As our democratic process has led Donald J. Trump to the most powerful position in the world, so many are still shaking their heads and questioning how this has all come to fruition.
Meanwhile, Anna Kustera sits behind a desk in her gallery on Wolcott Street. The recently converted space is bright-clean white; the bold art animatedly speaks its truth.
Trump protest art began to gain momentum in April 2016, well before primaries and caucuses had concluded. As each campaign week passed, Trump’s comments became more erratic and eccentric. At one point, he claimed he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a single voter. In November 2016, many Americans realized how true those words had been.
An American flag spirals like liquid being pulled into a drain in Rohitash Rao’s print, “Week 1.” Anna explains, “It’s our flag being sucked into a black hole.”
The movement protests a number of issues, but also speaks against the character of the man tasked with leading the country. From fashion runways to Golden Globe speeches, cultural art institutions to popup galleries, the revival of protest art is sweeping the globe.
Need to speak out
When Trump was elected, Anna said she felt like she needed to speak out. “I felt like something had to be organized,” she explained. “And I wanted to do it quickly before the idea got old.” She put out a “Call to Action” – as the show is aptly named – on social media. Within a week, she had more than 60 artists for the entire show.
Anna tells me about the “Battle Hymen of the Republic,” a sign that leans against the wall. Artist, Katherine Mojzsis carried it at the Women’s March in Washington DC.
Beyond the artistic voice, what is the objective of this movement? In an article published on inauguration day, The New Yorker writes, “the sense of emergency on the cultural left has deepened,” leading to “increasingly vehement expressions of dissent.”
The article states “rejection by the creative class” may lead to social and political change. “It’s the gambit most likely to get his attention. It plays to the Trump’s thin skin, his infantile rage, his impulsivity, his insatiable desire for approval. He can’t help but take the bait,” and “by responding to his detractors, he ends up amplifying their message of dissent – his is the loudest megaphone around.”
Anna’s collection at her Kustera Projects gallery is both subtle and loud; violent and peaceful. Stoic and serious. The majority of the artists are New York based, but others submitted from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Greece. Clayton Colvin from Alabama sent “Never Normalize,” a black hoodie with two eye holes.
Jamie Martinez has incorporated thread and rope to attach his passport to a dream catcher made of driftwood and feathers. It’s a Columbian passport, Anna tells me. Adjacent, a sandwich made of ash, coal and resin is set upon a cutting board and rests atop a napkin and brown paper bag. The piece, from Spencer Merolla’s Baloney Sandwich series is entitled “Ashes in Our Mouth.”
Graphic artist Willie Cole has displayed Trump’s bare bum splayed out across a spanking Santa Claus. “Happy Holidays” – the title of the piece – is spelled out in curling cursive letters along the top.
In the mid-20th century, Herbert Marcuse developed a theory known as “The Great Refusal.” This concept, he believed would transform society with “the protest against that which is.” As specific groups became more ostracized, they would become the catalysts of a growing movement that would lead to change.
Win Zibeon’s “Global Warming” is a quiet, colorful statement among other overtly political pieces at Kustera. The acrylic masterpiece mixes an age of extinction with the present with miniature dinosaurs reminding a young woman of extinction during her meal. The background feels broken. The tablecloth is wrinkled and soiled. A paper bag of disheveled clothing sits at her side.
Across the gallery is black and white collage created by Thomas Lail. The artist took photos of crowds of different shapes and sizes, pulled out color, and brought them all together on one canvas.
Only the stars of Lady Liberty’s crown remain visible, as bricks quickly pile up in front of her in Tomaso Marcolla’s “Liberty Wall.” Juliette Hayt personified an IUD in her drawing “Mirena.” A Chinese man examines a ceramic mold of Trump’s face in Heather Holden’s “Trump in China.”
Every artist has a different voice – a different answer. But collectively, artists are beginning to move toward social and political change through the Great Refusal.
At an art show in Queens called “Nasty Women,” Jessamyn Fiore, co-director of the exhibit said, “I see art as action, an action of solidarity and presence. She and other organizers wore purple pageant sashes – like Trump’s Miss Universe contestants – that said “Nasty Woman.” All artwork cost less than $100 and all of the proceeds were donated to Planned Parenthood.
For six days, Wellesley’s Davis Museum removed 120 works made or donated by immigrants, leaving empty space where the art once was.
At Kustera, “The gallery is an outlet for artists to express themselves, express their concerns,” Anna said. “I want people to come in and look and take something away that they didn’t get before.”
Art at the forefront
Chief curator at Saatchi Art in California, Rebecca Wilson said, “Picasso’s Guernica helped raise awareness across the world about the Spanish Civil War. Ai Weiwei’s work is continued activism against the Chinese government. This is not a time to stand on the sidelines and keep quiet. Whatever artists can do to draw attention to what Trump is doing is a good thing.”
Anna had her own response as her duty to herself and other artists. “We are living in a time of great uncertainty and unrest where our civil liberties, environment and culture are being threatened. Artists, writers, musicians and performers have always been at the forefront of political activism providing a voice in challenging the policies and administrations in power.”