In the Sun Maid Raisins logo, a sweet-faced brunette in a red bonnet smiles with a basket of grapes, a neon yellow sun behind her. In Sun Mad, a poster by artist Ester Hernandez from 1982, the familiar image gets a dark spin: the happy woman becomes a calavera, a satirically costumed skeleton, indicating that real raisin workers might not be so chipper. “Unnaturally grown with insecticides, niticides, herbicides, fungicides,” the poster reads, in protest of both the inhumane and unhealthy conditions involved in raisin production.
“Serigrafia,” a new exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, surveys the tradition in California’s Latino culture of making silkscreens and posters with powerful activist messages. These were frequently used for demonstrations, boycotts, and civil rights campaigns and here, 30 selected prints from the 1970s to the present demonstrate how good graphic design with a social conscience can raise awareness and effect change.
Many of these posters are darkly funny. “Satire and irony are powerful tools for challenging government and corporate policies,” curator Carol Wells tells Co.Design.
First emerging in concert with the civil rights movement, these prints were created and distributed by artist-led collectives, or centros. They explore hot-button subjects like the United States embargo on Cuba, Occupy Wall Street, and the United Farm Workers of America International Boycott. One protests U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, saying “Iraq is Aztlan. Say No to Imperialism.”
In Boycott Grapes, a silkscreen from 1973, artist Xavier Viramontes looks back to his pre-Columbian roots, depicting an Aztec warrior crushing bunches of grapes that drip with the blood of injured farmworkers. When strikes, marches, and legislation failed to improve the deadly conditions in the fields, the United Farms Workers of America (UFWA) took matters into their own hands and used these posters to urge the public to boycott grapes, wine, and lettuce to pressure growers. The work brings to mind Emory Douglas’s revolutionary art for the Black Panther Party during the civil rights movement.
The curator also made efforts to square an inequity within the movement itself. Many of the posters made by women went uncredited, so she made an effort to include female artists in the show. “Historically, most silkscreen artists were men, and if women made posters they were often unsigned,'” Wells says. “It was therefore important to have a strong representation by women artists, and 1/3 of the exhibition is by women.”
As Wells explains in an essay accompanying the exhibit,“The best posters are powerful and influential. The worst quickly forgotten. Their history is as varied as their messages, traveling from demonstrations to trash bins and occasionally to museum walls.”