Speaking truth to power is a non-violent way of challenging political, economic, social and cultural leaders, and holding them accountable for actions and words that result in injustice, inequality and harm to others. The tactic requires courage and a willingness to risk one’s reputation, livelihood and sometimes even one’s life to express beliefs that go against entrenched interests and public opinions.
The phrase “speak truth to power” originated in the Civil Rights and Peace movements of the mid-20th century. Although the phrase is relatively recent, the idea of speaking truth to power is ancient, and can be found in cultures around the world stretching back thousands of years. The term “speak” suggests that this form of protest is primarily verbal, but challenges to established power structures can be expressed in many different ways, including art.
An upcoming Kruizenga exhibition highlights a small selection of 20th and 21st-century artworks from Europe, North America, Asia and Africa, all of which represent the spirit of speaking truth to power. The exhibition is offered in conjunction with The Big Read Lakeshore, which will soon kickoff with this year’s focus on In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez.
Truth to Power runs from November 1st through December 20th, 2019. Admission to the Kruizenga Art Museum is free and all are welcome.
The Plowers. Käthe Kollwitz (German, 1867-1945), 1906. Etching and aquatint. Gift of David Jensen, 2004.6.2
This print belongs to a series called The Peasants’ War that was inspired by a historical rebellion that occurred in Germany in 1524-25, when hundreds of thousands of poor farmers rose up to protest the harsh conditions imposed on them by the aristocracy. Plowing is the first image in The Peasants’ War series. It depicts two impoverished farmers being used like draft animals to drag a plow through the soil. Kollwitz created the series to remind viewers about the possible consequences of similarly mistreating the working classes in the modern age.
Take Refuge in Your Heart, Poor Vagabond. Georges Rouault (French, 1871-1958), 1922. Aquatint and drypoint. Hope College Collection, 1967.2.5
George Rouault’s Miserere (Have Mercy) series was designed between 1914 and 1927 in response to the horrors of World War One. The series explores the importance of maintaining faith in the face of suffering, and hope in the face of tragedy. This print is plate 4 from the Miserere series. It depicts an adult reaching out to a child with a gesture of comfort. The title and the imagery suggest that the figures are refugees, a sight that would have been all too familiar to Rouault in the years during and after the war.
Man of Peace. Leonard Baskin (American, 1922-2000), 1952. Woodcut. Hope College Collection, 1969.2.4
This life-size woodcut depicts a smock-clad man standing in a tangle of barbed wire, holding a dead bird in his hands. The man represents a prisoner of war or a concentration camp inmate, while the bird symbolizes the dove of peace. Baskin created the print in response to the death and devastation of World War II, as well as the conflicts of the Korean War and the Cold War. Such an overtly anti-war image was controversial at the time the print was made in 1952, which coincided with the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” campaign.
Missippi. Milton Derr (American, born 1932), 1965. Brown ink and wash on paper. Hope College Collection, 2018.20.2
This drawing portrays the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three Civil Rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi during the summer of 1964 while campaigning to register African American voters. The bodies of the three activists were buried in an earthen dam and remained hidden for two months before their remains were finally discovered by the FBI. Public outrage over the murders fueled support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The title of the drawing is deliberately misspelled to approximate the vernacular pronunciation of Mississippi in that state.
Tribute to Juanita. Lorraine Garcia Nakata (American, born 1950), ca. 1990. Lithograph and chine collé. Hope College Collection, 2018.26.1
The text written on this print reads, “During World War II, sometime after the Depression, soon after Pearl Harbor my Japanese friends were whisked away after their families sold all their belongings.” The inscription refers to a shameful episode in American history when, following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government rounded up approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans living in the western United States and incarcerated them in military prison camps with no trials and no evidence of any wrongdoing. Many of the imprisoned Japanese-Americans were forced to sell or abandon their homes, automobiles and other personal possessions, and a significant number of them suffered physical injury, psychological trauma and even death as a result of their forced confinement.
Sun Raid. Ester Hernandez (American, born 1944), 2008. Screen print. Hope College Collection, 2017.16
Ester Hernandez has been well-known since the 1960s for her mural paintings, posters and other artworks that celebrate Mexican-American identity and culture. This print parodying the imagery of the famous Sun Maid raisin brand is one of several artworks created by Hernandez to draw attention to the exploitation of migrant farm workers in the United States.
Pepsi (from the Great Criticism Series). Wang Guangyi (Chinese, born 1957), 2006. Lithograph. Hope College Collection, 2015.16
Wang Guangyi is a leading figure in China’s Political Pop movement, which emerged in the early 1990s in response to the contradictions between China’s ostensibly communist political system and its increasingly capitalistic economic system. Wang’s Great Criticism series juxtaposes imagery from political propaganda art that was ubiquitous in China during the 1950s and 60s with brand names and slogans from Western-style commercial advertising that began appearing in China during the 1980s and 90s. At one time the artworks in the Great Criticism series could have resulted in Wang’s arrest and imprisonment by the Chinese government, but since Wang became internationally famous the government now tolerates his work.
Justice. Lamidi Fakeye (Nigerian, 1928-2009),1993. Mahogany. Gift of Bruce M. Haight, 2017.60.1
This carving uses traditional Yoruba imagery to comment on contemporary Nigerian politics. The central figure of Justice is portrayed as a priest of Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning. The priest is blindfolded to signify impartiality, while his hands hold a sword and ritual wand to signify power and wisdom. A guard and two prisoners appear beside Justice, but are depicted on a smaller scale to signify the comparative insignificance of individual fates in relation to universal ideals. Lamidi Fakeye was inspired to carve this panel by a 1993 democracy movement in Nigeria that aimed to end decades of military rule and restore civilian control of the government.
Mother Against War. Andrea Gomez y Mendoza (Mexican, 1926-2012),1956. Linocut. Hope College Collection, 2016.48.2
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Mexican art was dominated by the so-called Mexican Muralist School. Heavily influenced by the goals of Mexico’s 1910 Revolution, the Muralists maintained that art should promote political consciousness, social justice and economic equality. This image by Muralist artist Andrea Gomez y Mendoza was used in a 1957 political poster denouncing the threat of atomic war and helped win the artist an international reputation.