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Art and Design of Protest Movements in Disobedient Objects, Victoria & Albert Museum

18/08/2014 14:47 BST | Updated 16/10/2014 10:59 BST

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Disobedient Objects has to be the most exciting, dynamic and emotive exhibition I've seen at the V&A. The purpose of this display is to examine the incorporation and evolution of art and design in protest movements across the world and it's very much the first exhibition to attempt this.

The coverage is superb with exhibits on show coming from as far afield as Asia, Australia and South America as well as the US and Europe. There are also pieces from as far back as the suffragettes as well as current protest movements, such as those in Russia and Syria.

It was a real delight to see so much innovation and humour in some of the exhibits on display. The most popular image used to promote this exhibition is of an inflatable cobblestone that was used to throw at police in the 2012 May Day protests in Berlin and Barcelona, which is such an innovative way to reinterpret protesting against police lines.

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Work from The Guerrilla Girls is also on show, including their gorilla masks along with their famous poster protesting the lack of representation of female artists in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

It was a great idea to also include some of the vicious mail that Guerrilla Girls have received, as an example of the resistance these protests can provoke. A letter from an Italian art critic, referring to the women as "bitch feminists" shows the level of misogyny that feminists face. "The only thing you feminists teach is to women to be hoars (sic) in love" the letter goes on.

The V&A has also borrowed many distinctive placards from recent protests such as those against tuition fees in the UK and the Occupy movements in London and New York. One that caught the eye was Coral Stoakes' "I Wish My Boyfriend Was As Dirty As Your Policies." It's quick-witted but bitingly satirical slogans such as this that catch the eye of the media, and therefore boost the profile of the protests.

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I also particularly loved the Book Blocs where Italian protestors in 2011 who were protesting against the drastic budget cuts brought on by the currency collapse, created cardboard and plexiglass shields decorated with book covers.

So brilliant was this design, that protestors defended themselves from police brutality with the pen rather than the sword, that these were developed and used by other protests such as Manchester in 2011 and New York in 2013, with book covers such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Brave New World poignantly used.

The power of these disobedient objects has also been profound.

I was genuinely thrilled to see one of the McLibel pamphlets included from 1986, one that resulted in a huge PR disaster for McDonalds. Also included was an example of a street sign used in Buenos Aires to identify - name and shame - residences of the Generals who were in charge during the years of the Disappeared.

How the art and design of these disobedient objects incorporates local and regional traditions was one of the most fascinating aspects of this display.

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Arpilleras are appliqued textiles made by women in South America that are used to tell stories and those collated here have been used to record massacres and injustices, whether it was the Mampujan Massacre of 2010 in Columbia, where in one night a village was burnt to the ground and the women were violently raped by the army for their opposition to the dictatorship, or to record the violence of the Pinochet regime in Chile back in 1980.

I found this a very emotive exhibition, one that drives up a lot of anger and frustration.

Supporting the exhibits is a number of video clips, including footage from protests such as Tiananmen, the Middle East, Seoul and Japan. The level of violent resistance from the state in almost all instances is incredibly depressing.

And the disproportionate use of that violence can be harrowing to watch. Watching again the tanks of the Chinese Army toppling over the 30ft Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square was quite distressing, as it was to see the footage from Palestine of kids throwing stones with their slingshots, only for their pebbles to be met with gunfire.

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The V&A has managed to obtain one of these slingshots, a makeshift item created from the tongue of a child's trainer, and alongside this VT this really had an impact.

Included in the video clips is commentary and observation from those that have been active in protest movements, or who have studied them.

It's eye-opening to listen to how these movements do bring in the egalitarian principles and community consciousness they want to see in the world, but how they also struggle with gender and class structures within their own ranks.

But it was easy to agree with these commentators that change has only come about from direct action, from challenges to property and power, rather than negotiation and dialogue.

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With that in mind, the only thing that bothered me in this exhibition was the representation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), Emmeline Pankhurst's suffragettes.

As journalist Laurie Penny observes in one of the video clips, the view of many of the suffragettes now is one of quite twee women in their long skirts and pretty bonnets organising fetes and drinking tea.

But these women were incredibly violent, the terrorists of their era. Pankhurst's methods were innovative and ground-breaking, creating the template for so many civil rights movements to follow. The WSPU was the first to use art and design on a mass scale to create an identity, a brand.

How disappointing then that the WSPU was represented by a bespoke teacup and saucer, somewhat reinforcing that passive representation. What opportunity there was to put on show a meat cleaver or one of the hammers that were used in the window-breaking, which showed that Pankhurst had realised the impact of damage to property.

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Or perhaps the V&A could have included one of the distinctive sashes or Votes for Women journals, which showed the WSPU's entrepreneurial approach to brand identity and use of the media.

However, this aside, Disobedient Objects is a fascinating thought-provoking exhibition that is well-worth a visit, especially considering this exhibition is free. Highly recommended.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London to February 1, 2015

Admission Free

Image credits:

1. Inflatable cobblestone, action of Eclectic Electric Collective in co-operation with Enmedio collective during the General Strike in Barcelona, 2012 © Oriana Eliçabe/Enmedio.info

2. Installation Image, The Guerrilla Girls, Disobedient Objects © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

3. Installation image, Coral Stoakes Placard (c) Victoria Sadler

4. Chilean Arpilleras wall hanging: Dónde están nuestros hijos, Chile Roberta Bacic's collection Photo © Martin Melaugh

5. Installation image, Book bloc, Disobedient Objects © Victoria Sadler

6. Installation image, Disobedient Objects (c) Victoria Sadler

7. Bone china with transfers printed in green, bearing the emblem of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London