activist art

Protest Signs Remade as Light Boxes Illuminate the Civil Rights Struggle

Artist Sam Durant finds the poetry in protest language and renders it in neon.

by Antwaun Sargent
17 April 2017, 2:00am

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo by Robert Glowacki

When highly charged language is isolated and removed from its original context, does it have the same meaning? Hung high above Paula Cooper Gallery in New York and appropriated from a 1963 Civil Rights era protest sign reading "END WHITE SUPREMACY NOW," conceptual artist Sam Durant's orange and black light box absolutely does. 54 years later, the sign is still a powerfully poetic and relevant message. In a new exhibition of appropriated protest signs colorfully reimagined as eight polemical light boxes—More Than ½ the World at Sadie Coles HQ gallery in London—the artist isolates the language of protest as a way to expand its punch, while simultaneously highlighting that there are a range of issues on which the public and art can speak truth to power.

For nearly two decades, Durant, who considers himself a "failed poet," has used language mined from unlikely sources like historically important books, contemporary poetry, and graffiti to investigate historical, social, and political issues and expand the meaning and possibility of language by unmooring it from its original context. To create the signs on view at Sadie Coles HQ, Durant searched image archives of protest signs from around the world. He then transferred the handwritten vernacular statements onto colorful monochrome light boxes, typically used for commercial advertisement. The light box called Stay, for instance, features the word in large black lettering across a swath of yellow light. The use of bright color evokes the abstraction of the color field painting movement of the 1940s and 50s. Durant's use of fields of green, blue, yellow, and orange alludes to ways color field artists such as Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Ed Clark, and Mark Rothko isolated and emphasized color as a way to focus on their concerns that draw out emotion.

Installation View, Sam Durant, More Than 1⁄2 The World, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 15 March – 13 April 2017 Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo by Robert Glowacki

Knowing only that Durant's signs like Stay, Open Your Eyes, and No Justice, No Peace were appropriated from protesters rallying to be heard allows for the phrases to expand in their meaning to include more social or political issues. Stay, for instance, could symbolize a romantic gesture, the battle over deportation in America, or—because the exhibition is mounted in post-Brexit London—the "Remain Campaign" that fought to keep England in the European Union.

Signs like No Justice, No Peace, which is illuminated in a field of yellow, also highlight how language can be tied to specific communities and events of injustice. The call-and-response chant originated in the African American community as a way to protest violent racism, like the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1992. The work also evokes how language is tied to feeling. Looking at the sign, one is reminded of how, over the course of the Black Lives Matter movement's existence, the chant's language has evolved to become more explicit. Protesters at Black Lives Matter rallies around America have been heard yelling, No Justice, No Peace! No Racist Police! The exhibition also features a sign that reads, "Am I Next?" evoking the scenes of young black protesters holding the sign during the Ferguson protest after the killing of Michael Brown.

Installation View, Sam Durant, More Than 1⁄2 The World, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 15 March – 13 April 2017 Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo by Robert Glowacki

The exhibition features other simple statements, too: "FORWARDS NOT BACKWARDS," "OPEN YOUR EYES," and "ALONE WE ARE A DROP, TOGETHER AN OCEAN." The statements may be decontextualized, mounted as they are on white walls in a gallery, but Durant brings together many voices seeking justice and equality. By exhibiting the anger, collective yearning, and optimism of the people, they are being heard clearly, even in a gallery.

Installation View, Sam Durant, More Than 1⁄2 The World, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 15 March – 13 April 2017 Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo by Robert Glowacki

More Than ½ the World continues through April 13 at Sadie Coles HQ. Click here, for more information.

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