Capturing the Spirit of BLM: The Art of Protest Signs
By Arnesa A. Howell
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” Cutting through a remix of blaring car horns and rhythmic beat of drums, a choir of voices chants call-and-response style from the speakers at the SoLA Contemporary gallery in Los Angeles. The protesters’ calls for justice are punctuated by the powerful messages of the Black Lives Matter signs floating overhead — some elaborate and some profoundly simple.
This exhibit, designed to create an immersive experience for gallery visitors so they feel like they are at a protest as it unfolds, is one example of how galleries and museums are trying to capture a moment in time — the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. As they have through the decades, protesters today embrace art as a form of political expression, using iconic imagery and phrases to inspire change. By collecting protest art and the stories behind them, these institutions are recording and preserving history, unfiltered. The resulting collections are contributing to the legacy of storytelling that is a key element in Black culture and heritage, ensuring future generations will always remember.
The “Protest in Place” installation at SoLA Contemporary — a South Los Angeles gallery located in one of the country’s largest middle-class, Black neighborhoods and mere miles from the 1992 Rodney King uprisings — includes about 60 signs and posters. Some are in pristine condition, while others are bent or ripped from use. One reads “Justice for George” in shimmering black and white cutout letters, with May 25, 2020, the date of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, accented in mint green. Nearby, “No Justice, No Peace” is scrawled across white posterboard with barbed wire sketched along its border, while a brown cardboard sign states “All Black Lives Matter” in black and red marker. On another, a hand-painted portrait depicts a silver-haloed Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police in her Louisville home. Her name is prominently displayed, a nod to “say her name,” a refrain within the movement to be inclusive of Black women killed by police. All were made by hand and submitted by both artists and everyday people-turned-protesters who have marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past several months.
“In this time of crisis, art has become the language of protesters,” says Peggy Sivert, co-director of the gallery.
Expressions of outrage and hope
The Black Lives Matter movement, possibly the largest protest movement in US history, has galvanized millions to take to the streets, and the signs they carry serve as both art and artifacts of what feels like a pivotal time. These sights and sounds have become familiar in communities across the country and the world, after months of protests against police brutality — and for racial justice. Preserving these signs has become especially poignant in the weeks since the death of former U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis, who survived violence at the hands of police at the landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama.
Sivert and co-director Tatum Hawkins culled signs from protests across Los Angeles and are displaying them with audio recordings from a Black Lives Matter-led protest in Los Angeles on June 7. The multisensory experience strikes an emotional chord with visitors, including the people whose work is on display. Hawkins recalls the reaction of one local artist who visited the gallery and saw her own work — including the painting of Taylor — alongside signs calling for reparations, an end to white silence, and defunding the police. “She saw one of her posters paired with this other one, heard the sounds, and started to cry,” says Hawkins. “It was like she was experiencing the protest all over again in a brand new way.”
L.A.-based visual artist Adrian White has four pieces in the exhibit, including a black-and-white print of protesters marching down the street while “holding tight onto signs like weapons,” and a photograph of a protest sign on the ground. On the front is an image of a Black woman wearing a face mask (originally created by Ernesto Yerena Montejano, who has made it available for anyone to download and print), along with the phrases, “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police.”
“It represents a Black body lying on the asphalt,” says White, “and the message is, we’re after change and equal rights, and we want Black people to stop dying at the hands of police.”
The exhibition was recently purchased jointly by Los Angeles County and collector-activist Hope Warschaw, and will be donated to a local museum, with 40% of the proceeds going to Black Lives Matter. SoLA Contemporary has temporarily closed following California’s rolled back reopenings due to COVID-19, but plans to resume showings Aug. 1-15.
Documenting history in real time
Across the country in Washington, DC, Aaron Bryant, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is exploring collecting signs from Black Lives Matter protests for another reason — to document history as it’s happening.
“When you see a collage of these signs, there’s a feeling of being part of history,” says Bryant. “They all say something different, but they are saying the same thing: We are all entitled to the promises guaranteed by the Constitution and our democracy, and people aren’t afraid to stand up for it.”
Bryant and others from the museum have viewed hundreds of protest signs that wallpaper boarded-up building exteriors or hang on plywood-draped scaffolding stretching city blocks. While they haven’t been collecting physical signs yet, they’ve been interviewing artists and protesters, photographing ever-evolving public spaces surrounding protest sites, and identifying which objects might be later preserved as artifacts.
“We’re not just preserving that object,” Bryant says. “We’re preserving that very real human experience that we can identify and document.”
Bryant notes that some of the most powerful signs he’s seen have been the most personal. One day in June, while walking around Lafayette Square near the White House, he paused before a black piece of poster board tacked to a makeshift art gallery. Painted in bold white letters, it said, “I miss my dad,” with the word “dad” underlined in red. Pink and red hearts dotted the bottom.
“That was a really important sign because it honored and represented a humanity that will stand the test of time,” Bryant says. “It reaches beyond the two dimensionality of the sign itself, across generations and regardless of race, gender, and age.”
Connecting past, present, and future
A team from the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC, including museum director Melanie Adams, joined Bryant for that June visit to Lafayette Square to view the protest signs on display and meet some of the people who created them.
Born out of the racial unrest of the 1960s, the Anacostia Community Museum is taking an ear-to-the-ground approach when it comes to learning about locals who have carried, or created, signs — and their inspiration. “We want to talk about the person who held the sign and why it was important for them to make that specific sign and be involved in that demonstration during that time,” says Adams, who hopes to preserve images of some of the signs as part of the museum’s “Moments of Resilience” initiative.
What stands out to Adams when she sees protest signs on the street is the thread of commonality between today’s civil rights themes and those of the past. For example, the iconic “I Am a Man” posters from the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike are echoed in both messaging and style on signs in the Black Lives Matter protests. “They’re fighting for the same rights — for equal justice and against racial inequality,” she says. “Being able to see those signs through different time periods helps to show that this is a movement and not just a moment.”
Aurélia Durand, a Paris-based illustrator and graphic designer, says images like the ones on handmade protest signs elicit strong reactions because they tap into our shared emotions and desire for positive change. “Drawing is genuine,” she says. “Everyone sees it and understands it — it’s beyond language.”
A Black artist with African and French roots, Durand’s work celebrates the vibrancy and strength of Black life and culture. She recently contributed artwork to HP’s Windows of Hope campaign, and illustrated The New York Times best-seller, This Book Is Anti-Racist, including an image of Black characters holding a Black Lives Matter sign against a pattern of hands raised in solidarity.
“I hope it’s impactful,” she says of her work, noting that it’s inspiring to see so many people joining forces and doing good. “It brings hope that not everything is dark.”
As mass protests for police reform and racial justice continue to grip the country, these modern-day signs — from messages scribbled on cardboard scraps to elaborately painted murals — remain powerful snapshots of people’s lived experiences.
“Each of these signs represents a human voice,” Bryant says. “Fifty, 100, or even 200 years from now, that voice can be in conversation with researchers, historians, curators, and museum visitors looking back at this time.”