On this day 20 years ago, over ten million people opposed to the invasion of Iraq gathered in 600 cities across the world for what has been described as ‘the largest protest event in human history.’
Inspired by this significant anniversary, this week we’ve been considering how art is created as an act of protest. Looking around the gallery, it seems that every other piece is infused with a message of some kind that encourages us to sit up, take notice, and speak up against injustice.
Given its crucial role in society’s cultural identity, art and politics have long been intertwined, with artists using their practice to call out inequality and corruption.
Today, to honour our right to protest (while we still have it), we’re looking at how a selection of contemporary artists have created works of protest…
Let’s begin our charge with infamous anarchist, Jamie Reid – an artist described as “a driving force of rage against the monarchy, the state and the status quo”. Reid has been involved in protest since he marched against nuclear weapons as a child.
Inspired by the Paris Riots of May 1968, Reid co-founded Suburban Press in the early 70s and ran the radical political magazine for five years. It was here that he first started dabbling in the ransom-note style that characterised much of the art he created for the Sex Pistols, and has since gone on to define his oeuvre.
Rolling into the 80s, 90s and beyond, Reid has used his art to rally against everything from Poll Tax and the Criminal Justice Bill, to the monarchy and Clause 28. He has also created work in support of Pussy Riot, Occupy London and Extinction Rebellion.
Reid even famously protested against fellow artist, Damien Hirst, after the controversial artist sued a 16-year-old for copyright infringement despite accruing earnings of over £500 million. This move came as part of Red Rag to a Bull – an artist collective made up of Reid, and two other artists known for using art as a means of protest, Jimmy Cauty and Billy Childish.
Since Banksy ‘appeared’ on the art scene in the early 2000s with his kissing policemen, riot police with smiley faces, and placard-wielding rats – he has continued to be a formidable voice, creating darkly-funny but fiercely anti-capitalist pieces that have spoken to a generation.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Banksy’s art has protested everything from consumerism and child poverty, to the privatisation of the NHS and Brexit.
Banksy famously created art on the Israeli West Bank Barrier and more recently on ruins of buildings in Ukraine, and protested against the rise of knife crime and racial inequality within the UK Criminal Justice System by designing a Union Jack stab-proof vest for Stormzy’s headline slot at Glastonbury.
Banksy has described graffiti as a ‘form of underclass revenge’, stating that it gives the individual the ability to take power back from the ruling elite – who, historically, were the only ones able to access the art world.
Another street artist making a statement with each spray of her can is Colombian artist, Erre. In every mural, print and illustration, Erre strives to protest gender inequality and violence against women across Latin America and the rest of the world.
Speaking of her work, Erre states: “In Colombia, and really in all of Latin America, there is big problem with the rights of women. They do not receive equal pay for equal work, they do not get enough respect. There is a strong culture of ‘machismo’ that exists with the men all of the time. My work is intended to empower women.”
Erre’s chosen cast of strong females, and repeat motifs of bombs, are intended to embolden women to stand together against injustice, and to destroy out-of-date systems of oppression.
View artworks by Erre.
Antony Micallef is a contemporary artist and painter known for expressionist paintings infused with political imagery.
Speaking of why art is such a powerful means of expressing dissent, Micallef muses: “I don’t think you can be prejudiced when looking at art. Art is a language and I think the best art always makes you feel human.”
Probably his most controversial works to date feature Donald Trump on cigarette packets, alongside stark health warnings.
Created for a 2016 group show in New York called 'Why I Want To Fuck Donald Trump', Micallef explained: "I thought a warning sign of the imminent danger of a narcissistic sociopath fitted aptly into the [show’s] concept."
Since the show, the image has taken on a life of its own. The painting became a symbol of protest at the Women’s March in both Washington D.C. and L.A immediately after Trump was inaugurated, showing just how powerful a role art can play in protest.
Rebecca Strickson’s entire oeuvre is inspired by the trade union banners and protest placards that arose during the 1960s - a time period widely-considered an age of civil unrest and positive change.
Strickson teams psychedelic palettes with rousing messages to create powerful pieces denouncing the government and shouting her support for everything from LGBTQ+ rights and striking workers to the NHS, independent businesses and more.
War Boutique was established in 2003 by Scottish artist, Kevin Leahy, in direct response to the invasion of Iraq. Every piece of art created since has been designed to tackle the subject of war and its absolute futility.
War Boutique symbolically transforms instruments of war, such as bomb blankets and camo fatigues, into items that embody peace and creativity. Key works include modifying flak gear into school uniforms and doctoring body armour to include smiley faces.