Princess Leia, a man with a comb over and a half woman, half lizard creature – all hanging out together in a bar. That’s the scene that greets you at Liverpool: A City of Protest, the small exhibition of protest art, which is currently on display at Constellations Liverpool.

A curated selection of handmade protest signs and photographs from demos, the exhibition sets out to;

Celebrate Liverpool as a city of protest. Displaying the art and messages used at local demonstrations, highlighting the need for a politics of hope and action from the bottom up in the fight for social justice.

– Curator, Amanda Marie Atkinson.

Some of the work is subtle. The ‘History is happening’ sign with its super-sweet floral background reminds me of a Tracey Emin textile work, using a delicate background for a strong message. In this case, a message of hope. Others look like beautifully executed fan art – the patriarchy-bashing Princess Leia work being a particular favourite of mine.

But what comes across the most, running through so much of the work, is humour. For me, this is what makes this a truly ‘Liverpool exhibition’ – with the idea that; ‘This isn’t right and we’re angry, but we’re going to dismantle this by showing why these people are ridiculous and how we won’t be broken.’

In other words, things are shit, but we still have our sense of humour as our backbone to keep us going. That’s the spirit you can feel running through the city if you live in or visit Liverpool. (I’ve lived here for more than ten years and I’m still not sure exactly what a ‘blert’ is. However, I’m certain that Donald Trump is one, like one of the signs says.)

Theresa May is a Lizard

Is it a good idea to be humorous when railing against misogyny and social injustice? Does going on a march with a sign illustrated with Theresa May as a lizard actually have an effect on the issues being protested against?

My companion at the exhibition thinks not. His argument being that protesters fighting oppression in the past, such as those in the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s, did not use humour. Their cause was serious – and that was their message. It was pure and it was effective.

Earlier this year, Grayson Perry suggested that protest marches have become a nice Sunday outing for the middle classes – take the kids, wave a sign, get back in time for the Antiques Roadshow and a bit of tea. A wry but rather cynical view to take on it, but one I’m okay with finding funny, as I’m as middle class as smashed avocado on toast.

Both are interesting points.

Yet in today’s world I think that this kind of protest art has its place. It draws media attention, gets these messages shared widely on our timelines and arguably helps to humanise the cause being fought. Plus – isn’t political satire something that’s been used effectively for puncturing the establishment for years?

I still think there’s a place for ‘serious’ protest art.

I was lucky enough to see more of the work of Portuguese artist Paula Rego recently, at her ‘Family Sayings’ exhibition in Barcelona. Having lived in London since the 1950s, Rego is practically an adopted Brit and is (IMHO) one of the greatest living artists around today. Her work is visceral and at times creepy. She often uses cherished childhood nursery rhymes to present ideas about female oppression – to great effect. It is ugly but compelling art. Her ‘abortion series’ was created in reaction to the overturning of a proposed law by the Portuguese parliament to decriminalise abortion in 1998. That’s right. 1998.

I got so angry because I’d seen it all in Portugal – the suffering that went on when abortion was illegal. It was mind-boggling.

– Paula Rego as interviewed by Edward King, February 2001.

Woman curled up on a sofa
Detail of ‘Untitled no. 4’ from Paul Rego’s abortion series, 1998.

 

Tate gallery says of her abortion series:

‘[It] shows women in domestic surroundings, suggesting that theirs are illegal backstreet abortions. Their bodies and faces are contorted in pain but the women remain stoic and strong, defiant in their right to choose to terminate their pregnancies regardless of whether the church and state approve.’

It’s powerful work and it was effective in helping to lobby for change, by being the imagery that ran alongside many press articles about the issue of abortion.

It was interesting to see both exhibitions so close together, seeing two very different ways of using art to try to make a difference. There is a place for both and there’ll never be a time when I won’t appreciate seeing an illustration of ‘our Donald’ with a bright orange face.

Written by Lisa Jones

You can catch the current exhibition at Constellations Liverpool until Sunday 13th August 2017.