Visual Symbols of Power,
Oppression, and Protest
Since the earliest times, man has created visual
symbols to gain or express power over his
Whether in life or death, the Egyptian Pharaohs
displayed their symbols of power.
Symbols of power among many cultures, like the Maya, were
affected by geographical influences such as plant and animal
life and mineral wealth.
The Aztec culture had many similar customs and
symbols of power.
The Chinese Emperors had many symbols of their power—
clothing design and color, furniture, armor, weapons, seals,
knowledge and skills.
Likewise, members of the English monarchy, such as Henry
VIII, displayed the clothing, scepters, and other items that
signified their power and position.
Horses were a common symbol of power in
Even our American Presidents had flags, weapons,
and seals to represent their power.
A modern CEO has his own symbols of power.
And no matter what the time or place, the exercise of power
meant that others were subject to that power, sometimes
• Zhao Yannian
―Nightmare # 2‖ 1989,
• The hand pushing down
the head gives this piece
a sense of both the
physicality of the act and
ramifications of the
The Egyptians enslaved conquered
people and put them to work building
The Aztecs and Mayans killed or
sacrificed their enemies.
Chinese rulers from Ghenghis Khan to PuYi maintained
control of their power and territories by eliminating the
In both England and France invaders and citizens
alike were beheaded for their religious beliefs.
American colonists participated in the slave trade from Africa
and engaged in wars with Native American peoples, forcing
them from their lands and hunting grounds.
Artists have used their skills to record these events or
raise their own symbols of protest against these
abuses of power.
• Li Hua's Roar, China!,
1935 is poignant in its
Sharp contrasts of black
and white are used to
emphasize conflict, and
body movements are
portrayed as purposeful
and/or expressive of
• Zhao Yannian is a major figure in
the New Chinese Woodblock
Movement (Creative Print
Movement), founded in 1931 by
the social critic, writer, and
intellectual father of the Chinese
revolution, Lu Xun (1881-1936).
Inspired by the technique, style and
subject matter of such European
artists as Käthe Kollwitz and Frans
Masereel, Zhao and other artists in
the movement carved their own
blocks and used their art to
comment on current social and
political events and to influence
Käthe Kollwitz - Germany, 1867-1945
• ―Beim Dengeln‖ is a
startling image of a
peasant sharpening a
scythe, with the clear
implication that the
tool could also serve as
• The image tells a story
and presents an image
that has universal
recognition and appeal.
Images can portray both the brutality and the
courage of the event.
• Diego Rivera creates a
contrast with past
cultural convention by
Emiliana Zapata on a
level with the horse he
has seized from its
• Zapata's quiet
assumption of power
won him respect rather
• The most effective
images are simple,
clear, and contain the
• They work best when
they are publicly
displayed, rather than
Lenin and Stalin, an example of the official Komar & Melamid, Double Self Portrait as Lenin
art of socialist realism, 1950s, USSR. & Stalin, 1972. From Sots Art series. First
Version. Destroyed in the ―Bulldozer
Exhibition‖ along with other Sots Art works.
• An artist may rely on the ―shock value‖ of using
satirical versions of familiar or official cultural images in
forbidden ways in their protest art.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill,
along with U.S. President Franklin
Roosevelt and Soviet Leader Joseph
Stalin, attend the conference at Yalta.
February 1945. (Photo credit: U.S. Komar & Melamid, Yalta Conference, 1982,
National Archives) tempera and oil on canvas, 72‖X48‖.
Some artists may develop personal images that relate
to the expression of their ideas.
• Hong Zhang created a series of
pictures on the gender revolution in
• The first picture in the series represents
the women of Hong’s grandmother’s
• ―The cage represents the patriarchal
society that kept women bound to the
private space within the home.
Grandmother also had bound feet, the
practice that crushed the bones and
deformed the feet of young girls so
they can have the outward appearance
of tiny delicate feet. The goal was to
have a "Three Inch Golden Lotus"
(sancun jinlian), but the actual result was
unbelievable pain that lasted a lifetime.
In this picture, grandmother is sewing a
normal size pair of cotton shoes
because her daughter was the first
woman in her family to break the cycle
of bound feet. The character on the
dish is ―food‖.
• Hong’s second image represents
her mother’s generation.
• ―Unlike my grandmother, the cage
door is open. Mother had more
freedom as a women in the
Communist Chinese society. Her
feet were not bound and she had a
number of career opportunities.
Still, my mother did not have the
freedom to say or do what she
wanted. Her cage was the
restrictions of the day and Maoist
Thought, especially during the
Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
The Chinese character on the cup
is (weibing or hongweibing); the Red
• The final image in the series
represents the artist’s generation.
• ―Compared to my grandmother
and my mother's generations,
Chinese society has progressed and
the situation for young urban
women in China has improved.
The cage is open and I can sit on
the outside. The Chinese character
on the cup is fu meaning good
fortune. Also notice that the feet
are uncovered and slightly
exaggerated (larger than normal).‖
• These images would be easily
recognized inside China, but might
not be as meaningful elsewhere
where the viewer lacked the
cultural background to interpret
In America, we have our own highly
recognized images of the changing image
of women in society.
• Norman Rockwell's iconic
image of "Rosie the Riveter"
was modeled on Michelangelo's
Appearing for the first time on the
cover of the Saturday Evening Post
in 1943, Rosie came to represent
the growth in the power of
American women brought about
This adaptation of Rosie for an
American War Poster is typical of
the theme – symbolizing, as it does,
the sense of empowerment,
freedom, emancipation and
Artists have used their skills to bring our attention to
the social issues of their day.
• Norman Rockwell gave
us numerous poignant
images of the fight
Stereotypical images of the “Negro Mammy”
were replaced by images that showed quiet
dignity and eventually blatant militancy.
Artists used classical art images as the model for new art styles and the
changing views of the ideal of beauty.
Art can be a powerful instrument for
• In speaking of most of the WPA sponsored art,
Thomas Craven said, ―They are using art as the tool for
propagation of economic notions which, though
distributed geographically, are far from universal in
their application. No art can be enslaved to doctrine.
Art in its proper manifestations, is a communicative
instrument; but it communicates its own findings—not
what is doled out to it, not what an economic theory
imposes upon it, but its discoveries in any department
• Diego Rivera, along with his compatriots David Alfaro Siquieros and José
Clemente Orozco, broke the dependent links to European culture, helping to
create authentic visual aesthetics for Mexico, with an emphasis on indigenism
(or ―indianism‖), folk characters, historic epics, solidarity with the
dispossessed, dramatization of class conflicts, mockery of the egotism and
hypocrisy of those in power, and a celebration of the traditional rites and
myths. These artists expressed the idealistic belief in the possibility of cultural
change and the social responsibility of the artist.
Many artists would no doubt agree with Charles Wilbur White’s statement,
“Paint is the only weapon I have
with which to fight what I resent.”