The Art Enigma of Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford’s astonishing lucky streak reached a dramatic climax on 9 August 1974, when he became, by default, President of the United States of America. This had been a rapid ascent for Ford, who only 8 months previously had been the Republican Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. Just as the Watergate scandal was reaching a crescendo, with widespread calls for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced from office because of his own legal troubles. Convicted of tax evasion during his time as Governor of Maryland, Agnew remains only the second VP in US history to resign. Ford was picked as his replacement, while charges against the President were at a critical point. The following summer, in another historic moment, Nixon became the only US President in history to resign. Thus in quick succession, Ford held the vice presidency and presidency without being elected for either post – an unprecedented feat.

Leading the United States in the middle of the Cold War, Ford presided over instability at home and abroad, including severe economic hardship, a brief détente with Communist Europe, and the Fall of Saigon. While respected in some quarters, Ford is condemned by others for his support for foreign misadventures in Vietnam and Indonesia that caused the deaths of thousands. When he finally faced a presidential election, in 1976, Ford narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter. Ford’s 895-day presidency went into the record books as the shortest in American history for someone who did not die in office. But perhaps this shorter term had some benefit: until 2017, Ford held yet another record, as the longest-lived US president.

 It seems fitting that the multi record-breaking 38th US President became the subject of an art enigma, exactly 38 years after he took office. In April 2012, residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan – the city in which Ford was raised and is now buried – spotted a number of spray-painted stencil images of the former president on the side of the Gerald R. Ford Freeway. Their appearance quickly sparked a lively local debate about whether the paintings were art or vandalism. The Michigan Department of Transportation thought the latter, designating them vandalism and a dangerous distraction for drivers, and vowing to have them removed.

The discussion then led on to debate about Ford’s record in office, his legacy, and the value of political art. The artist had clearly researched the subject in detail, basing the stencils on carefully selecting photographic images of Ford from key moments in his presidency and occasionally including quotes from landmark speeches. The first of the Ford stencils featured the words “I am indebted to no man”, spoken by the new president immediately after he took the oath of office, to humbly acknowledge that he had not been chosen by the American people.

The debate escalated from words to action, as some commentators staged interventions to alter the images: with the words “war criminal” sprayed in red paint; with Ford’s face covered by the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask; and with a speech bubble containing the Grand Rapids motto “Motu Viget” (Latin for “strength in activity”).

 By May 2012, the first four paintings had been removed by a state cleaning crew. But the rogue artist soon returned, depicting Ford speaking at a podium, skiing and standing in a bathing suit and towel – the latter image appropriately appearing beside the Grand River and on the opposite bank from the graves of Ford and his wife, Betty.

Still the identity of the artist remained a mystery. Some hoped that the tag “SKBFF” next to some of the works would be a clue. In August 2012, MLive media group received an anonymous email, in which someone calling themselves Odd Job claimed to be the artist. This claimant dismissed SKBFF as an acronym for the “Society to Keep Betty Ford Forever”. In a subsequent email interview, in which Odd Job mostly wrote in riddles, they nonetheless provided some interesting context, claiming that “the images are about the community’s interaction with the memory of Gerald Ford”. The emailer also made some pertinent comments on the art vs. vandalism debate, welcoming the defacement because “really public art belongs to everyone. … I am pleased that someone interacted with it. … It is just part of the conversation. Art is brief; life is long.”

 However, the legitimacy of these claims were called into question when another emailer, signing themselves SKBFF, called Odd Job a fraud and seemingly proved the ownership of the paintings by sending images of the stencils used to create them.

The last of the Ford street paintings appeared in Grand Rapids that September, on the side of the building that was hosting the city’s annual ArtPrize. The image showed Gerald and Betty Ford celebrating his acceptance of the Republican party presidential nomination in 1976. The depiction of Ford’s short-lived success brought a similar reward for the creator, with the painting accepted as an entrant to the competition. On the ArtPrize website, the self-defined Unknown Graffiti Artist titled the work Vandalism and noted: “Recreating iconic images of Gerald Ford in Grand Rapids with stencils and spray paint raises some questions: Does painting popular images legitimize graffiti as an acceptable form of communication within community standards? Is this style of graffiti art or mere decoration?”

This artist’s statement was the last that was heard of the project. Publicly, the creator of the images and the intention behind them is still a mystery. Whether made by a single person or a collective; and whether an elaborate hoax, a guerrilla marketing stunt to mark Ford’s anniversary, or a multi-part conceptual artwork aimed at exploring the fine line between street art, graffiti and vandalism; nonetheless, it shone a light on the ongoing controversy about America’s Cold War record, the rights to commemoration, and the strange tale of perhaps the luckiest president in US history.

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Painting for Women’s Rights on the Streets of Afghanistan

On International Women’s Day 2017, Espionart takes a look at the work of a female artist who is challenging stereotypes about women in one of the world’s most patriarchal societies.

In the Afghan capital of Kabul, the spray-painted image of a shadowy figure, wrapped in a blue burqa, is an unexpected shock of bright colour in the unrelenting grey urban landscape. This image is the work of Shamsia Hassani, who is credited not only as Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist, but also the country’s first 3D street artist, regardless of gender. As well as challenging stereotypes about Afghan women by pursuing her practice as a street artist, Hassani has become a powerful spokesperson for women’s rights by putting female characters at the centre of her work.

hassani 3Shamsia Hassani was born to Afghan parents in the Iranian capital of Tehran in 1988. Unable to acquire Iranian citizenship, Hassani was prevented from pursuing an artistic education, and so returned to her native country in 2005 to study first a BFA and then an MFA at Kabul University. She is now one of the youngest faculty members in the university’s Fine Art Department, and a major figure in Kabul’s emerging contemporary art scene.

Hassani first tried her hand at graffiti in 2010, when she attended a workshop in Kabul run by a British street artist. Since then, she has focused on depicting Afghan women, to campaign for their greater representation in the country. While her female characters often appear melancholy and in precarious situations, Hassani shows women as determined and resilient, reflecting her own hopeful outlook: “I want to show that women have returned to Afghan society with a new, stronger shape. It’s not the woman who stays at home. It’s a new woman. A woman who is full of energy, who wants to start again. You can see that in my artwork, I want to change the shape of women. I am painting them larger than life. I want to say that people look at them differently now. … We can make positive changes with art. We can open people’s minds with art.”

The series Secret, featuring a female figure wearing a blue burqa, confronts the Western preconception that the headscarf is the source of female oppression. Hassani dismisses this as a distraction from the real problems facing women, such as lack of access to education. Above all, the artist aims to show that the veil covering the woman’s body is much less debilitating than the veil of silence that prevents her from having a voice. For this reason, Hassani often depicts her female characters with musical instruments, as a proxy for their muted speech, providing an outlet for their expression.

In the series Birds of No Nation, Hassani’s female characters are perched high on rooftops, peering down on a distance city; while in Once Upon a Time, the women are alone in a fractured landscape, cast out from the urban centre. In these works, Hassani reflects on Afghanistan’s turbulent history, since a coup d’état in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979 provoked rising extremism and almost 40 years of war. The artist’s own itinerant upbringing, raised with limited rights in a neighbouring country, mirrors that of many of her compatriots, whose experiences of mass migration and refugeeism are epitomised in the iconic image of the Afghan Girl. But as Hassani explained to Art Radar, “I want to colour over the bad memories of war on the walls and if I colour over these bad memories, then I erase [war] from people’s minds. I want to make Afghanistan famous because of its art, not its war.”

Despite her humanitarian objectives, Hassani’s work has received mixed reactions in the Afghan capital. In an interview with The Independent, Hassani revealed that she is often harassed while painting on the streets of Kabul. Due to concerns about her personal safety – from attacks by angry onlookers, as well as the risks posed by hidden landmines and sporadic bombings – Hassani has to work quickly and usually finishes her pieces within 15 minutes. In response to these dangers, which prevent her from creating new street art for months at a time, Hassani created Dream Graffiti, manually or digitally painting on photographs from the safety of her studio, to imagine her ideal artistic intervention into the Kabul cityscape.

Shamsia Hassani’s international profile has grown rapidly in recent years and her work has been included in exhibitions around the world. In 2016, Hassani was artist-in-residence at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where she was able to meet local street artists and learn more about the American arts education system to inform her teaching in Afghanistan. Back in Kabul, she is training a new generation of graffiti artists and has co-founded the Berang Art Organization, to promote contemporary art and culture in Afghanistan through workshops, talks, and exhibitions. Shamsia Hassani is single-handedly proving that, even in the most unforgiving of places, art has the power to give hope and inspire change.

You can follow Shamsia Hassani on Facebook and see more of her work and videos of her creative process on the Hammer Museum website.

Images: Top – Shamsia Hassani photographed for Elle magazine in 2014. © MaxPPP. All images courtesy Shamsia Hassani.

Painting Through the Berlin Wall

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“We enjoyed painting a line through that one!”

The German journalist and author, Frank Willmann, recalled with glee the moment in 1986, when he and four friends daubed white paint across Keith Haring’s iconic Berlin Wall mural. This iconoclastic act was part of an art-activist stunt that stretched 3 miles along the infamous structure. Since the wall was suddenly erected on 13 August 1961, to separate the German Democratic Republic from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Germany, it had been a hated symbol of the Cold War divide between East and West. But by the mid-1980s, the western face of the wall had become a tourist destination, with visitors attracted by the growing number of artworks that adorned it following Thierry Noir’s first wall painting in April 1984.

Born in the East German city of Weimar in 1963, Willmann along with his friends – Frank Schuster, Wolfram Hasch, and brothers Jürgen and Thomas Onisseit – had grown up never knowing a world without the Berlin Wall. By their late teens, the group had begun to rebel against the government of Erich Honecker and the notorious Stasi. Between 1983 and 1985, the authorities agreed to let all five of the young troublemakers emigrate to the West, and they reconvened in Berlin.

Their experience of living on both sides of the wall made the five friends keenly aware of the devastating effect it had on the lives of so many German citizens. They were therefore infuriated to see the wall dismissed by many in the western world as “little more than a big canvas. They just didn’t care what was going on behind it.” The willingness of the West German authorities to pander to the wishes of a famous American artist was particularly irksome, and the five friends decided to retaliate when Haring’s paint was barely dry.

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On 3 November 1986, armed with paint rollers and buckets, and wearing masks to conceal their faces, Willmann, Schuster, Hasch, and the Onisseit brothers embarked on their daring feat. They continued to paint an uneven white line for several hours, until eagle-eyed East German border guards surprised them by appearing through a secret door and dragged Hasch back to the GDR, where he spent 3 months in prison before returning to West Berlin.

As The Guardian newspaper reports, the men today give a number of reasons why they chose to paint on the wall, ranging from a desire to feel empowered and proclaim their move to West Germany, to a protest against the complacency of those fortunate enough to be living on the western side. In a surprising development, only in 2010 when Willmann began researching for a book about the project, did it come to light that Jürgen Onisseit – the friend who had first suggested the white line action – had once been a Stasi informant. In a bitter irony, this revelation has created a more unassailable division between the friends and brothers than any concrete wall.

Japan’s Anti Nuclear Street Art

281 Anti Nuke came into being in 2011, in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The first sign of his existence was not a man but a little girl in a pink polka dot raincoat.

The stickers that started to appear on the streets of Tokyo, bearing the slogan I hate rain, were the calling card of the artist that is fast becoming known as the “Japanese Banksy.” But who is 281 Anti Nuke? The artist’s real name is Kenta Masuyama. Hailing from near Fukushima and a father himself, Masuyama was so moved by the events of 3/11 that he began his campaign to provoke the Japanese people to question the actions of their government over the crisis.

Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the issue of nuclear technology in Japan has been a highly-charged political issue. 281 Anti Nuke chose the medium of stickers due to the speed of production and application, so as to more quickly spread his “anti nuclear power plant” message. More recently the artist has begun to confront wider issues in Japanese politics and society.

Many of 281’s designs reference political art produced in response to the Cold War, from the activist-art of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) to his reimagining of Dmitri Vrubel’s iconic Berlin Wall painting, My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.

You can find out more about 281 Anti Nuke in his own words in an interview in The New Yorker and also watch a short Japanese-language documentary about the artist by VICE Japan:

Images courtesy 281_Anti Nuke and Roth Management.

The Secret Art of Pinochet’s Chile

Having been forced to call free presidential elections on 14 December 1989, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was finally removed from power, bringing to an end 16 years of military rule. Pinochet had taken the presidency in 1973 following a US-backed coup d’état, which deposed the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and established a junta in its place.

The restoration of democracy in Chile also enabled the artistic collective Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) to come out of hiding. The group had been founded by young communist artists in 1968 and for five years had covered Santiago’s streets with colourful murals campaigning for radical social change.

Following the 1973 coup BRP activists were arrested and their murals were painted over by the military government. Although not defeated, the artists were driven underground, continuing to paint secretly in defiance of Pinochet’s regime. The danger of being caught meant large murals were impossible, so the artists instead created a tag: a letter R within a circle with a star next to it. The R stood for resistance, the circle for unity, and the star as a symbol of the BRP.

Since their liberation, the BRP artists have once again brightened the streets of Chile with murals championing contemporary causes including indigenous rights and educational reform.

This wonderful story is told more extensively in Gideon Long’s report on the BBC News website: The Chilean Muralists Who Defied Pinochet.

Image: BRP mural honouring Jecar Nehgme, a left-wing activist shot dead by Pinochet’s forces in 1989 and one of the last victims of the junta.

Featured Artist: Thierry Noir

Thierry NoirOn 9 November 2014 the world looked back to the momentous day, 25 years earlier, when the Wall came down.

French street artist Thierry Noir is credited as the first person to paint on the Berlin Wall, in April 1984. Noir had moved to the west side of the city two years earlier and was living in a squat that overlooked the infamous crossing. Saddened by the sight, one day he spontaneously decided to begin his illegal artwork in an act of defiance. Instead of intending to make the wall beautiful or joyful, Noir painted to highlight its strangeness, to “transform it, make it ridiculous, and help destroy it.”

Noir had to paint quickly to avoid arrest by East German guards, developing a ‘Fast Form’ style by simplifying the figures into a continuous line formed of one or two bright colours. Over the next five years Noir painted on the wall daily, with his colourful cartoon animals and human faces eventually covering an entire kilometre of its surface.

Many artists followed Thierry Noir’s lead in painting on the Berlin Wall, from Keith Haring’s stick men to Dmitri Vrubel’s cheeky picture of Brezhnev and Honecker in a clinch. Yet despite these years of work, Noir was relieved to see the wall destroyed: “It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”

Thierry Noir continues to live in the German capital and to produce work in his signature style, which since the end of the Cold War has became an iconic symbol of freedom. Noir’s Berlin Wall paintings remain on the portions of the wall held in the East Side Gallery and in New York City, and in 2009 the artist was invited to contribute to the restoration of what is now a historic monument by repainting several sections of his work.

Images: Top – Thierry Noir painting on the Berlin Wall, 1989; Bottom – View from Thierry Noir’s bathroom, Berlin, 1989.

Featured Artist: Shepard Fairey

faireyBest known as the designer of the Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster, created for the 2008 presidential campaign, American street artist and illustrator Shepard Fairey is one of the most influential artists of his generation. Fairey honed his skills in the skateboarding scene of the late 1980s before bringing his distinctive style to the walls of some of the world’s premier art museums.

Make Art Not War [Converted]Although he is considered one of the coolest and most current artists working today, Fairey’s illustrations also keep alive the aesthetics of the Cold War. In particular the artist fuses contemporary street style with the iconography of state propaganda posters, while also making strong reference to Russian constructivist design, art nouveau and pop art. His series of works on the themes of Obey (Propaganda) and Make Art Not War further subvert the discredited rhetoric of Soviet, American and Chinese propaganda from the Cold War era to support his own political activism.

While focusing on accusations of plagiarism in Fairey’s designs, an interesting article written in 2007 by Mark Vallen points out numerous examples where Fairey has appropriated Cold War imagery, recontextualising it for a post-Cold War audience.

Shepard Fairey Providence Mural

Images: Shepard Fairey, Make Art Not War, 2004. Shepard Fairey, design for mural in Providence, Rhode Island, 2010. Courtesy AS220