Poster power: art and human rights

Visual artists have an ability that the rest of us lack: to communicate complex ideas with nothing more than a few brush strokes, pencil lines or lino cuts.

It reflects a capacity to communicate with our inner being as much as to engage with the intellect.

Not all human rights ideas need to be communicated in words, in UN-speak tomes or lengthy submissions to the Council of Europe. Such reports are a necessary part of our work, but so is reaching a mass audience in ways that can generate both outrage and action.

Perhaps that is why artists have been closely involved in the story of Amnesty International for 50 years.

The famous Amnesty logo of a candle circled by barbed wire was designed by British artist Diana Redhouse at the request of Peter Benenson, Amnesty’s founder. He said her design had been chosen because of “its simplicity and the effectiveness of its symbolism”.

He wanted something to illustrate an old proverb: ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.’ Both words and image are now indelibly associated with Amnesty, powerfully symbolising the human struggle for justice and dignity.

Hundreds of other artists, including internationally recognised names such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, have lent their talents to that cause over the years. To celebrate its fiftieth birthday, Amnesty has put together an exhibition of fifty of the best posters drawn from their work.

One of my favourites, the image above, The Embrace, by Juan Genovés (El Abrazo, Spain 1976) has its own facsinating, disturbing story to tell.

The following information is taken from an online guide to Spain:

The Junta Democrática, the umbrella organisation grouping together opposition [to Franco] groups asked Genovés to paint a poster as a protest against political prisoners. He invited some of their leaders to his studio, and after rejecting Genovés’ own suggestion, they finally chose a painting he had done some time before, The Embrace. It finally came to be known popularly as La Amnestía, Amnesty.

When the posters were printed Genovés’ was imprisoned and 25,000 posters were destroyed. The poster took on iconic status when a group of lawyers (Lawyers of Atocha) were murdered in their office by right-wing terrorist gunmen. The poster had been on the wall behind where they were sat and was spattered in blood.

In all, some 500,000 reproductions were made of the poster in Spain, and its proceeds were used to set up the Spanish branch of Amnesty International. It has since then become a symbol of political oppression across the world, particularly in Latin America.

That is the power of visual art. You can see a slideshow of all the images from the Poster Power exhibition below.

It’s on display in the Newcastle Centre from August 15-30 as part of Newcastle Arts Festival and is available for exhibition elsewhere on request. Get in touch if you want to see it displayed near you. If you’re interested, a few of the designs are also available for purchase via the Amnesty online shop.

What’s your favourite poster from those selected or other favourite image communicating a human rights message and why?