How do you inform people about important issues in a succinct way with high impact? Protest art has historically filled this role, and continues to do so with great effect. Images and short catchy phrases have the power not just to communicate information, but to elicit powerful emotional reactions. Propagandists as varied as Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, and Donald Trump have used image and the power of phrase – however devoid of meaning or fact – to influence public opinion and gain followers.
Not all propaganda is negative though, and it can also be a powerful force for social justice. The author of this book, De Nichols, is an arts-based organizer who helps others to develop creative approaches to the social, civic, and racial justice issues they care about. In this book she passes on tools to help anyone and everyone make a difference.
She delineates various forms protest art can take, including craftivism, street art, guerrilla art, public performance, projection art, political art, culture jamming, photography, poetry, and music. The book shows and discusses examples of each. She also explains how the use of symbols, color, and typography can be used to enhance messages.
As Nichols quotes Diego Rivera as saying, “The role of the artist is that of a soldier of the revolution.”
Legal scholars have done a great deal of research on the efficacy of visual aids to enhance understanding and retention of information. Thus litigators increasingly use graphic aids in trials. Pictures tell a story, and stories are remembered better than recitations of facts, especially if they are complex. Moreover, visual images are more persuasive – think of the importance of images in the George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery cases.
Nichols reports on different movements – mostly relatively recent – that have successfully used art to convey information by employing powerful pictures and viral slogans. Three simple words like “Black Lives Matter” or even just the numbers “8:46” representing the amount of time a police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, have influenced the quest for justice, becoming rallying points all over the globe.
Nichols focuses on young activists, giving short bios of those around the world who have made a difference, from John Lewis (while still a teen) in Selma, to the students in South Africa protesting the racial segregation of apartheid, to climate activists Vanessa Nakate in Africa and Greta Thunberg in Sweden, to name a few.
Throughout the book, Nichols includes exercises for activists to make protests more effective.
There are unfortunately dangerous aspects of the use of slogans and images that have arisen with new technology, i.e., very sophisticated forms of misinformation. Nichols also explores the use of tech to create deepfakes and augmented reality. But social media, like other forms of propaganda, can be used for good as well as evil, and provides examples of each.
“Our world right now is ripe for change, for progress, and for new ideas of what tomorrow can bring. . . . our collective well-being depends on people rising up with vision, leadership, and unity to demand more of our existing systems and set a solid path forward to unlock new possibilities. I believe that artists are those visionaries, and I believe in the voice and collective power of protesters and activists to steer us on this hopeful journey.”
The final page simply says “Start MAKING. Start CREATING THE CHANGE that’s needed for a BETTER WORLD.”
Illustrators Diana Dagadita, Molly Mendoza, Olivia Twist, Saddo, and Diego Becas enhance the text immeasurably with stunning pictures, as is fitting for a book about the power of imagery.
Evaluation: This book contains ideas that will not only inspire readers but be incredibly useful to them if they make their own attempts to effect social change. Nichols’ message is that anyone can make a difference, and she wants to help! The book also serves as an entertaining thumbnail history of recent social movements, and would be a valuable addition to any school library collection (that is, if schools are still allowed to include books with messages of protest).
Published in the US by Candlewick, 2021