July 25, 2024


Art Shines Through

The Typography of Change 

The Typography of Change 

Chip Thomas, “Criminal Justice Reform Now” (2016), four-color, hand-pulled screenprint (courtesy Letterform Archive)

Silas Munro, co-curator of the exhibition Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest at San Francisco’s Letterform Archive, first started thinking about the show during the wave of protests in 2020 in response to former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in Atlanta. Munro wanted to show how typography can create change, and he thinks carrying signs at protests makes a difference. “That connection to the body is a big reason why change happens,” he told Hyperallergic in an interview. “We saw it in the summer of 2020.”

Munro, a surfer, paddled out with a group of others on Bay Street Beach (recently added to the National Register of Historic Places) for a protest about Chauvin’s murder of Floyd as well as that of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police when she was asleep in her home. “It was just so powerful to see people coming together chanting and memorializing Breonna and George and all of these people we lost,” Munro said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is a movement, and this is something much larger than just me.’” 

Along with Stephen Coles, assistant curator at Letterform Archive, Munro organized Strikethrough, up through next spring, with approximately 100 objects, including buttons, posters, T-shirts, signs, and broadsides from the 1800s through the present, divided into categories: VOTE!, RESIST!, LOVE!, TEACH!, and STRIKE!

Local artists like Favianna Rodriguez are included. She grew up in Oakland in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and saw murals and hip-hop as ways to tell stories of oppressed people. She wanted to be an artist, but when teachers recommended looking at Picasso and Rembrandt’s work, she says she “didn’t see things that related to my lived experience.”

Then, at 19 years old, she was an intern at the Getty, archiving political posters, and found work by people like Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas and the nonpartisan AIDS activist group ACT UP. A piece by Yolanda López made a big impression. 

Favianna Rodriguez, “I’m a slut” (2012) digital print poster, 17 15/16 inches x 12 inches (© 2022 Favianna.com, courtesy Letterform Archive)

“She made a poster that read, ‘Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?’ and it had an Indigenous person ripping up papers. When I saw that, my entire world just changed because I had grown up in a society that called my family ‘illegals,’” she said. “I had never seen something that so powerfully captured the truth. And I realized the power of what one image could do.”

Rodriguez’s pieces in Strikethrough include a poster that reads, “I AM A SLUT. I VOTE. SO DOES EVERYONE I SLEEP WITH.” Munro finds Rodriguez’s work energetic and expressive and says, “she blows my heart away.”  

While Rodriguez’s work is big and bold, another local artist, Hunter Saxony III, has a haunting, delicate piece in the show from his series Nia Wilson/Say Her Name/No Silence, with “Nia Wilson” in red calligraphy on vintage magazine portraits of Southern gentry. Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman, was killed by a White man who slashed her throat at a BART stop in 2018. 

Installation view of Strikethrough: Typographic Messages of Protest at Letterform Archive (2022) (courtesy Letterform Archive)

At his studio in San Francisco, Saxony told Hyperallergic he rode BART frequently in his previous job as a carpenter, and the killing made a big impression on him. He wrote Wilson’s name on the photos, which he’d found when he lived in Austin. “It was just like a meditative exercise,” he said. “Then I put them on the internet, just to have them on the internet. And that’s how the Letterform found them, and they hit me up.”

Also included in the show is Mariah, an augmented reality app, created by Heather Snyder Quinn and Adam DelMarcelle, two of Munro’s graduate students from Vermont College of Fine Art. In 2020, Mariah transformed the Met’s Sackler Wing with data about how the Sackler family’s company, Purdue Pharma, aggressively marketed OxyContin. 

Adam DelMarcelle and Heather Snyder Quinn, Mariah augmented reality app (2022) (courtesy Letterform Archive)

For Strikethrough, the two artists created another AR app for protest sites in the Bay Area, such as the Black Panther’s Oakland headquarters and San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Plaza, named for the openly gay supervisor who, along with Mayor George Moscone, was shot and killed by former supervisor and police officer Dan White at City Hall in 1978. A tank top in the exhibition shows an image from the White Night Riots, in response to White’s being convicted of voluntary manslaughter. 

The artists say they’re excited to be in a show with their design hero, Douglas. And DelMarcelle is glad for more recognition for the app. “We’re talking about the overdose epidemic in America,” he said. “I’m biased because it’s my subject matter, but I think it’s the most pressing issue of our time right now, and it’s only getting worse.”

Snyder Quinn calls the Archive “an admired and coveted space,” and says she’s glad to have work near the center of big tech. “We’ve been working on understanding virtual space and Metaverse for three years, and nobody is listening enough,” she said. “I think we’ve shown a very early vision of what it is by placing digital things right out in your physical environment for you to see, whether it’s historical augmentation or protest.” 

From Hunter Saxony III, Nia Wilson/Say Her Name/No Silence (2020), ink on vintage magazine paper (courtesy Cesar Rubio)

The exhibition also includes work by international artists like Islam Aly, whose book The Square shows a laser-engraved map of Cairo and the chant of the 2011 Tahrir Square protestors, “ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām” (“The people want to bring down the regime”), which repeats until it fills the last page. “It’s a way to document what was happening in Egypt at that time,” Aly said by phone from Cairo. “This book is a way to remember those that changed history.”

Strikethrough makes connections between different movements with similar iconography like the American flag, Munro says, and shows artists’ influences on each other’s work, like Douglas on Rodriguez. He compares this to what happens at protests when people echo one another’s words. 

“The chants are in this call-and-response form. It’s so important to have the feeling of being able to be heard and seen and to give your grievances in public,” he said. “That’s why that metaphor just makes sense to me.”

The Black Scholar, “Black Labor” (1970) (courtesy Letterform Archive)