Power to the People: Revolution is in the air at the V&A with a survey of protest art from the Seventies to now

Zoe Pilger welcomes one of the most exhilarating, important exhibitions of the year

“Because of my political beliefs and affiliation in the Black Panther Party, I have spent the last 35 years in solitary confinement,” writes Kenny Zulu Whitmore in an open letter to the visitors of Disobedient Objects, a new exhibition that has just opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum. “Torture by any other name is still torture.”

The letter, written this year, is almost unbearable to read. It is one of several objects on display related to the “Angola 3”, a group of three young black prisoners who were forced into solitary confinement in 1972 after they started a chapter of the Black Panther Party in Louisiana State Penitentiary. They wanted to challenge the brutal conditions and racial segregation. The prison is also known as “Angola” after the old plantation site on which it was built.

The Angola 3 case is a disgrace – it is one of the many struggles for justice represented in this rare, important, and powerful exhibition. Robert Hillary King was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace was released last year after 41 years in solitary confinement, just three days before he died of liver cancer at the age of 71. Albert Woodfox remains in solitary confinement. So too does Whitmore, who not part of the original three but became politicised in prison. His  letter ends: “Never surrender hope.”

A chrome-plated steel pendant is displayed, made in 2008 by another prisoner on the request of Wallace. It is elegant, stylish, the lettering graceful. But it reads: “Fuck the Law.” There is also a poem by Wallace, written last year: “The louder my voice the deeper they bury me.”

Curated by Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, this exhibition is one of the best I’ve seen so far this year. It is about the objects that have played a part in social change, and continue to do so – from a Suffragette teacup to the masked Trini dolls made by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, to anti-apartheid badges to the gorilla masks worn by the art-activist group Guerrilla Girls as part of their protests against the shockingly low number of female artists represented in major galleries in the US.

Far from a nostalgic return to a golden age of 1960s rebellion, this is a call to resist authority right now. A data visualisation map by John Bieler shows that in fact the number of social movements has risen and broadened across the globe since 1979. The exhibition focuses on the past 30 years, and includes many objects associated with the recent Occupy movement.

There are British banknotes stamped with statistics: in 2011, one per cent of the UK population earned £922,433 while 90 per cent earned £12,933. The illegal practice of stamping  banknotes with subversive messages as a means of infiltrating the bloodstream of a nation surreptitiously was also used in Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s face was subtly painted on to official notes after she was democratically elected then placed under house arrest in 1990.

The skill of the curators is to bring together objects from disparate movements while telling a coherent story about the fight for basic human rights. At no point does this story seem dogmatic, a criticism often levelled at activist art. Instead, it is a welcome antidote to the complacency of the artworld, which so often derives its value from remaining aloof from society. This is art made by people with much at stake – it is transgressive in the truest sense.

This is most evident in the range of beautiful Chilean arpilleras, textiles appliquéd with covert political messages, made by the mothers of those “disappeared” following the overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in 1973. The military coup was backed by the US, who wanted Chile to become a laboratory for Milton Friedman’s extreme neoliberal ideas. President Nixon instructed the CIA “to make the economy scream”.

¿Donde Están Nuestros Hijos? (Where Are Our Children?) (c1979) is painful to look at. The anonymous artist was one of the many mothers whose children opposed the Pinochet regime and were tortured and murdered as a result. The arpillera is made of exuberantly coloured fabric stitched on to what appears to be a recycled flour sack, and tells a story of terrible suffering.

Chilean Arpilleras wall hanging: Dónde están nuestros hijos, Chile Roberta Bacic's collection Chilean Arpilleras wall hanging: Dónde están nuestros hijos, Chile Roberta Bacic's collection (Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Martin Melaugh) Three white doves, symbols of peace, are falling out of a bright blue sky. In the centre are what look like hands or feet, manacled. Below, a mother is on her knees, crying. On either side are two wide open black eyes with demonic red pupils. Their lashes are stiff. They are watching. The arpilleras were dismissed as mere folk art and therefore evaded the censorship of the regime for a period. They provided the women with much needed income, as well as a way to express their grief.

The reverse of the arpillera is also visible. There is a secret pink pocket, which contains a handwritten note: “This represents our  children… under the eye of the DINA  (political police service).” While the current exhibition of British folk art at Tate Britain politely avoids the issue of class conflict and appears more like a jolly country fête, this exhibition shows with force and clarity how subversive folk art can be.

It is art made by people excluded from elite high culture, often with scant resources, under duress. In the words of the curators, it is art that aims to “out-design” the authorities. The sound of protest drums and singing can be heard throughout the exhibition, which adds to an exhilarating sense of possibility, despite the great tragedy documented.

Surreal and absurdist humour has often been used as a means of protest. There is US TV news footage from 1993 of the Barbie Liberation Organization, in which a rebel Barbie addresses the camera: “We are an international group of children’s toys that are revolting against the companies that made us.” The organisation was in fact started by “a group of concerned parents” protesting against the gender stereotyping of toys. They exchanged the voice-boxes of Barbies with those of G.I Joe toys and then returned them to stores.

Jessica, aged 10, from Albany, New York, is interviewed. She describes how she opened her brand new Barbie to find that it said violent phrases about warfare rather than “I wanna go shopping!” Far from perturbed, she thought it was “hilarious”.

Connections are made across the globe. A  photograph of the general strike in Barcelona in 2012 shows giant inflatable cobblestones thrown at police; their size is counterpoised to their weightless. There is also a photograph of a young Palestinian boy from the second intifada in 2000, throwing a stone at military trucks. A Palestinian slingshot is displayed, made out of the tongue of a child’s shoe, dirtied and devastating.

The curators write: “Peaceful disobedience only works when protesters have cultural visibility and the government acknowledges their right to protest. Without this, struggles for freedom can sometimes take other forms.”

Leaflets are provided with instructions of how to make your own tear-gas mask and “book shield” – a large cardboard rectangle painted with the cover design of a famous book. A shield based on the 1962 Penguin edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is displayed; it was used by protesters to fight the closure of New York’s public libraries this year. If the police hit the shields, it would appear a literal attack on learning itself. The Mid-Manhattan Library closure was cancelled in May, and the book shields were cited as a key factor.

In Lee’s novel, Atticus Finch is a white lawyer defending a black man who is wrongfully accused of rape in the racist Deep South. A quote from Finch is printed here, and resonates with the spirit of this wonderful exhibition: “It’s when you know that you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway.”µ

Disobedient Objects, Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) to 1 February

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003