In an era when commercial imagery is everywhere, the so-called protest artwork created by Peter Kennard is designed to cut through a noisy world and stimulate critical thinking.
Bold photomontages depicting the politics that drive our way of life and our potential for self-destruction may be unnerving, but that is the point. Kennard refuses to flinch from confronting his perceptions of an unstable world in order to evoke a response from society at large.
The 69-year-old who lives in Hackney is a professor of political art at London’s Royal College of Art. He is one of Britain’s leading political artists and is internationally reputed for creating striking symbols that “define modern protest, according to the hosts of his latest exhibition, Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust.
More than 100 of his original works, created over the past 50 years, are now on display at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery.
The exhibition marks the 60th anniversary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a movement formed in 1958 as a reaction to the detonation of Britain’s first hydrogen bomb and the Government’s sanctioning of American nuclear weapons being housed on British soil.
Kennard, previously a painter, switched to protest art in 1968 because he was horrified by the Vietnam War. In the decades that followed, he created some of CND’s most potent images, such as The Broken Missiles of 1980. It shows CND’s peace symbol breaking a missile in half to symbolise that, in his own words, “it is protest by the people that can break the missiles of destruction”.
It is one of several celebrated artworks, including his 1981 reworking of Constable’s The Hay Wain, ‘Haywain with Cruise’ and ‘Nuclear Clock’ (2005-2017), that is on display in Sheffield.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post as his art went on show in Yorkshire for what he believes is the first time in 30 years, the artist said his old works are maybe even more relevant today.
“Horrifically enough... if not more so with the presence of a rogue (US) president and talk about the possibility of nuclear war with smaller bunker weapons. So it’s even more important to get people to see protest art and to get them to think,” he said.
Kennard does not consider his work to be propaganda, but “critical images that cut through some of the commercial advertising we are surrounded by”.
He said he also believes that people have become desensitised to images of war and suffering due to social media and 24-hour news - mediums where images “disappear” as soon as the next big news story comes along.
“One of the things art can do is keep these images and issues alive in people’s minds. Public galleries are really important places now.”
Sheffield, he reflected, is a perfect place to display his artwork as it is a city “where protest against the horrors of war and dissent against inequality have been integral to its people throughout history”.
Art Against War: Peter Kennard and the CND Movement runs at Millennium Gallery until October 7.
CENTURIES OF ACTIVISM
The Peter Kennard and CND exhibition is part of Museums Sheffield’s 2018 Protest and Activism season which marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act.
The 1918 act brought about the extension of voting rights to 8.5m woman across the UK following the suffrage movement.
A celebration of how people in Sheffield have stood up for what they believe in over the past two centuries forms the basis of another exhibition entitled ‘Changing Lives: 200 Years of People and Protest in Sheffield’ which continues until July 1 at Weston Park Museum.