You can hear that fire in her voice. De Nichols, artist, activist, and author of the newly published Art of Protest, is describing how inspired she’s felt seeing first-hand the ways in which young protesters and organisers continue to advocate tirelessly for the causes they hold dear – whether that’s holding world leaders to account by marching en mass against climate change or mobilising to lead the fight against police brutality.
“People discount the wisdom and instincts of young people. When I think about so many of the movements that have inspired me, there were young people, teenagers, at the centre of them… I think that elders often try to shelter young people away from being ‘tainted’ – quote, unquote – by injustices and social causes.”
Art of Protest – De Nichols’ first book, published by Big Picture Press – steadfastly refuses to shelter young audiences from these injustices, but instead shines a light on the ways in which art can be an aid to their advocacy and activism. It’s a book that tells the history of protest art, while weaving in the powerful narrative of Nichols’ own journey: from growing up in Memphis and seeing the ‘I Am A Man’ posters up-close to her participation in the 2014 Ferguson Uprising, and her work today as a social entrepreneur driving action and lobbying for policy change with the likes of Monument Lab and Design As Protest. Her visionary artwork includes Sticky Note to Self and the performance piece and sculpture Mirror Casket – which now resides in the Washington DC Museum of African-American History and Culture.
“The process was deeply reflective – of me tapping back into my own origin stories as a kid, as a teenager, of encountering protest art before I even had the language to recognise it,” says Nichols. “Young people witness things before they have the language for it. This book starts to give them the language for what they’re seeing around them.”
The book highlights protest art and movements from across the globe – from banners and signs to poetry and political cartoons, from the culture jamming of the most recent US presidential election to the Umbrella Movement of Hong Kong. “I think about how even in college at undergraduate level, I didn’t have a class that was about protest art. In grad school I learnt a lot via research, but there was no one for me during those phases of my life to give me that introduction. The timing is right to do that – not just with children but older learners as well.”
This is an authentic and honest artform – utterly democratic, accessible to all – produced with pens and chalk on cardboard and pavements, or on mobile phones and social media via the often discounted power of GIFs and memes. “There’s that level of authenticity that sometimes comes with the sense of urgency of the moment – of being responsive, of being present, that doesn’t always necessarily allow for us to go through five or six iterations of an idea”. And it’s an artform rich with possibility and potential – the book’s speculative finale teases the future of the medium as today’s advance technologies become key tools that allow the protestors of tomorrow to experiment with immersive experiences and rewrite narratives spatially through augmented reality.
At its heart though, Art of Protest isn’t a book of theory – but of group action. Nichols provides readers with the tools to create their own art, and encourages her young audience to find their communities and connect with those who share a cause. Community is a theme the author returns to regularly – a cornerstone of all her work. “Working in community, co-creating with others, is a counteract to us suffering and struggling together,” says Nichols. “Co-creating art allows for us to model what a more equitable, more just, future can look like, just by working together to express ourselves against the issues of today.”
For this book, she formed her own tight-knit community of likeminded souls – working with publisher Joanna McInerney and designer Adam Allori to bring together the talented young group of international artists whose work graces every page. Art of Protest is illustrated by Olivia Twist, Molly Mendoza, Raul Oprea, Diego Becas and Diana Dagadita. Dagadita’s work will be familiar to readers of this website, having also brought Bonnier Books UK’s Save Our Books copyright erosion appeal to life last summer, with their brilliantly expressive cartoons.
“I was very keen on making sure our illustrators were diverse, were from different parts of the world, were a mix of genders and sexualities and races and ethnicities. And I’m most proud of the way this book leaves that collective voice – that visual voice – across all of the stories that are being told.” With pages that demand to be returned to and re-examined, every inch emblazoned with detail, it’s clear that the community they built brought out the best in one another. “They created such magical works of art,” marvels Nichols. “There are spreads and pages from this book that you can literally rip out, put it in a frame, and hang on your wall.”
Art of Protest promises to inspire others in the same way as the indefatigable efforts and activism of young protestors across the world have energised De Nichols. It’s a book that compels readers to raise their voice for their chosen cause and equips them with the language and tools necessary to inform, influence, and ultimately, enact the change that is so desperately needed across our society. “Now is the time,” she says. “We need any- and every-one to speak up about how we can make our world better: how we can improve the gaps, the injustices, the inequities that we all recognise exist. I encourage all the readers of this book to see art as a pathway. To see art as a tool and a catalyst. That in the midst of protest and pushing for policy change, let art be your visual voice. Use it as another form of power.”
Art of Protest: What a Revolution Looks Like by De Nichols is out now with Big Picture Press. Bonnier Books UK will be donating 10% of proceeds to the youth-led organisation DoSomething.org – as chosen by De.