The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.
The Barack Obama “Hope” poster in 2008 by artist Shepard Fairey was universally understood to be a defining icon for change. The image was reproduced on everything from T-shirts to social media profiles, as it became an important symbol for the president and was adopted and approved by the Obama campaign in the months leading up to the election. There is a much different reaction as Donald Trump begins his presidency eight years later. Fairey, along with artists Ernesto Yerena and Jessica Sabogal, have teamed up with the Amplifier Foundation to create a series of images that portray inclusion and acceptance. These portraits aim to disrupt the fear and hate aligned with the new administration and infiltrate the inauguration festivities.
The disappointing remarks by President Trump about women, along with his totalitarian views on leadership, have setback the progress made on issues related to equality and women’s rights. In the days leading up to the inauguration, all three artists were commissioned to create work that celebrates diversity and the power of acceptance. The foundation seeks to ignite dialogue on a national scale and they felt that these three artists collectively represented a broad range of interests and perspectives. The result is a positive and constructive message of optimism, as the artists’ images have been reproduced in newspapers, made into signs, and handed out in drop spots around the country so that citizens can use them to continue spreading the message. The foundation initially launched a crowd funding campaign to support this distribution and quickly broke records that surpassed their initial expectations twenty times over. This is a show of support that they expect will continue going forward.
Ernesto Yerena has lived through the tensions of the U.S. and Mexican border. Born in El Centro, the small farming town east of San Diego borders Mexicali, Mexico. His colorful and graphic work often addresses the interactions of the both communities. A Chicano, Yerena also strongly identifies himself as Native/Indigenous and this perspective contributed toward his powerful and graphic work for the inauguration. It features an older Native American woman raising her closed fist proudly in the air. The gesture is a common stance of resistance to oppression and a defense for challenged rights and dignity. Complete with a “No Dakota Access Pipeline” T-shirt, Yerena depicts the strong stance with the words “We the Resilient.”
Jessica Sabogal is a Colombian American muralist who creates work that serves as a haven and tribute to women. Concerned with female identities, issues related to power, bravery, and beauty are common. Sabogal’s bold imagery for the inauguration depicts two females gazing into one another’s eyes. The loving and hopeful message “We the Indivisible” addresses acceptance in a complicated world. Sabogal’s “Women are Perfect” mantra, which is also reproduced on the baseball cap of one of the figures in the image, points toward receiving people for who they are today.
Lastly, Shepard Fairey is no stranger to politically charged art but it’s nice to see him continue to use a red, white and blue color scheme in a series of three portraits of woman that exemplify diversity. Collectively entitled “We The People,” each portrait has an original subtitle including “Defend Dignity,” “Are Greater Than Fear,” and “Protect Each Other.” The heroic portraits poise each woman as strong, beautiful, unique, and American. Like Yerena and Sabogal, the individuals are not celebrities or people of power, but rather faces that represent our country including the ideals and disposition we hope to maintain in the face of uncertainty.
The guerilla art strategy for distributing and posting these images fits within Fairey’s history as a street artist. Part of the rules of fighting powerful figures is engaging them on your own terms. Fairey sums up the important role artists have at this moment in history saying: “Artists can articulate feelings that are the ether and their images give people courage to discuss those feelings. It’s crucial to be outspoken for diversity and inclusion [when] the prevailing strategy is fearmongering, scapegoating, and division.”
The ensuring days, months, and years will be a new reality but it’s encouraging to see Shepard Fairey, Ernesto Yerena and Jessica Sabogal create work that challenge what has become normal and push for inclusion and acceptance in the pubic square. The call to leverage the arts for positive growth is needed now more than ever.
“We The People” is the preamble to the Constitution and these important words need to be heard and understood because the United States of America is a great country through our diversity.