Using Art in the Struggle for Social Justice

By Eric Ahlberg

The intrepid Venice Beachhead reporters went over to the new offices of the Center For The Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), where Venice Artist Carol Wells and her colleagues have created an archive of 80,000 political posters from around the world.

Carol Wells: This project started in Venice. It started in my apartment on Dudley. I first moved to Venice in 1967.

Beachhead: What was your original intent when you started CSPG?

Carol Wells: My training is as an Art Historian. From high school on, I have always been involved in social justice. I wasn’t an organizer, but I would wear my buttons and write for the school paper. In college it was protesting the Vietnam War. I attended the Century City Demonstration in 1967, which started out peaceful, and then became a police riot. The next day in the L.A. Times they stated that the demonstrators had started the riot, and I was shocked that the newspaper would print a lie. I graduated college and moved to Venice later that year. I went to grad school, still opposing the Vietnam War. In 1981 I went to Nicaragua for the first time.

I wasn’t interested in posters, I was interested in social justice and the Nicaraguan Revolution. While in Nicaragua in 1981, I saw this young child, an eight or nine year old boy, mouthing the words on a poster. In translation it said, “In constructing the new country we are becoming the new woman.” I happened to know that his parents were very anti-Sandinista, so here he was confronted by a Feminist Revolutionary Poster, nothing that he was exposed to at home, and he was trying to figure it out.

That’s when I had my epiphany about how posters work. They attract your attention as you are just going about your life, you don’t have to go to a museum. A poster attracts you by its bright color, its bold graphic, its slogan; it’s a combination of the three. It makes you think, it makes you ask a question, and the act of asking a question changes you.

We walk through the world in our bubbles, assuming we know everything we need to know. A poster has the ability to break through that bubble, and make us think about a world we don’t know about. It also works for people who agree with it. If you are opposed to war the corporate media treat you as a fringe crazy, and the posters will say hey, you are not alone. Posters work for people who don’t know anything about it, people who don’t agree with it, and for people who agree with it.

I became addicted to collecting posters from that moment. It became a way for me to combine my two passions: art and politics. I collected my first poster, curated my first exhibit, and gave my first talk about politics and art in 1981. The first exhibit I co-curated was a Nicaraguan Poster Exhibit at UCLA. We then re-curated it for exhibition at SPARC. They had more jail cells then (the SPARC building was formerly the Venice Jail) and I combined it with an artist named Doug Humble who was working with CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). He made installations of prisoners with full size models in the jail cells, and then we had all the Nicaraguan posters of the Revolution outside the Jail cells.

Somebody saw that exhibit and said, “We’ve got this cultural center in San Diego, can you bring it down when you are through here?” My husband Ted Hajjar and I put the exhibit in the car and drove it down, and I gave a lecture. Then somebody said their sister does solidarity work in Colorado, could they fly me and the exhibit out there? I spent 1981 to 1989 going cross country with the exhibit or with a slide show. Every place I went I would ask them to take me to their left bookstores, because that’s where all the old posters are stored. They would give me dozens and sometimes hundreds of posters.

The Center started out under the bed and in the halls of my apartment in Venice. I put together exhibits on Women, Liberation Theology, and with Ed Pearl, our neighbor, I put together an “Art Against Apartheid” exhibit. People started asking me if I could put together exhibits on this or that, so I started putting together exhibits to order. At that time it was all volunteer, it was a labor of love. It still is, but now I have staff to pay. I had amassed by this time somewhere between 3000 and 5000 posters, and I realized that these were a commitment and a responsibility to people’s history. The Library of Congress was interested in the Nicaraguan Exhibit, but they would just archive them and nobody would ever see them.

I realized that there was no existing organization in the country that was using these posters for educational consciousness raising. My friends told me to start my own. We got a pro-bona attorney to draw up our Articles of Incorporation as a non-profit 501c3 organization in 1989.

Beachhead: What are you working on right now?

Carol Wells: We are doing a 60-poster exhibit as our first collaboration with the American Friends Service Committee, and it’s also a traveling exhibition using all digital reproductions. This exhibit is called “Boycott: The Art of Economic Activism” and it is on its way to Washington, D.C. It covers about 20 boycotts over 60 years, such as the Coors Boycott, the South Africa Boycott, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It shows how boycotts are non-violent direct actions that in many cases achieved a lot of success. They can bring attention in a non-violent way, to injustices in worker rights, to persecution. It is also an educational tool to make people realize that every dollar they spend is supporting or opposing something. Whether it’s a brand and the policies that brand stands for. Like coffee, you can support the independent coffee shops, or you can support the megabrands.

Beachhead: Do they give you money for the exhibitions?

Carol Wells: Yes, we rent the exhibitions to galleries all over the world, but primarily in the United States. Here we have the catalog for the “Prison Nation Show”. It includes all the information about the movement and the history of the 75 posters included in this exhibit. The program includes posters that people can put right up on their wall. It also has a list of resources for Prison Rights issues. When we reprint posters, and when we make digital reproductions for exhibition, we have to get permission from the artist, if we can find them. We do not need to ask permission to exhibit original prints, which we own. Most people are just absolutely thrilled when we reproduce their posters because these things were intended to be multiplied, reproduced and widely disseminated.

Our exhibits have gone to over 300 venues, and we loan posters to museums all over the world to augment their exhibitions. We were in 15% of the “Pacific Standard Time” shows. Our posters have been in MOCA, the Hammer, and the African American Museum.

Beachhead: Do you also collect political buttons?

Carol Wells: Yes, we have thousands. We recently received a donation of a huge collection of buttons from Lenny Potash, a union organizer, and he also donated glass cases to display them. We have a very small staff, but we are 30% larger because of a Federal Grant that we received for a very specific project.

Beachhead: What can Beachhead readers do to support the CSPG?

Carol Wells: We can use volunteers to help us document and organize the art donations we receive. Donations are always welcome too. This year’s annual fundraiser will take place October 20 (see below). For more  info, call 310-397-3100 or visit

Monument to the Death of Art and Life in Venice