The Ladies in Red: Shepard Fairey’s Propangand-art

I must admit, when I first saw my brother and sister walk in with these t-shirts on, my first thought was, “Awesome! Where can I get one of those?”

Shepard Fairey T-shirt print.

If you live in California, the graphic style should be all too familiar. Shepard Fairey’s stickers, stencils, and prints can be seen plastered on sidewalk newspaper stands, electrical boxes, billboards, and on the sides of trains all across Los Angeles and Orange County.

It’s all a part of an experiment in phenomenology—an idea that attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective. This is what Fairey claims as his artwork’s purpose.

Fairey started his sticker campaign with the aim that “frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail.”

Since then, his sticker campaign has grown into the company known as OBEY Giant. The company manufactures and sells stickers, prints, collectable art, and clothes featuring Fairey’s artwork. With a company slogan, “Manufacturing Quality Dissent since 1989” and promises of “Worldwide propaganda delivery,” it is no mystery that most of the prints and graphics are of a political nature.

Fairey has become famous for creating collections with names and themes such as “Imperfect Union,” which features screen prints and paintings that are “comprised of artworks which [sic] scrutinize the dynamics of the imperfect union such as the unholy union of government and big business and the dichotomy of symbols and methods associated with ideologies of the American Dream.” His artwork ranges in subjects from revolutionary women, war, the duality of humanity, Darfur, and Obama—just to name a few.

So when confronted by images of Muslim women on his shirts, I was not surprised. After all, the images of Muslim women are relevant to current affairs and politically charged. Further exploration of Fairey’s art led me to these pictures (which are featured as prints and on t-shirts as well):

"Arab Woman Rubylith." Image via OBEY Giant website.

Since Fairey’s clothing line is mainly worn by skater boys and girls, my first thought was, “How many of them would look twice at this shirt before buying it and realize here is a hijabi woman on it? Do they even care about the image, or is this just a brand loyalty thing?”

Fairey’s idea is to put these images of propaganda and dissent in places where they can be registered by many people in order to challenge their perception and views. While the idea of putting them on t-shirts and stickers is genius and ensures that the images are given maximum exposure, I am not so sure that having a mainly skater consumer market will allow the images to be exposed to people who will recognize or be receptive enough to think twice about the image. Also, as with any consumer product, soon enough brand loyalty will take precedence over product content. With such powerful (whether positive or negative) images, I have to question whether clothes (something so easily subject to fads and aimed at a specific demographic) are an appropriate medium.

"Israel-Palestine print." Image via OBEY Giant website.

With other subjects, like the Zapatista National Liberation Army, Fairey shows men and women as foot soldiers. Conversely, almost all the prints having to do with the Israeli-Palestine conflict or the Iraq war feature only women.

These women are depicted as observers of conflict, as in the picture of the woman peering out from in between two curtains (pictured left). The Israeli side and the Palestinian side are distinguished by different color and patterned curtains. This Palestinian woman is an observer here.

At the same time, the other images suggest that these Muslim women are participants in conflict as well as observers. When I think of Muslim women being placed in conflict, I think of them as pawns, much like those in the game of chess, with the two players being the (male) opposing sides. They are used to symbolize culture, fuel savior campaigns from the “West” that justify invasions, and break down a country’s men.

"Muslim woman" print. Image via OBEY Giant website.

The image of the niqabi woman with a gun peeking out from under her hijab is quite commanding (pictured right). Even with the words “PEACE” written across the bottom and a flower shooting from her gun, I am made uncomfortable by the use of a weapon—a symbol of violence—as something that a Muslim woman could hide under her “Islamic clothing.”

It evokes thoughts of having to remove your hijab or niqab while going through airport security or, at the least, having them patted down as other passengers look at you with even more suspicion than before. Nonetheless, the image, regardless of the partly concealed weapon, perhaps portrays women as tools of peace within these conflicts.

In the end, this is all speculation. I am not exactly sure what Fairey meant by these images. Perhaps his intention is just this: challenging perceptions and motivating discourse.

Although, I highly doubt that OBEY’s consumer market–mainly skaters–are sitting on street corners all across America discussing the visual representation of Muslim women within popular culture. What a beautiful dream!

  • Aaminah

    Salaams. i think the bigger issue with Fairey’s work is that he is a white American man appropriating symbols from other cultures and making a living off of doing it. He isn’t actively supporting artists in those countries/cultures/conflicts, helping their art to be shown to the world. Frankly, there is nothing particularly original about his art at all, and he is also known for using other artists to do the original design work that he then modifies/works from and they don’t get credit or treated as artists themselves. Some of them excuse this by saying that he is giving them necessary entry into the art world and they hope later people will want to see their own original work, but that has not proven to be his goal. Many later come out and say that he was condescending or patronizing to them, drained them of a lot of work and they got nothing out of it themselves, not even being recognized. There have also been some valid critiques about the stereotyping that goes on in his work. Basically, taking a revolutionary concept and making it palatable to most people.

    i’m also not sure it’s fair to say that his primary target/audience is skater culture. i’d say hipster culture as a whole considers him a darling. and with his iconic Obama/Hope design he went quite mainstream.

  • Diana

    Salaams Aaminah! I have heard about all of this too. There is actually a website (http://www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm) that shows his artwork alongside the originals that he seemed to steal the idea from…quite interesting!

    While I agree that Fairey is “appropriating symbols from other cultures”, I have to say that I don’t know that I see this as a negative because, after all, all Art appropriates ideas, images and symbols from history, cultures or popular culture. I think it actually allows some kind of communication (non verbal) between different cultures.

    I think the concern here is, with Fairey’s work, is not that these images are appropriated (borrowed or reused) but how these “new” images are re-contextualized. It almost an exploitation of the symbol because there seems to be no thought to the context in which these images are being placed into. They are thrown everywhere…but, as I pointed out, maybe this was his plan, his “experiment”. However, he doesn’t seem to care who he offends with it because he is trying to, “provoke thought and possible frustration” to awaken our “perception and attention to detail.”

    As Muslim women (or as any one of the subjects/symbols he uses), the question we have to ask is, are we okay with this symbol being thrown out there in such a way? Does is actually serve the purpose of creating discourse and challenging ideas or is it just severely cliched and almost stale, stereotypical or played out-because then it can become offensive?

    One a side note, I agree that his target is more mainstream now…but it did start as something targeted towards skaters. Fairey is a skater himself and the images started as stickers that skaters would stick everywhere. His fan base has grown though, but I still think that skaters were his first target or first fans.

  • Asam

    The question isn’t whether cultural appropriation happens all the time or not; nor is it about denying the fact that in a sense all culture is cross-culture, that it intersects and reimagines and reinterprets the specific symbols being used. I think the key point is the privileged position of the one doing the appropriating – how that privilege explicitly means that only *some* forms of cultural appropriation are legitimized (shown in art galleries etc.), and what the consequences are for the marginalized cultures, bodies, and ideas that are being appropriated by the dominant group/culture. If Shepard really wants us to think critically he could start by being critical in how to undermine/challenge/account for his privilege as a First World, able-bodied, heterosexual white man – that would at the very least mean very tangible things like promoting the artists he is ripping off of, paying them a decent wage, using his privilege to shine the spotlight on one’s who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance simply because they aren’t white or what have you. Until he does so, he is simply using his privilege to make money off the labour, ideas & art of those without his privilege – and frankly its not all that interesting anyway.

    And that Israel/Pal image is so neutered as to be almost completely meaningless – although probably not to the liberal hipster audiences who must think he’s saying something incredibly profound.

  • http://hassibah.blogspot.com Nadia

    And that Israel/Pal image is so neutered as to be almost completely meaningless – although probably not to the liberal hipster audiences who must think he’s saying something incredibly profound.

    I agree with this. Production, appropriation and content are all issues for me here. Basically, he wants to use the imagery of these women and vaguely touching on war themes without actually having to say anything of substance about it.


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