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Protest Posters Find Asylum With Activist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She’s the poster child for dissent.

That’s why Venice resident Carol Wells is being asked to help preserve one of India’s leading--and most controversial--cultural protest campaigns.

Wells runs an international graphics asylum--a Westside repository for the kind of political protest poster that is often ripped down and torn up as fast as it is plastered on a street corner wall.

Her Center for the Study of Political Graphics houses 45,000 posters advocating thousands of causes worldwide. Some of the colorfully printed sheets are gleefully humorous, others are morbidly dark.

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All promote serious issues such as feminism and civil rights--and condemn such things as police brutality and governmental corruption.

The 90 lithographed posters that arrived unsolicited last month from India seem to address a little of everything.

Printed and distributed by a network of New Delhi-based activists called SAHMAT, the posters condemn nuclear armament, attacks on Christians and what activists there call “cultural policing.”

SAHMAT, which means “agreement” in Hindi, is run by supporters of poet and sidewalk-performer Safdar Hashmi. He was beaten to death in 1989 while performing a street play that was critical of an Indian company.

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His sister, Shabnam Hashmi, learned of the center on the Internet. She bundled up the posters and shipped them to Wells’ headquarters on West 3rd Street in the Fairfax district after recent assaults in India left other artists injured and protest artwork vandalized and destroyed.

“These attacks are increasing,” Hashmi wrote Wells. The SAHMAT office in New Delhi is vulnerable to an attack that could destroy all remaining poster copies in its archives, she said.

Hashmi is not the only one who realizes that political posters are a fragile record of what can be a powerful struggle for change.

Wells’ poster center has become a refuge of last resort for many anxious to preserve memories of past protests by donating cherished personal souvenirs.

Historians travel to the center’s modest second-floor offices. (The center is open to the public weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. by appointment at (323) 653-4662.)

Researchers wear white gloves when they gingerly sort through oversize, acid-free folders stored in multidrawer flat files cataloged by subjects such as feminism, the fight of farm workers and the impact of the AIDS crisis.

“They’ve become very important. It’s a major, one-of-a-kind archive,” said Albert Boime, a UCLA art history professor who used the collection to research his recent book, “The Unveiling of the National Icons.”

The center will show future generations how coalitions were organized to oppose war and oppression, Boime said. It will remind past generations of once-vivid moments that were turning points in their lives.

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Weathered prints such as one publicizing a long-forgotten anti-Vietnam War march come to the center with frayed edges and thumbtack holes that tell of years on someone’s wall. Others, such as a pristine lithograph from Cuba celebrating revolutionary icon Che Guevara, have clearly been carefully packed away and stored for decades.

Wells started the nonprofit center a dozen years ago. She donated its first posters--depicting political struggles in Nicaragua.

She had visited the Central American country in 1981 and recalls being amazed by the activist artwork she saw on walls.

Wells grew up in Los Angeles in the politically charged 1960s. But she had paid only passing interest to antiwar posters that popped up on campuses and elsewhere to protest the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.

An activist since her days at Dorsey High School when she was galvanized by the civil rights movement, Wells pumped up her political involvement as a UCLA student. She was a freshman history major when she took part in her first sit-in--to protest de facto school segregation in Los Angeles.

In 1967 she marched in the huge Century City antiwar protest against President Johnson, who was staying at the Century Plaza Hotel. When Los Angeles police broke up the rally, Wells remembers seeing marchers on either side of her beaten to the ground.

“In Nicaragua it was the first time I saw how posters could be used for consciousness-raising. I brought a lot of them back with me,” she said of artwork tied to the U.S.-backed Contra war against the Sandinista government.

Wells began collecting human rights posters after that. She had 3,000 stacked in her house when her daughter was born in 1986.

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“I used my bed to sort them,” Wells said. “My daughter was starting to get into everything and I was worried what I would do with all of them.”

There was no permanent poster collection in the country to give them to. So Wells, who was teaching art history part time at Cal State Fullerton, decided to launch her own center.

Wells got a Los Angeles law firm, as pro bono public service, to draw up incorporation papers and help her line up free space in the office building called the Peace Center, owned by social activist Aris Anagnos.

As its collection has grown, so has the center. It now employs Wells and four others and operates with a $250,000 yearly budget financed by grants and private donations. The center stages frequent traveling shows on themes such as gay rights, immigration issues and racism. A show geared to last summer’s Democratic National Convention, called “A Presidential Rogues Gallery,” drew crowds.

Wells said some of the newly arrived posters from India will be included in a future traveling exhibit.

Workers are slowly photographing each poster and computerizing the images to place the collection on the center’s Web site (https://www.politicalgraphics.org). Wells said they hope someone will donate a large scanner that can speed up the preservation of these pieces of history.

After all, memories--like political posters glued to walls--tend to shrivel and fade with time.


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