing] in current events, where people will make a statement by doing something that will show people their point of view. Instead of papers people hold with statements on them, people will start to actually do something or show something to support their claim.”

So what were the standout pieces for these two students? Each picked a different work of art but both identified a common theme running through the two pieces. Irony. The pink and green neon poster from the Berkeley Poster Workshop of 1970 was picked out because of the incongruity of the message with the hundreds of cross-marked graves that made up the words.

Home Sweet Home: Bring them back alive, 1970, Artist Unknown

The other, a poster bearing the slogan “Season’s Greeting from Central America” was made by the Mission Grafica Printmaking Studio in 1982, to protest the Pinochet Dictatorship in Chile. Both of these posters were made locally, in Berkeley and San Francisco respectively, but bear far-reaching national and international messages.

Season’s Greetings from Central America, c.1982, Mission Grafica

The emotional response both students alluded to having when viewing the posters shows the importance of irony in political protest art. Juxtaposing a pastoral image or well-known quote with a harsh reality to expose the corrupt nature of politics is a tool that is still used in protest art today. This continuity was highlighted by Amara, who observed that “we can see that people have been fighting for the same things back then that we still struggle to achieve today. And instead of us learning by our mistakes, we keep on repeating them.”

And what of the gallery itself? Emma raised the point that there was a lack of Asian American voices within the exhibition. She would have liked to see more on Asian art, she said, as often “not a lot of people think about” this demographic. Point taken! Unfortunately, the archives from which the exhibition drew materials did not offer any representation of Asian religious protest. While we would have liked to have included a full range of religious and social justice issues, it’s never possible to include all vantage points and groups within one exhibition. With the GTU’s move towards greater inter-religious studies and dialogue, however, it is imperative that CARe follow suit, and we intend to make a greater effort to display works from different religious traditions.

Perhaps most gratifying to hear was that, upon entering the gallery, Amara felt like “it was a safe place”. While this undoubtedly has to do with the socratic method employed by BPC, championing a question-based approach to learning, it also speaks to the aims of the exhibition itself. We hope to lift up the voices of those who have been unable to influence social and political change in more traditional ways and therefore have resorted to ephemeral posters, signs and other works of art to get across their message.

Thank you to Jonathan Cohen and Aly Mitchell for organizing this trip and to Chris Chun and her eighth grade students for visiting the Doug Adams Gallery. It was a real pleasure to have you here, and we hope to see you at future exhibitions!

RELIGION & RESISTANCE is open through May 24

Gallery hours are T, W & Th from 10am-3pm and Saturday, May 5 from 10am-1pm

Doug Adams Gallery, 2465 LeConte Avenue, Berkeley CA 94709

  by Lydia Webster