Curatorial Projects > Battle Emblems (2006)


The clenched/raised fist is part of the broader genre of “hand” symbols, including the peace “V,” the forward-thrust fist, the uplifted middle finger, the clasped hands. It usually appears in full frontal display showing all fingers and has been frequently integrated with other images such as a peace symbol or a tool. The fist has been used to represent many related concepts – defiance of authority, personal empowerment, as well as representing solidarity and unity,as in "many weak fingers can come together to create a strong fist.” Although early uses of the fist in the U.S. can be found at least as far back as 1917, and a Mexican example from 1948, the iconized fist alone – without attachment to tools or bodies -was not commonly used until Bay Area illustrator Frank Cieciorka created a simplified and stylized version announcing the October 1967 Stop the Draft Week events and the subsequent trials. After that, various permutations saw prolific use within U.S. movements, with significant examples being the 1968 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Chicago National Democratic Convention protests and the 1969 Harvard student strike. A woodcut graphic version by Cieciorka was broadly disseminated through the underground press. Prints made by the groundbreaking 1968 Paris poster workshop also included a clenched fist, as did later posters from Cuba and other countries. After the 1970s, use of the fist declined, but its persistence as a movement symbol is evident by its occasional reappearance, as in Take Back the Night flyers and in the logo for an Earth First! chapter.

Ever since its first appearances as a potent symbol, the fist has been concentrated in certain modes of activism. In labor graphics, it decorates strikes more than organizing; in anti-war graphics, its use becomes more prominent as actions evolve from polite dissent to active resistance. The shifting patterns of its use correspond more to rhythms of militance within individual movements and in the overall, changing panorama of movements, rather than to shifts of aesthetic fashion or symbolism. The fist is most notable for its syncretic and metamorphic qualities. People of any kind, occupation, or condition raise their fists in images - the fist grasps a chemical beaker for Science for the People; it holds a stiff broom aloft for Justice for Janitors. If such adaptations seem inexhaustible, this is perhaps because the hand is our primary instrument of action in the world. We should expect its protean persistence as a symbol indefinitely into the future, in ways both familiar and novel.