Curatorial Projects > Battle Emblems (2006)

Battle Emblems

A group exhibition featuring work by Choppy Oshiro, Mark Pearsall, Favianna Rodriguez, Yaeger Moravia Rosenberg, Jessica Tully, and Marcelo Viana with material from the AOUON Archives

February 1 - March 25, 2006
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

Ask someone to draw the Nike trademark, and they’ll sketch you a swoosh. Today, most of us are thoroughly familiar with the language of symbols, especially through the world of corporate logos and advertisements - graphic representations used to sell products, services, and lifestyles. Yet, symbols have also been used to convey more abstract meanings, such as social and political ideologies, belief systems, a code of ethics in the world. Symbols, in their basic, general sense, are representations of concepts and ideas. Through their conceptualization, creation, use, dissemination, and ultimate recognition, they produce meaning. As visual signifiers and identifiers, they convey beliefs, thoughts, and emotions to the viewer; even the simplest of line drawings contain a world of meaning.

This exhibition takes a look back in the history of graphic arts that envisioned and constructed symbols to encapsulate the ideas, beliefs, and goals of various social movements of the last century, with a focus domestically on the past forty years. By juxtaposing a historical survey of some of the most important and enduring symbols of these movements with new work responding to and re-contextualizing history, our hope is to educate and inspire conversation about the role that art and design can play in helping to define and mobilize action and change today, and making publicly visible the desire for justice and equity.

Symbols are intended to give brief expression to the basic ideals of an ideology, and, to the extent that they "catch on" and become popular, they provide important support to social movements even though their full meanings may not be understood by those who sport them. They are also used to spread the word about movements, as a means of outreach into larger and oftentimes new communities. Symbols also have important personal functions for participants of a movement, as they can allow us to feel a part of something important and larger than ourselves, and provide a sense of certainty and meaning.

We are focusing on a small sample of symbols in Battle Emblems. The historical well of symbols used for social movements is so far-reaching in its scope, we can only hope to highlight just a small fraction of what is and has been in existence. This selection is by no means a definitive one, rather it is meant as a jumping off point in which to begin a larger discussion of the nature of graphic symbols to educate, inform, encourage, and ultimately mobilize action and change. We hope that by exploring this small survey of social movement symbols, we can better understand the context in which art and design have recorded and changed history, as well as how history changed art and design. We also want to understand better how social movements in past decades gained exposure and how the continuing and very different struggle for today’s movements can gain mass visibility in a media-saturated world.

Most of the exhibition focuses on domestic symbols created and used by radical, progressive left-wing movements in the U.S. that defined political engagement as social activism. Many of these movements successfully manifested into the establishment and growth of social justice organizations nationwide, many of which have become indispensable to the growth and health of our community fabric today. Yet, we cannot forget the crucial role of the individual person within these movements. History tends to remember larger formalized organizations rather than the actual working flesh of movements. Individuals have been the initial seeds for ideas about social change, and many of these symbols serve as catalytic and enzymatic forces that act not on organizations or institutions, but rather on the most fundamental personal levels of organizing - belief systems, ideological concepts, and life values. Its on these levels that symbols can have a personally profound, intimate, and emotional impact - and can begin to generate the desire for action and change. Indeed, culture is the seed of opposition, becoming the flower of liberation.