The highways of the rural American South are so heavily dotted with billboards, you can’t drive two miles without passing an ad for a shooting range, seedy bail bond firm, or an Evangelical Christian church. But Chaz Clark, an art student at Georgia College, aims to satirize billboard culture and challenge the social values of his conservative, predominantly white town. In line with area sentiments, Clark recently installed a billboard in Milledgeville, Georgia that reads “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). Less in line, Clark's text is set in white on black Arabic script.
“I wanted to do something that would maybe upset the people in Milledgeville, which is essentially a white Trump town. The idea sprang from Trump’s political platform of intolerance, particularly towards Muslim people,” Clark tells The Creators Project. The idea behind his billboard was also recently echoed by For Freedoms, an artist-run Super PAC, who plastered MAGA over a popular image from Selma, Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday” in Pearl, Mississippi.
Before Clark got his advertisement approved by the company who owned the billboard in Milledgeville, the sign read “Vote Trump” for several weeks prior to the election. The owner of the billboard, John Leslie, tells The Creators Project that there have been no complaints about it, though he admitted he hasn't seen it in person. When asked whether he saw Trump’s slogan differently when written in Arabic, Leslie said, “I think that Trump is going to be the best president. There’s nothing wrong with what Trump said about keeping out the criminals. I say keep them all out. What would be wrong about this billboard? It says, 'Make America Great Again,' and I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
After the billboard was revealed, Clark was surprised by the lack of controversy it inspired and felt that the project wasn’t visible enough. The same week the sign went up, he also posted wheatpaste flyers reading “Have a great day,” and “Be kind to each other," in Arabic around downtown Milledgeville. The day after they went up, however, the posters were removed without explanation.
“There’s probably a lack of understanding and even greater lack of gaugeable response,” Clark reasons. “But the message isn’t as important as putting Arabic in a region of the country that overwhelmingly supported a candidate who outwardly discriminates against Muslim people. The image is more important than the phrasing. I also think it says a lot that the eight-foot poster I pasted got taken down in a little over a day.”
After an exceptionally polarizing presidential election, people living in rural areas feel even more at odds with the rest of the country. Clark is one of many artists expressing his dissatisfaction with the election’s outcome, but seemingly one of the only to do so outside of a major city. In rural America, outside of liberal, metropolitan "echo chambers," oppositional art is actually viewed by the people it’s meant to provoke.
“I would assume that a lot of conservative-minded people who see the sign would be uncomfortable, but I don’t want to assume that of all Trump supporters. Just because you’re Republican doesn’t mean that Arabic offends you. But with the platform that Trump won on, the statement [from the Republican party] is still very obvious,” Clark says.
Perhaps it’s necessary for artists to begin organizing outside of likeminded communities to begin perpetuating change. But if the stunning lack of response to Clark’s efforts is any indication, is intolerance as rampant in the South as perceived—or when it comes to protest art, do citizens simply not give a shit?
Check out more of Clark's work and follow his initiatives in Milledgeville on his Instagram.