Many Angelenos grew up in homes with United Farm Workers (UFW) and Chicano justice posters made at Self-Help Graphics hanging on the walls. We boycotted non-union grapes, then lettuce, and the movement's messages were everywhere — in neighbors' homes, business windows, on bumper stickers and pins on jackets.
Political graphics are specifically made to be easy to read. Powerful, artistic and dynamic, the symbols and messages elevate ideas and pass on knowledge of the struggles that are often hidden and censored. The posters may function as invitations to events, to communicate slogans, and/or to provide contact information for the community. Like many, my earliest understanding of social justice movements came from these visual messages.
Carol Wells, founder of the profound historical art archive Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, explains, “The posters function as a graphic novel, teaching viewers a history they do not learn in school.”
She founded the center in 1988 as a resource for activists, artists, students, researchers and curators. It's an educational archive for the unique and visual historical documents political posters are, and contains more than 90,000 protest graphics, from the 19th century to the present day. The center holds the largest collection of post–World War II posters in the United States and hosts exhibitions in dozens of galleries, libraries, museums, universities and community centers throughout Los Angeles. Through a partnership with Mercado la Paloma in downtown Los Angeles, for nearly a decade the center has exhibited protest posters for the 500 to 600 people who come to eat daily in the colorful food court.
An activist for social justice in her teens, Wells studied art history at UCLA. She recalls the moment she felt the impact and energy of a political poster, on a trip to Nicaragua to document the art production of the young Sandinista revolution. On the journey, in Mexico City, muralist Eva Cockcroft introduced her group to Fanny Rabel, considered the first modern female muralist. Rabel gave the group a poster she had just finished, commemorating Alaide Foppa, a poet, writer, feminist, art critic and teacher who had been “disappeared” in Guatemala six months earlier.
The poster read “Secuestrada por el Gobierno genocida de Guatemala, ¡Presente!” (Kidnapped by the genocidal government of Guatemala. You are still with us!). “I had never heard of Alaide Foppa until then,” Wells recalls. “Thanks to that poster, I will never forget her and the price she paid for her political commitment.” Through the meaning of the art, and the caption, Wells understood political posters and how they work. She became obsessed with collecting, and her instinctive sense of cultural activism developed into political activism.
“Protest posters are one of the most effective ways of challenging the corporate view of the world,” Wells says. “Despite the flood of commercial images that bombard us as we go about our daily lives, posters have the power to refocus our thoughts. They grab our attention through the color and/or graphic, making us read the text. Whether or not we agree with the message, it can provoke us into asking questions—and asking questions changes us.”
Somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 posters are donated to the center every year, from all over the world. The Center for the Study of Political Graphics archives posters from social movements such as the Black Panthers, no nukes, feminism and the decriminalization of marijuana.
Particularly in the area of drug protest, the center has a collection of legalization-of-marijuana posters, and not just from the United States but from Europe as well. The earliest legalization poster in the collection dates to 1967. Police abuse and legal prohibitions menaced drug policy in this country for decades, and political posters aided the pro-marijuana movement, manifesting ultimately in the wave of legalization across the country today. Wells reminds, “Political posters tell the story of the lions in the lions' own words.”
Self Help Graphics & Art, 1300 E. First St., East L.A.; through Aug. 31.