#FromNopeToHope – Salon des Réfuseurs for our time

25 Sep 2018 jane

Heads up everybody interested in powerful political art and graphics.

The exhibition From Nope To Hope – Art vs Arms, Oil and Injustice is running for an extra week, in Brixton Rec, London.

Come and get inspired by the artwork of political artists, designers and activists who demanded their works were withdrawn from the Design Museum’s recent show Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008 – 2018, and what’s more, set up this exhibition to show the withdrawn work and more.

There’s a long history of artists rejecting institutions’ values and making an alternative. The artists and activists now calling themselves the Nope to Arms Collective have transformed the massive bowling green of the much-loved Brixton Rec into a people’s exhibition space. All kinds of random Brixtonians walk through on their way to squash or whatever and get engaged, as well as deliberate audience. As I walked in from the covert side entrance last weekend, my spine tingled and a huge smile spread over my face: could this be a riff on the infamous Salon des Réfusés – the Exhibition of the Refused? In Paris in 1863, a group of white male artists had had enough of their work bring rejected by the (white male) jury of the official ‘Paris Salon’. The artists decided to set up their own Exhibition of the Refused which ran in parallel to the main exhibition. Their move was unheard of in the fashionable, influential and hierarchical world of Parisian art at that time. Every day 1000s of people came to see the work, many openly laughing at the pieces on show. It was popularly and critically ridiculed as bad art or not art at all. However, history had the last laugh: many of these ‘refused’ would become the world renowned and now much-loved Impressionists painters.

Posters from anonymous Syrian art collective Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh.

In Brixton Rec we don’t have ‘the Refused’ but the Refusers, and in another crucial difference, these Refusers are a diverse and international group whose very work is to challenge inequity.

The question is, how could these refusing artists have acted otherwise? What on earth was the Design Museum thinking would happen when artist-activists discovered that it had hosted a shindig for the arms trade during the exhibition’s run?

Can either the curators or the museum directors really have been surprised at what happened next?

After the news of the arms trade jolly broke, 40 artists who had lent work to the exhibition got organised, linked up with Campaign Against the Arms Trade, published an open letter to the Design Museum, and demanded their work be removed.

The result? An astounding one third of exhibits were removed, the walls left blank with signs explaining the absence. This was such a loss that the Design Museum decided to make the exhibition free to the public to compensate. Free exhibition? Nice work #1.

The clue to the museum’s misteps lies in how the Museum co-directors later rationalised the exhibition. On 30th July, the museum’s co-directors Deyan Sudjic and Alice Black published their own letter about the furore, stating that the exhibition ‘tells the story of political protest in the last ten years, assessing the role of social media on political activism and how graphic design has evolved in this context… It presents a range of views, from across the political spectrum. Our objective was never to side with any party or world view, but to show how different sides have expressed their beliefs, through design.’

As the artists had pointed out, this is totally naive.

No cultural production is free from politics. It may be hidden, it may be overt, but absolutely nothing is neutral. From the funding that paid for it, to the aesthetics of the building and environs it takes place in, to the backgrounds and politics of those who have gained the power to make choices over what is displayed and how things are interpreted, to other events that go on in that space, nothing is neutral.

The naivety gets worse: in the same letter from the co-directors, they write ‘On Tuesday 17 July the Design Museum atrium was hired by a company in the aerospace and defence industry for a private event.’

This choice of wording makes it seem as if not one single person at the Design Museum had any say in the hire.

Jill Gibbons’ secret sketches inside arms fairs. Photo by Russell Warfield

Did the booking happen by some online booking form? I think not. Nobody can be unaware of how controvertial the arms trade is.

So we ask, as the artists asked, what policies do the Design Museum have in place to decide the ethical boundaries over who it will and will not get into bed with?

The museum’s directors later write in the same letter ‘We have committed to not having such private hires while we take time to discuss the issues with our peers in the sector and review if any of our policies need to be updated.’

Which peers are they consulting, and what answers do the Design Museum want to hear?

Finally, there’s naivety that shows up internal incoherence in the Design Museum. The curators created a groundbreaking show that was dominated by artists’, designers’ and activists’ critiques of Right-wing politics, state oppression, gentrification, climate injustice, war, and hyper-capitalism, with only a few works from other political positions. The artists they invited are not Saatchi and Saatchi. They are not creatives and sloganeers for hire.

Museums and galleries: if you invite political artists into your space – or any artists, or any people, for that matter –  this does not mean they have left their critical faculties at the door. It does not mean you have bought them off or gagged them through the flattery of ‘being included’ or the fear of loss of work if they dissent.

Meanwhile, get yourselves over to the exciting huge space that is filled with amazing art, design, banners, photography, from UK and beyond, not forgetting some bonus items such as BP or Not BP’s giant kraken and viking longship. The whole episode is an object lesson in art activism. Nice work #2.

A last thought: if the Design Museum had any sense they would be thrilled that this has increased the impact, relevance and outreach of their work, although clearly not in the way they originally intended. : )

Brixton Rec is 5 mins from Brixton tube, Victoria Line, London.

The exhibition runs this week 12-8pm Tues-Sat

LAST DAY 12-5pm Sun 30th September

Focus Areas