Modfest exhibit traces expressive history of protest art

Pictured above are French posters from 1968 protesting unemployment and poverty under President de Gaulle, part of the exhibit “Engage! The Artist’s Voice” in the College Center Old Bookstore. Photo by Noah Purdy

While protest has long been a crucial part of history, social activism has in the last few years been brought to public attention like never before, with groups like the Black Lives Matter movement and events like the recent Women’s March garnering unprecedented support and media attention.

With the turbulent political state and subsequent reactive events happening around the country, a celebration of protest and social activism has never felt timelier. This spirit is celebrated in the current exhibit entitled, “Engage! The Artist’s Voice” as part of the 15th anniversary of Modfest, Vassar College’s annual exploration of 20th- and 21st-century art.

Featuring political posters and artworks from 1945 to now, the exhibit focuses on artists’ renderings of both national and global issues of protest, social engagement and political commentary. On view in the College Center Old Bookstore Exhibition Space through Feb. 5, the show features pieces of art loosely grouped according to the issue they address, such as environmental sustainability, social activism and economic equality. Beyond exploring common themes, the exhibit focuses on several artists, such as Ben Shahn, Keith Haring and Sister Mary Corita Kent, who have committed their lives and their work to promoting tolerance, equality and justice.

“I really appreciate the breadth of the exhibit,” said the Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator and Co-Director of Modfest Tom Pacio.

“All those messages and gorgeous designs really activate that student space in a way that creates work from students that is somehow informed by it,”

he continued. “I, therefore, hope that students will recognize themselves in it and will be inspired by it, challenged and maybe even motivated to create their own protest posters.”

Though such inspiration and creation are always at the forefront of Modfest, this year’s events are for the first time centered around a unifying theme. Fitting to the idea of Modfest as an opportunity to bring the voices of faculty, students and guests together in a variety of contexts and spaces, this year’s theme is “Raising Voices.”

“When he heard the theme, Rick Jones came to me with this idea for an exhibit and I felt it fit the idea perfectly,” said Pacio. “I had seen previous exhibits that Rick curated. I always love the chance to collaborate with him, and I just knew this could be something really incredible and timely.”

Curator and Earth Science & Geography Department Laboratory Technician Rick Jones put the exhibit together using unfamiliar works as well as some personal favorites. In fact, some of the pieces, such as the Angel Bracho’s woodcut “¡VICTORIA!,” which celebrates the defeat of Adolf Hitler and fascism, are personal possessions of Jones.

“We planned on this before the elections and who knew it would go this way?” expressed Jones. “I personally wish the connection [with the Women’s March] weren’t there, but I hope that this exhibit reflects the idea that many of the ideas we exist with…[such as] equal rights for every person…haven’t always been the norm, and that it takes effort, a lot of it, over the long term, to keep these ideas alive.”

The exhibit emphasizes the similarities and differences between current and historical protests. For example, the “Indian Power” poster created in 1971 depicts the Peabody Mining Company’s environmental assault on the Black Mesa, an issue relating to a lack of regard for native land rights. This sentiment is echoed in the more contemporary Dakota Access Pipeline protest.

By including many pieces created through different media and throughout different periods, the exhibit compellingly conveys how art can create effective messages, although crafted through different means. For example, Barbara Kruger’s “Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face” is a 1981 photograph on paperboard about the subtle interactions of gender, while Shepard Fairey’s “Paint it Black” is a 2014 screen print about making policies based solely on oil. Both are visually stunning and manage to convey important messages successfully, albeit in different ways.

Although the exhibit was not originally meant to coincide with the Women’s March, the present-day connection is unable to be ignored.

“It seems quite apparent that there are forces in the world whose interest is to deny those rights we consider progressive, so it is up to ALL of us to fight. Always,” declared Jones.

Coincidentally, the Modfest exhibit taking place upstairs in the Palmer Gallery entitled, “The World After January 20, 2017: Works by Contemporary Artists and Poets,” now on view until Feb. 16, features works of art that address, reflect and comment on Trump’s first 100 days as president. The overlap between the two exhibits allows for a more nuanced conversation between the historical posters and present protest art.

“It was a happy accident, but I feel having the two exhibits happening in the same building at the same time really allows for an interesting dialogue between the past and present,” said Pacio. “You have the history of protest posters downstairs and the immediate reaction upstairs, which is very empowering.”

“Engage! The Artist’s Voice” is undoubtedly a moving and very relevant part of Modfest. As people try to find comfort during these troublesome times, this exhibit hopes to act as a suggestion, inspiring people to fight for their beliefs and respond to destruction of justice with creation.

“I hope that any visitor to the space will appreciate different viewpoints, differences in expression, differences in the kinds of voices that can and should be raised,” said Jones. “It’s our world, and we all need to figure out what is important and express it, and speak up!”

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