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Protest Art: In Form, V.1

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday October 5, 2017

Protest art—straight from the streets and backyards of the angry, the oppressed and their supporters—is everywhere today, from museum exhibitions to talks, demonstrations and workshops. Over time, protest art has taken shape in many different formats, materials, and methods, with woodcuts often rising to the forefront.

In its most basic form, a woodcut can be made today by anyone who can find a discarded piece of wood, a gouge [cutting tool], some ink, and sheets of paper. Originated by eighth-century Buddhist monks in Japan and China to reproduce devotional texts, this printmaking technique later migrated to Europe, where it became a popular, rather than an artistic, form of communication.

It was not until the late 19th century that artists including Paul Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec, and Edvard Munch—influenced by the Japanese “floating world” woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige, took up the medium.


Cuando una mujer avanza, woodcut print, 28" x 39”

During the twentieth century, woodcuts evolved as a powerful vehicle of protest, from Eastern Europe and Russia to Cuba and Latin America. The low cost of materials, their bold, expressive qualities and the independence they offer—due to the fact that proofs can be pulled without a printing press—have made woodcuts, along with stencils, a force in the arena of protest and persuasion.

Jumping ahead to the 21st century, woodcuts became instrumental in the protest against political oppression in Oaxaca, Mexico. When the annual teachers strike for higher wages escalated to a widespread anti-government revolt in 2006, a radical protest group, the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca [ASARO] was formed. As an artist’s co-op, ASARO studied with the 75-year-old Japanese master printmaker Shinzaburo Takeda, who resided there; they subsequently took up woodcuts to broadcast their message. And they taught the art and craft of woodcut to anyone who wanted to join the eventually successful insurrection.


Calavera helicopter, woodcut print, 28" x 39"

Using crude, three-ply wood subflooring panels found at construction sites they created visually arresting poster-size prints with rough cuts and marks left by the visible wood grain. In addition to woodblock prints, ASARO artists also created “street interventions” in graffiti and stencils. Part of ASARO’s impact was in reclaiming the walls surrounding the main square where the protests resumed each day. They wheat-pasted the posters to cathedrals, government palaces, and colonial architecture by night. Then the authorities would paint them over at sunrise, provoking the artists to begin again each night. By day, the artists sold their prints for the equivalent of USD10 to finance their work.


Alto al fascismo en Mexico, woodcut print, 28" by 39"

ASARO continues to offer printmaking courses at Espacio Zapata, one of a dozen or so print shops that have arisen in Oaxaca since the 2006 uprising Info. Information for this feature comes from The Art of Dissent: Woodcuts from the ASARO Collective of Oaxaca Info and Kevin McClosky’s Kutztown University Illustration Blog Info Images are from The Art of Dissent: Woodcuts from the ASARO Collective of Oaxaca

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