Large, abstract, paint-smeared canvases. Aching arms holding up cardboard signs with bold type, ink melting under the hot, sticky sun. Street art, spray paint, cracked statues on sidewalks. Protest art.
Art lends itself to movements of all kinds, with artists revolting against everything from politics and war to the very definition of art itself. Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808,” The Guerilla Girls’ “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” While these works differ in medium, they all prove that art is protest; the artist, a revolutionary.
Now there is a new ground for protest art: Instagram. If you have spent any time on the rabbit-hole, time-vortex, highlight-reel of an app in the past few months, you have likely noticed the prominent role it has played in the surge of Black Lives Matter protests across the United States.
In my many quarantine-induced-boredom scrolls through Instagram during the slow beginning of a hot summer, I began noticing that many of the people I follow—real friends, Instagram friends and celebrities alike—were sharing informative graphics on their stories about everything from identifying white privilege to that day’s local resistance activities. Some were grounded in image, while others were solely composed of text. Regardless, all were eye-catching, and many stuck with me long after the seven seconds that they flashed across my screen.
Combing through accounts I follow, story highlights and my own “saved” collection (an otherwise mind-numbingly cluttered mess of things that make me laugh, posts to show my brother and recipes I know I’ll never make), I found a handful of protest artists to reach out to, hoping to learn more about each person and inspiration behind the visuals.
Before speaking with these artists, I believed that sharing a graphic on your Instagram story was a fairly low-risk, low-commitment way to declare yourself an “ally.” I appreciated the aesthetics of these pieces, but didn’t necessarily see them as works of art; they were everywhere and they were temporary. This is where I was wrong. These works are current. Their power lies in their instantaneous, multiplicitous nature. While the medium (our screens; the “Share” button) is new, the implicit idea behind them is not: Art is powerful and art is protest. Hearing the stories behind the work, the raw, real, human side to a graphic on a phone screen altered my perspective.
Tiff Reed’s (@iamtiffreed) art is bold, with rich colors and striking typography. Art has always been at the center of Reed’s life (“I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon,” she quipped.) Since earning her Master of Arts in media design, she has worked as a graphic designer for 12 years. “Art is important to me because it allows me to speak volumes with just an image,” she remarked.
After witnessing the recent events of police brutality in the United States, Reed was moved to rethink the focus of her work. She explained, “After George Floyd was murdered, I reached my boiling point and was profoundly hurt. I felt the need to speak up and express how I felt, and the best way for me to do that was to create. I no longer wanted to hold back and post things that didn’t ruffle feathers. I still draw fun/quirky things, but my views on BLM are and will continue to be more important to me.”
Reed’s “Enough is Enough” image channels the electricity in the air at a protest, present when a group of people unite and demand change. Her graphics, with their large, forceful lettering and bold colors, stare you down and demand your attention.
While Reed appreciates the recent outpour of support for her work, she wants to make sure her audience knows that Black Lives Matter is not a temporary bandwagon, but rather a long-term revolution. “My work has…garnered much more attention than I’ve ever experienced before,” she mused. “I understand that this is mainly because people want to promote and support Black creatives during this difficult time. I just want to make sure that BLM isn’t a trend for people. That it continues to be a movement.”
The next two artists with whom I corresponded shared Reed’s intention of driving long-term change. First was Johanna Warberg (@sosialantenne), a designer currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in graphic design and illustration from Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Warberg explained, “I’ve always liked to draw and be creative. After high school ended, I started an Instagram account where I wanted to share my art with my friends…Suddenly, I went from a totally unknown artist to selling over a thousand prints a year.”
The graphic of Warberg’s that initially caught my attention depicted 88 drawn victims of police brutality. I saw it shared in countless stories, and each time I found it hard to take my eyes away from the grid of faces. It’s harder to ignore the humanity lost when the lost lives are smiling right at you. These are real people, not just names to skim over.
Warberg elucidated the intent behind the piece. “Like many others, I felt frustrated and saddened by what happened and what is continually happening to BIPOC.,” they stated. “I wanted to further spread awareness to more victims, instead of focusing solely on George Floyd. My goal was to make visible how this is not just a one-time thing, but something that happens all the time.”
Warberg credits Instagram with helping her achieve this visibility. “If I never joined Instagram, probably no one would know about my art or me as an artist,” she said. Now that she has more of a platform, Warberg hopes to continue the conversation. She added, “The fight is not over and my job is not done just because I made one BLM post. I work hard on being anti-racist every day, and I want to use my art as a form of activism.”
Similarly, artist Kim Saira (@kimsaira) intends to fight for long-term change, not the short-term rush of social media activism that quickly fizzles out. “I want my art to inspire others to go out there and advocate in real life,” said Saira.“Instagram posts are just Instagram posts, similar to performative activism. My art doesn’t mean much at all if the work isn’t being done in real life. And I hope my art enrages, inspires or even makes people uncomfortable enough to go take action in their daily lives.”
Saira began creating and sharing her art in May as a way to process George Floyd’s death. But she had been practicing and studying art for years prior, beginning as a student at LaGuardia High School, a specialized public school for art in New York City. “I…grew up as an immigrant in NYC up until college, which plays heavily into my art themes” Saira shared. “When I was growing up, English was a second language for me and I was super quiet because of it. I remember drawing to truly express all of my feelings. This followed me as I grew older, where I use art to relay messages and feelings to my audience.”
Saira’s style is a kaleidoscopic explosion of pastels, stars, rainbows and lightning bolts. It’s sparkly, it’s fun, it’s more vibrant than any other graphics I have ever seen. It also demands, in rainbow-gradient text with a pictoric loudspeaker, that we “speak up when someone is being racist.” Saira proves that aesthetics and real meaning can coexist; in fact, the two play off each other. “I like to grab the eye’s attention with the very playful aesthetic [of] my art, which does entice [viewers] to read the more serious messages at a closer glance.” While Saira has received mostly positive support from her community, she notes the challenges of making political art: “I do get hate as well, mostly from people who usually believe in ‘White/All Lives Matter,’ so it’s about finding that mental health balance for me.”
Bridget Moore (@handsomegirldesigns) grew up in an artistic family, but didn’t become a dedicated artist until recently. Moore explains, “[W]hen I decided to get serious about my recovery for an eating disorder, I started to draw more as a form of therapy, like a wordless journal.” Then, in the past four years, she began teaching herself design programs, eventually deciding to abandon her retail career for the medium.
Moore’s style is raw and anchored to the human figure, using pale colors and thin lines to create realistic depictions of bodies. In an email interview, she noted: “[M]y real passion is using my art to empower and celebrate womxn through inclusion and representation…I want everyone that finds themselves in my little slice of the internet to feel welcome, accepted and most of all SEEN.”
Moore is also aware of her positionality. She said, “I won’t hide the fact [that] I’m an extremely privileged person…[We’re] in this space of some white folx feeling a bit shameful of their privilege or feel[ing] uncomfortable talking about it. While I get that and definitely am not here to pass judgement on anyone who may feel that way, I wanted to take this as an opportunity to use mine to make change.”
This ethos is evident in Moore’s captivating piece inscribed “Stop turning your back on things because you’re uncomfortable.” The graphic is clever, with the words stretching across a figure’s back, and its message is clear; the “ignorance is bliss” mindset that many privileged individuals enjoy is actively harmful to BIPOC.
On balancing aesthetics with communicating meaning, Moore’s philosophy is simple: “[I]f you’re being authentic, the balance comes easy—[when] building art around a message it’s crucial to create from your heart and really resonate with the message you’re illustrating; the beauty follows from there.”
On the surface, these graphics may appear quite simple, maybe even frivolous. Yet the magic of these images lies in their misinterpretation. Their bright colors, minimalistic design or pretty fonts grab your eye, but it’s their poignant messages that stick with viewers, shared across thousands of screens.
All four of these artists create art because they need to. It’s their way of doing something, anything, in a world that feels pretty hopeless and lost. When shared on Instagram, though, these graphics become more than strokes on Procreate and bigger than the artists themselves. These graphics are coping mechanisms. And while you may only see the image for seven seconds, they may just prove to be timeless.