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2017’s Most Powerful Protest Art Is Quickly Making Its Way Into Museums

Can you talk about art and design in 2017 without talking about politics? Not according to the Design Museum.

“I felt like, if you’re making a show about the past year–whether it’s about design or anything else–it really needs to take politics into account,” says Glenn Anderson.

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Anderson is the curator behind a fall exhibition at the Design Museum in London that will feature the shortlist for the Beazley Designs of the Year awards. The awards program, which is entering its 10th year, seeks out the best graphic design, architecture, and fashion in the world. But this year, the shortlist includes plenty of nontraditional design produced by resistance movements, protestors, and non-designers in response to the political events of the past year.

The Refugee Nation Flag by Yara Said. [Photo: courtesy Design Museum]
The shortlist includes the Pussyhat Project, from four Los Angeles-based women: Krista Suh, Jayna Zweiman, Kat Coyle, and Aurora Lady. The neon pink knitted hats became a symbol of resistance against the newly elected Trump administration during the Women’s March in January of this year. (The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has already added one to its permanent collection.)

“I think if you’re considering design as a way of sending message or having some kind of social impact through an object, clearly the pussyhat is one of the designs of the year,” Anderson says. “There’s little question about that.”

Pussyhat Project. [Photo: courtesy Design Museum]
Another shortlist project? The Protest Banner Lending Library. Far from a traditional design project, the lending library was created by the artist Aram Han Sifuentes in response to Trump’s election. The “communal sewing space” is a place for people who wanted to protest but couldn’t necessarily participate over fear of arrest and deportation. Instead, Sifuentes realized, they could make banners for others, who could storm the streets, to use.

Protest Banner Lending Library by Aram Han Sifuentes. [Photo: courtesy Design Museum]
Anderson is arranging the exhibition so there’s an entire section focused on nonorthodox designers who’ve created powerful political work. That includes the refugee flag, designed by the artist Yara Said for the first team of athletes competing as refugees in the 2016 Olympics. Artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’s series of anti-Brexit, pro-Remain posters made the list as well. “Those posters are so resonant,” Anderson says. “Those will go down as design classics, even though [Tillmans] was on the losing side of the dispute.”

Avy Search and Rescue Drone. [Photo: courtesy Design Museum]
Several of the shortlisted designs are also focused on solving political problems, mostly surrounding the refugee crisis. From Scandinavia-based designers Kare M. S. Solvag, Caroline Arvidsson, and Ciaran Duffy comes Refugee Text, which provides refugees with practical information like policy changes via text message. The Avy Search and Rescue Drone, created by designers Paul Vastert, David Wielemaker, Christian McCabe, and Patrique Zaman, was designed specifically for finding and helping refugees struggling to cross the Mediterranean. It can drop life jackets, food, medicine, and communications devices.

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While the Design of the Year awards have a precedent of including political designs–Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope poster was a previous winner–this year’s shortlist speaks to the state of unrest in the U.K., U.S., and Europe. Art museums and established cultural institutions are embracing ad hoc design in the name of political and cultural relevance. As Anderson says, it’s hard to have an exhibition about the last year without acknowledging the political forces that have shaped it.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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