Former St. Louis artist De Nichols writes of the historic power of art activism
Arts organizer De Nichols has long used visual art to push social activism. The 33-year-old Mississippi-raised activist and artist spent 13 years in St. Louis and was an organizer during the Ferguson uprising. Her work includes the piece Sticky Note to Self and contributions to The Mirror Casket, which sits in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Nichols is documenting her artistic journey and how art has been linked to social movements across history. In her recently published book, “Art of Protest,” she shares the history of art activism across the world and includes tips for how aspiring young artists and activists can create effective protest art. The book features illustrations by artists Diana Dagadita, Molly Mendoza, Olivia Twist, Raul Oprea and Diego Becas.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis asked Nichols about her new book and how she hopes it will inspire young activists to use art to speak truth to power.
Chad Davis: How would you describe art activism?
De Nichols: Art activism, or artivism, to me is simple. It is essentially using creative practice that is visual form, or performance, music or oratory, using our creative gifts, as a way of amplifying the call for justice, across whatever calls or issues we are fighting for. I think art is a language that a lot of people can't speak, and there's a power to ensuring that art is a part of social movements. There are so many parts of the history or the chronicle of a movement that gets lost, but people remember the art, they remember the performance, they remember the speech, they remember the “I Am a Man” posters. In “Art of Protest,” I opened up Chapter 2 talking about my early encounters with protest art and seeing those posters inside of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis where I grew up, and back then not realizing that these words on a poster, on some cardstock, that that's art. But that's art. When people go out into protests, they are making signs, they're making fashions, they are making chants, developing songs. All of that is art activism to me.
Davis: What pushed you to write something like this, to get a book like this started?
Nichols: The story of me writing this book is a story of serendipity. It is a story of people, energy coming together on my behalf to allow creativity to flourish. The title of the book, “Art of Protest,” is the same title that Angela Davis wrote about the Mirror Casket project, which was a sculpture that Artivists STL artists made in 2014 during the uprising in Ferguson. When my publishers in the UK were looking to produce a book for young people about protests and about art, they Googled me, saw the article, saw the TED talk that I'd given for a TEDx STL and was like, ‘Hey, could you connect us with someone to write this book? We see that you're at Harvard; you might be too busy.’ And I was like, ‘No, I'm here for fellowship.’ So I had the time. And in October 2019, that's when I started writing “Art of Protest.” And the process was one that was full of a lot of reflection because the book takes readers through my journey as well of being a young person learning about protests, art, seeing it for the first time and then expanding from there to share the histories and stories of how art has been across time and space. So it’s reflection and it’s research, but it's written as a narrative, as a journey.
Davis: How does one make good and effective protest art? And then how do the artists know when that work is effective?
Nichols: A lot of the things that get chronicled into mass stream memory are often those simple messages. So going back to the “I Am a Man” poster, so simple but so poignant. Even most recently, last summer with people at large creating graffiti on one of the Confederate monuments, and then using a projector to show George Floyd's face. You can't avert your eyes from that, from those types of visuals. I think that things that catch people off guard are also super effective. So I got to give kudos to Mallory Nezam and Derek Laney when they created Chalked Unarmed during the uprising. I remember us going out to one of the malls and nearly getting arrested because people were shocked to see chalk outlines in that space. There were many visuals back then that Artivists STL led that, you know, they just stick, there's the sticky factor I think that comes into protest art when it's effective.
Davis: With the book, I mean, there are just so many different chapters and so many different things where you're really giving people the tools of how they can actually create their own art. What do you want people who read the book to really take away from this?
Nichols: I don't want this book to be one that just sits on a shelf, I don't want people to just read through it and put it away. This is a book that is written with the intentionality that you will take the knowledge, take the precedence of what has been done across the world and across time and make something yourself. And so yes, there are various prompts riddled throughout it, in order to inspire you to get off of the page and go find your materials and make something yourself.
Davis: [The book] is really dedicated to youth activists and what youth activists have done across the globe. Why are you paying so much attention to the youth demographic when it comes to activism and art activism?
Nichols: One of the things that my editor asked me to think about while I was writing this book was, what is it that I wanted to know when I was a kid, because I had that early exposure to social issues as well, especially racism and segregation, and it was this. I wanted someone to share their journey with me, tell me about people from worlds that I probably will never visit, and how they have been brave enough to speak out, to create and give me the tools, the steps to perhaps do something myself.
Davis: How do you ensure that art and activism leads to those types of actions or actions that can happen in real life?
Nichols: With my own work, I try to always have a target like a stakeholder, a person on the other end that we're speaking to, and I would encourage people who take this book and make some art with it to think about that. Are they speaking to their school administrators about a change that they want to see? Are there ways that they can use their art as a form of persuasion for painting the picture of what they would like to improve? If it's on a community level, how do they link arms with others and use their art as a visual catalyst, as a symbol? How do they wear it on their shoulders to really start to mobilize together in order to find unity across the progress that they want to make? And so I would encourage anyone who picks up this book and make some art with it to think about that. Who are your comrades, who are your targets, and what are the things that you can do in addition to making art to get to the people who need to see it?
Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis