Enlivened, Aware, Awake:
Symbols of Activism

Grassroots activism in the twentieth- and twenty-first-century United States has dealt largely with the reclamation of identity, power, and justice among marginalized groups in the face of unrelenting systemic oppression and violence. These efforts have manifested in various forms, and visual symbolism has proved an especially compelling tool for empowerment and unity. Enlivened, Aware, Awake: Symbols of Activism examines the origins and representations of three visual symbols—the Black Power fist, the LGBTQ+ Pride flag, and the Wide Awakes eye—derived from and used in social justice movements in the United States over the past several decades. Adopted and popularized during the second half of the twentieth century, both the Black Power fist and the Pride flag are now widely recognizable, deeply rooted emblems of racial and social justice. The Wide Awakes, meanwhile, are a nascent network of artists and activists committed to using art, education, and protest to instigate widespread political and social change. The movement and its visual symbol—an eye—are inspired by a nineteenth-century abolitionist youth organization of the same name.

The exhibition title is taken from a quote by Wide Awakes founding member Rujeko Hockley, who explains that in occasional moments of joy found during the COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent period of intense sociopolitical polarization, she is able to feel “enlivened, aware, awake”; these sentiments maintain a strong presence throughout the exhibition.

The works in this exhibition illustrate the adoption of these three symbols, historically and in the present, in protest photographs and in activist artwork. This exhibition cannot—and does not—tell a comprehensive history of activist resistance against racism, homophobia, transphobia, or bigotry; rather, it hopes to provoke reflection and dialogue about the power and resonance that symbols carry to galvanize activism and establish identity.
Exhibition Name
Enlivened, Aware, Awake:
Symbols of Activism
Exhibition Type
Student Curated
Group Exhibitions
Place
Winter Gallery
Dates
Feb 20, 2021 - Apr 11, 2021
Curators
Enlivened, Aware, Awake: Symbols of Activism is curated by Jane Cole ’21, the 2019–20 Carole Marchand ’57 Endowed Intern.
Artists
Gilbert Baker, Josh Faught, The Free Radicals, Su Negrin, Michael Patterson-Carver, Alison Saar, Isaac Scott, Stephen Shames, Peter Turnley, Wide Awakes
Student Staff
Jane cole 2019
Jane Cole
2019-20 Carole Marchand Endowed Intern, Student Advisory Council, past: Exhibitions and Collections Assistant, Gallery Monitor Associate
A black and white photograph of a Black man speaking at a microphone on a stage with three other Black people and two rows of Black men in black berets standing in front of the stage.
Stephen Shames, George Murray, Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party, speaks at Free Huey Rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, California, 1968, gelatin silver print, printed 2006, 16 x 20 inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2020.19.17

In October 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale cofounded the Black Panther Party as a means of protest and self-defense against anti-Black oppression and police violence. Drawing from Marxist and Black Nationalist ideologies, the organization created their Ten-Point Program, which advocated for decent housing and employment for all Black people, an end to police brutality, and other social reforms critical to Black liberation.

Newton and Seale raised their fists to embolden and unify Black Panther Party members during rallies. Though the origins of this gesture in the context of protest can be traced to workers’ rights and anti-fascist movements of the early and mid-twentieth century, its adoption by the Black Panthers cemented it as an embodiment of Black Power. Like members’ distinct black berets and leather jackets, the raised fist became an identifiable symbol of the Party.

The illustration of the raised fist, as seen in the background of this photograph, was an extension of the physical gesture. The Black Panthers used the graphic to represent self-defense, rebellion, and militancy—core tenets on which the party was founded; thus, it became linked to the Party and to Black Power more broadly.

A black and white photograph of a crowd of protestors centered around a young, dark-skinned female wearing a mask, holding a sign and raising her right fist in the air.
Isaac Scott, June 8th, 2020. Juniper St and Filbert St, 2020, archival pigment print, 23 x 33 inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2020.33.4

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer on May 25, 2020, Black Lives Matter protests erupted in cities across the United States, calling immediate attention to the structural anti-Black racism and violence in which police brutality is rooted. Demonstrations drew millions of people throughout the summer, and at their height in early June, were occurring at an average of 140 per day, making them one of the largest social movements in US history. Despite their enormous scale, frequency, and geographical scope, Black Lives Matter protests shared several common features, including protesters’ ritual fist-raising as a symbol of solidarity, justice, and Black Power, linking them to Black activist predecessors.

Isaac Scott began photographing Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the early weeks of the protests. Trained as a ceramicist, Scott was not an experienced photographer at the time, but picked up a camera after COVID-19 safety measures restricted him from his studio. Scott participated in the first protest in Philadelphia on May 30 and knew that he was experiencing an important historical moment of activism. He continued to photograph—and participate in—the protests, sometimes at great peril, throughout the summer.

A pale orange poster with a monochrome purple photograph of a group of people walking together with their fists in the air. An orange mandala floats behind, with the words “Let Go” in the center.
Su Negrin, Gay Liberation, 1970, offset lithograph poster, 17 x 12 inches, EL2019.4.12

Though a raised fist is now widely understood as a gesture of Black Power and solidarity against anti-Black racism, it was also used among early gay rights activists in the 1970s. The photograph of young, invigorated protesters in Su Negrin’s poster was taken by photographer Peter Hujar in 1969 for the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). One of the original coalitions of gay rights activists, the GLF formed in New York City in the direct aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and advocated for the end of discrimination against queer communities; they were particularly interested in housing equality and bodily autonomy. Though Hujar’s photograph depicts white activists, it is important to recall that queer BIPOC, such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, among others, were pivotal figures within the Gay Liberation movement.

Negrin’s poster, like Hujar’s original photograph, was used to advertise the GLF. Merging the photograph with a mandala design bearing the words “Let Go,” Negrin creates a bright, idealistic vision of LGBTQ+ activism.

A large flag with eight color stripes that make a rainbow.
Gilbert Baker, Rainbow25 Eight-Color Commemorative Flag, designed 1978, made 2003, fabric, 33 x 74 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Scott Seitz / SPI Marketing, 2021.1
Gilbert Baker arrived in San Francisco in the early 1970s and quickly became a key figure in the city’s growing Gay Liberation and activist movements. Employing the sewing skills he had learned from making drag costumes, he created protest banners and flags for gay rights and anti-war demonstrations. In 1978, Harvey Milk—one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States as San Francisco’s City-County Supervisor—and a committee of local activists called on Baker to invent a visual symbol to represent and celebrate the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Baker conceived of the Rainbow Flag as an embodiment of the power, hope, and diversity within the community, and with his friends Lynn Segerblom and James McNamara and thirty volunteers, dyed and hand-stitched two flags, each thirty by sixty feet, which were raised on June 25, 1978, for the inaugural San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade.
A drawing of people of various genders and ethnicities, some topless, others wearing suits or dresses, in a Seattle gay pride parade; other people watch from the sidewalk smiling.
Michael Patterson-Carver, Sometimes Demonstrations Become Celebrations, 2009, ink, pencil, watercolor on paper, 15 x 20 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Ann and Mel Schaffer Family Collection, 2017.22.9

Michael Patterson-Carver often illustrates scenes in which people of historically marginalized identities gather to demand civil rights and justice. His work implicitly addresses the generations of systemic homophobia, transphobia, and oppression against which his figures protest. However, Patterson-Carver’s playful style and his protesters’ ubiquitous smiles and their brightly colored garments all bring a feeling of optimism to an otherwise serious cause.

Rainbow pennants, bike streamers, and pom poms scattered throughout the crowd create vibrancy and exuberance. The Pride Flags in Patterson-Carver’s work seem to fulfill the purpose that Gilbert Baker, the designer of the original 1978 Flag, had envisioned; Baker hoped to create a symbol that would claim visibility and joy for the LGBTQ+ community.

A rectangular sculptural structure, covered almost completely by burlap, with a dark blue bow attached in the upper left corner and smaller objects in the upper right corner, including a pin with rainbow stripes.
Josh Faught, Housecleaning, 2009/2018, hand-crocheted indigo-dyed hemp, machine-knit acrylic yarn, spray paint, political pins, laminated poster advertising housecleaning service, denim, sequins, garden trellis, 96 x 48 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, 2018.1.62
Josh Faught’s sculptural textile explores themes of domesticity, nostalgia, and the cultural constructions of gender and sexuality. Having come of age during the AIDS crisis, he became hyper-cognizant of the intense stigma and morbidity surrounding queerness at an early age. Faught payed close attention to portrayals of gay male sexuality in pop culture, developing an interest in the aesthetics and materiality of queerness. In Housecleaning, crocheted hemp fabric is adorned with a patchwork of found and hand-made items, including political buttons, two of which bear the Pride Rainbow. In an interview with the Tang, Faught noted that his decision to incorporate the buttons grew from a desire to “queer [the] object.” The rainbow pin represents a bold allegiance to one’s identity while maintaining a certain informality and kitschiness. These associations speak to the symbol’s power to create a statement as well as its accessibility and legibility.
A black and white photograph shows a city park filled with thousands of people facing a large statue in the center draped with flags and banners. The figures have their fists raised in the air.
Unrecorded artist, title unknown, 1970, gelatin silver print, 8 1/8 x 10 ½ inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2018.38.547

On May 9, 1970, student demonstrators convened, fists raised, in Chicago’s Grant Park to protest the Kent State shootings in Ohio and the ongoing US military conflict in Southeast Asia. Only five days earlier, National Guard soldiers opened fire on peaceful anti–Vietnam War protestors on Kent State’s campus, killing four students and injuring nine. The event ignited mass protests across the country and served to further shift public opinion against the war.

Raised fists were a hallmark of student activism, especially in protest of the Vietnam War, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The iconic fist graphic first appeared in 1968 in a poster designed by Frank Cieciorka, a San Francisco Bay Area graphic artist, challenging the Vietnam War draft. Other variations of the graphic surfaced in a 1969 Harvard University student strike and in flyers from Students for a Democratic Society, a national activist organization that adopted a strong anti–Vietnam War and pro–Black Power platform.

A color photograph of Nelson Mandela, a Black man with short grey hair, standing with his fist raised. Behind him, out of focus is a large crowd of people.
Peter Turnley, Nelson Mandela, Soccer City Stadium Soweto, South Africa, 1992, archival pigment print, 24 x 20 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Paresh Mehta, 2020.43.33

Shortly following his release from twenty-seven years in prison, South African political revolutionary and African nationalist Nelson Mandela triumphantly raised his fist before a crowded stadium. Perhaps the salute honored the endurance of antiracist resistance in the face of immense suppression, particularly of Black voices, by the apartheid government. In 1994, Mandela—the leader of the African National Congress—became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

This photograph serves as an important reminder that antiracist activism and Black Power are not confined to the United States. Although Mandela’s leadership and the formal elimination of apartheid marked an immense milestone in South African politics, white supremacy and social stratification remain deeply entrenched throughout the country. South African political leaders and activists continue to fight against the lasting social and economic legacy of apartheid.

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