Political posters make bold statements

A new exhibition of political posters in Hollywood showcases more than a hundred artist-activists who wield the graphic as a weapon. With bold colors, stark images and strong words, the artists take aim at U.S. involvement in 40 countries — including covert American interventions in Chile and the war in Iraq.

Poster exhibition: An article in Wednesday’s Calendar about the show “Art Against Empire: Graphic Responses to U.S. Interventions Since World War II” at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions gave the show’s closing date as Wednesday. The show closes Sunday. —

Together they weave a narrative that echoes radical historian Howard Zinn’s work — of people pitted against governments — and traces a global current of dissent.

The takeaway is not subtle.

“A poster will yell something,” said curator Carol Wells said, “but you put them together and they


Wells is the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, a Los Angeles-based organization that has amassed more than 70,000 political posters over the last 22 years. The center’s current show, “Art Against Empire — Graphic Responses to U.S. Interventions Since World War II,” is its largest to date.

On a recent Saturday at the gallery, the doors were thrown open to let in the afternoon warmth. The sounds of Hollywood — giddy teenagers driving by in a stretch Hummer, the polite entreaties of a man offering free stress tests outside of the Scientology center — stood in contrast to the grim statements on the gallery walls.

Posters made by activists to be hoisted at rallies and wheat-pasted onto buildings hung next to screen-prints made by art world stars.

There was a Nancy Spero poster describing the torture of women in Chile, a Richard Serra print of an Abu Ghraib prisoner draped in a sheet and a Guerrilla Girls poster assailing U.S. involvement in the Gulf War.

Beneath a picture of a female American soldier dressed in fatigues, the feminist art collective asks, “Did she risk her life for governments that enslave women?”

Other posters take a satirical or cynical tone. But Wells believes the medium is, in fact, hopeful. “If the people behind the posters didn’t believe that we could change the world, they would never make them,” she said.

In the exhibition guide, Wells included a quote to that effect by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who said that a good revolutionary must balance “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” In other words: critique is important, but so is action.

Unlike Europe and Latin America, with their vibrant street art scenes, the United States isn’t known for its tradition of political posters. When Wells founded the center in 1988 there were no organizations in the U.S. studying them.

A former art history professor, Wells said she used to think of posters as simply ephemera.

“I didn’t see them as art, I didn’t see them as historical documents,” she said. “I didn’t want them on my wall.”

Wells’ thinking changed in 1982, when a UCLA professor hired her to travel to Nicaragua to collect posters for him. The Sandinistas had just swept into power and Wells, who had been a political activist in the U.S. since the Vietnam War, leaped at the opportunity.

One day in Managua, she watched a young boy stop to read a poster from a Sandinista woman’s organization. Bright green, with an image of a woman holding a basket of coffee beans, the slogan said, “In constructing the new country, we are becoming new women.”

“I watched the kid trying to figure out what this means,” Wells said. “It made him ask the question, ‘Why is someone saying that?’ That’s how posters work. They attract your attention when you’re not expecting it and they challenge you to think about the world differently.”

Today Wells’ center boasts the nation’s largest collection of post World War II political posters. It puts on shows around the world that are organized by theme — like feminism or the prison industrial complex — as well as by technique.

In the current exhibit, several posters play off iPod advertisements. Like the Apple ads, these feature white silhouettes against colorful backgrounds, but rather than jamming to music, the figures tote guns. In the upper corner, where the word “iPod” should be, is “i-Raq.”

One of the most recent posters shows a map of Pakistan made out of the American flag. Wells found it on the Internet after she typed “US intervention” and “Pakistan” into a search engine. Wells printed the image and found an Urdu speaker to translate the slogan: “American rule must be stopped. American embassies and military bases must be closed.”

The Internet has changed the way posters are distributed, Wells said. But there have also been consistencies over the years. As several posters in the exhibit show, the clenched fist is especially persistent.

There are other patterns. Posters made in countries protesting U.S. involvement tend to present symbols of resistance — a Cambodian poster from the 1970s shows a man sitting in the lap of Buddha, pointing a gun; a poster from Nicaragua shows a smiling woman with a baby pressed to her chest and a machine gun slung over her shoulder.

Posters made in the U.S. tend to show victims of war. One of the exhibit’s best-known posters is a photograph of tangled, bloodied bodies taken in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Printed across the image is a snippet of a Mike Wallace interview with an American soldier who participated in the incident. Wallace asked who the soldiers killed: “And babies?” The response: “And babies.”

That poster, Wells said, helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war in Vietnam.