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Visions of Peace and Justice: San Francisco Bay Area: 1974-2007. Over 30 Years of Political Posters from the Archives of Inkwork

Fernando Martí
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

Inkworks Press, 2007

Hidden among the over 400 posters presented in Visions of Peace and Justice is a rare gem: a simple two-color poster by Lincoln Cushing announcing “The Fiftieth National Bourgeois Art Exhibit: from the personal collection of the Fortune 500, a display of high art which perpetuates the dominance of form over content and reduces artistic creativity to marketable commodities.”

Unfortunately, art reduced to “form,” and thus, to marketable commodities, is still the rule at most of our art schools, as well as most mainstream galleries. Content lies hidden beneath thick conceptual veneers, requiring degrees in literary criticism and rhetoric to interpret. This new book proves that art, where content and form work hand in hand toward goals far deeper than marketability, is still being produced in the US.

Visions presents over thirty years of political posters from the archives of Bay Area-based movement press Inkworks. This is working art, posters for the streets, for placards, for demonstrations. Sometimes these posters don’t just reflect reality, but have served, as Bertholt Brecht exhorted, as hammers with which to shape reality. These images are calls to action for struggles that have sometimes escalated into battles, and that have sometimes even changed the relations of power. The International Hotel posters by the SF Poster Brigade—several of which are included in this book—come to mind. They are testament to a moment in history that altered people’s perceptions of housing and development struggles in San Francisco.

Later, the posters become the documented history of our evolving movement when we rarely have time to otherwise write our histories. This visual history represents thirty years of ephemeral art meant for the streets. There is poetry in these images, and in the fragments of text, spread out across the walls and windows of our cities. It is surprising, looking back on this thirty-year history, how many of these familiar posters were printed at Inkworks. It is also surprising to look back and see the things that haven’t changed: how many pleading for the end to the bombing of this or that country, or, for example, a 1979 poster to “stop forced drugging of psychiatric inmates.”

The short introductory essays, by Cushing, Carol Wells and others, point to the continuing need for independent movement institutions. We notice how few movement presses remain, and how critical those that remain are. Wells points out that in the 1980’s there were sixteen women-owned progressive presses; now there are none.

Inkworks has faced its own challenges over its thirty years. It is a business, after all, struggling to compete with other small presses, some unionized, some not. The success (and struggles) of Inkworks lies in having a business model that puts clear political points of unity at its center. With all the current talk in liberal circles of “social enterprises” and “socially-responsible businesses,” this is a living example of a real social enterprise, with points of unity based on deep political principles of international solidarity, support for workers’ struggles, the environment, racial justice, and women’s and queer liberation written clearly into the business plan. The struggle for Inkworks has been balancing the work that pays, so they can continue to do work at cost for the movement, and still make a living for their workers.

Visual impact

An interesting aspect of Inkworks’ model has been having an organization that is both a worker-owned cooperative and a union-shop. While the book doesn’t go into details of how this works in practice, it is clear that Inkworks is both an alternative model for how economic institutions can be organized, and one that it is intimately linked to the traditional labor movement. If there is something I wish the book had stressed, it is delving deeper into these challenges. But that is for another book—this one is about the exuberance of the work.

As an artist and sometime art-teacher, the book is beautiful to hold and to share with students. I would hope that it would become more than just a book to keep on coffee tables to display one’s political allegiances, but something to study and learn from. As organizers and activists, we are constantly called upon to create flyers and announcements, and this book gives one much to think about in terms of making a visual impact and creating visual teaching tools. We can’t all be designers, of course, and the book hints at the issues Inkworks has faced between being simply a press, and becoming a publisher and design house. Many of the recent posters are the work of Design Action, a design spinoff from Inkworks, part of a relatively recent constellation of Bay Area designers for the movement, along with Tumis, i-arte, and others also represented here.

The book’s organization follows Inkworks’ political points of unity, covering the breadth of movement issues, with introductory essays by movement activists. But the posters aren’t always easy to pin down into one category or another, highlighting the intersections of our struggles: a beautiful 1981 poster, for example, with “Libertad/Freedom” written across the top is credited to “Gay people in support of the Nicaraguan revolution.”

In these images we see the beauty of original linocuts, silkscreens, and paintings, mass-produced as offset prints in Inkworks’ presses, to be shared in walls across the country. The images represent the range of the power of political protest: from the one-color rawness of the images by Emory Douglas or Rachael Romero and the SF Poster Brigade in the 70’s, to the accessible line drawings of Cushing, Nancy Hom, Jos Sances, Juan Fuentes, and Lisa Kokin, on to the silkscreen artistry of Malquias Montoya, Doug Minkler, Elly Simmons, and Rupert Garcia. The text of the posters, also, bears beautiful phrases if you look carefully.

A poster supporting FRELIMO, the Mozambique Liberation Front, bears a poem from Jorge Rebelo: “forge simple words / that even our children can understand / words which will enter every house / like the wind / and fall like red hot embers / on our people’s souls / (for) in our land, bullets are beginning / to flower.”