Originally published in Disegno, December 2017.
On the afternoon of 18 February 1908, the Royal Society of Arts met in London to discuss “banners for pageantry”. The main address was delivered by George Eve, a printmaker with particular expertise in armorials. He traced the history of the banner form, beginning with ancient Roman ensigns, progressing through medieval standards and pennants used to identify knights on the battlefield, and on to the national flags of modern times. After this learned exposition, the chair of the gathering rose to offer a brief response. “It was a curious thing,” he said, “that in the present generally considered democratic age something like a renaissance of heraldic design was going on.” The reinvention of medieval emblems was leading to unprecedented creativity. “In fact, there [is] nothing too daring for the pictorial banner painter of the present day.”
The chair that day was Walter Crane, the artist and dedicated socialist. He spoke from firsthand experience, his own work having been frequently adapted for banner designs. Driven principally by demand from labour organisations, specialist manufacturers were in their prime – preeminently George Tutill’s, which was so successful that they owned the largest jacquard loom anywhere on the planet. These firms made banners using a range of techniques, including weaving, painting and appliqué. These were compositionally complex affairs, up to 16ft in width. They typically featured illusionistic swags, narrative scenes, and slogans such as “unity is strength”, “knowledge is power”, and “God helps those that helps themselves”. A proper banner was a serious investment, quite literally a sign of political clout. They were used not only in marches but also hung in meeting halls or on architectural façades, and generally treated as sacred emblems.
This type of richly illustrated banner had emerged in the 1820s, when, in the memorable phrase of historian Gywn Williams, workers’ associations had come “blinking out of their dark and secret conventicles into the fitful sunlight of a precarious legality”. Though collective bargaining technically remained illegal, organised labour nonetheless began to gain in strength and numbers. For their emblems, they adapted the basic format and some of the imagery of religious pageants – particularly those of nonconformists and temperance activists – and gradually, a distinctive working-class iconography began to develop. One can still see the tradition in its full glory at events like the annual gala of the Durham Mining Association, first held in 1871. It remains a proud panoply of regional identity, despite the closure of the mines themselves under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
With the advent of the Suffragette Movement in 1908, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, the protest banner found a new group of adherents. The women of the movement typically made their own banners – simpler than those manufactured by Tutill’s, certainly, but perhaps all the more effective when photographed as part of highly choreographed marches, and reproduced on the front page of daily newspapers. The Suffragettes were among the first to realise that a protest could be even more effective in second-hand reports than it was in person, and they spared no effort in ensuring a coordinated visual spectacle, wearing matched clothes and hats, all decorated in the movement’s colours of white, purple and green.
This golden age of the political banner ended in the 1920s. In Britain, new legislation forbidding mass protests was put in place; women succeeded in winning the vote, and so stopped taking to the streets; unions found it more effective to work through the official channel of the Labour Party. Today, however, the banner is undergoing yet another renaissance. Progressives in the USA and Britain are marching in record numbers, enraged by the actions of two governments that have fallen ass-backward into power. The tactics of these contemporary protests are fundamentally similar to those of Pankhurst’s time: show up in force, ready to be photographed. Just as banners helped a march become newsworthy a century ago, today they are well suited to the hashtag dynamics of social media.
So what goes into a protest banner? First and foremost, a great deal of hard work. The banner-maker Ed Hall, who has achieved renown not only for the quality of his work, but also his long-running collaboration with the artist Jeremy Deller, is one of the few remaining independent artisans who works within the unionist tradition. Though he uses fabric dyes to render centrepieces in fine detail, he works principally in appliqué, cutting swags, letters and borders from cotton cloth. A good banner, Hall says, is double sided and looped over a crosspiece to ensure it is displayed without drooping: “The best banner in the world misses its target if it cannot be read.” It should be unfixed at the bottom, lest a strong wind fill it like a sail, and should be carried on either side by two bearers holding upright poles. However committed the marchers, they’ll tire eventually, so ideally two teams will be assigned to a banner, taking turns through the course of the march.
As to the content, Hall says, it rather depends on his client. Images are usually furnished to him in the form of photographs, along with preferred slogans, which tend to be fairly direct expressions of dissent – NOT ONE MORE DAY TORIES OUT, that kind of thing. (“I’ve never heard a real corker,” he concedes, though he rather likes the tube workers’ strike motto “underground, but never ground under.”) He works these various motifs into elaborate, symmetrical compositions. Key images are positioned on the front, usually surrounded with swags bearing text, with the back of the banner repeating the identity of the organisation.
One project can take Hall a week or longer to complete, though he is the first to admit that “some of the best banners are made overnight by someone who’s never made one before.” Presuming his works are not confiscated by the police (as does happen occasionally), they will last for decades of repeated use. But these days, Hall’s intricate banners are the exception to the rule. Protests are often put together quickly, in response to a particular outrage, and it could be said that a hastily painted phrase or single image is truest to the spirit of the form. As the artist Walead Beshty has recently noted, “protest is quick, fluid, forceful and, by definition, it eschews the solidity of institutions.” The lockstep aesthetics of the Suffragettes, or the elaborate trade union style that Hall has inherited, are impressive and dignified, but sometimes what is wanted is raw urgency.
That is certainly the tenor of most protests today. The internet has rendered everyone, no matter how ill-informed, a pundit. There is an online echo chamber of constant instinctive commentary. Activism takes place against the backdrop of this inflammatory discourse, and amidst a general atmosphere of existential battle for the future. For a comparable sense of cultural emergency, you have to go back more than a generation, to the time of the AIDS crisis. That terrible moment produced some powerful images; think of the pink triangle and “Silence = Death” emblem of ACT UP, which is essentially traditional banner iconography (emblem plus slogan) processed through the logic of abstraction. Or the AIDS quilt project, comprising hand-crafted panels dedicated to people who died from the epidemic, which art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson describes as “by any reckoning (from the number of participants, to actual acreage), the largest ongoing community arts project in the world.”
It’s early days yet, but it looks as though the sheer awfulness of recent events is ushering in another vital age of protest design. This time round, the copywriting has actually been pretty corking. The anti-Trump Women’s March of January 2017 bequeathed the world such instant classics as “girls just wanna have fun… damental rights” and “super callous fascist racist extra braggadocious.” Hastily written signs have been in the majority, but banner-makers have been getting busy too, with a particular emphasis on open-source strategies. Stephanie Syjuco, an artist based in San Francisco, is a leading exponent. She has committed much of her time since the election to making banners, and helping others to do so. If you are looking for how-to directions, then you can do no better than the guide she has created and freely distributed online on her website.
Syjuco’s preferred material is iron-on fusible fabric, which can be reinforced with stitching to increase permanence, while her preferred aesthetic is that of clip art, which she sees as a populist mode, “easily accessible and also completely ubiquitous.” Quite unlike the symmetrical and hierarchical layouts of a traditional banner, her images are like off-kilter infographics. In one of them, a Cheeto-orange Trump spouts garbage, tweets, money, and a pussy-grabbing hand. He has a belching factory for a cerebrum. The serpent of his id slithers directly toward his lips. Subtle it ain’t, yet the pictorial intelligence of the banner is considerable. The imagery is both condensed and allusive, recalling both early American revolutionary iconography (the famous “don’t tread on me” snake of the Gadsden flag) and the work of German satirists like John Heartfield and Hannah Höch.
In parsing the historical precedents for her work, Syjuco has said that she wants to “combine the crafted nature of the Suffragette banners with the messaging visibility of ACT UP.” She makes the obvious but important point that a handmade object, simply by virtue of the investment placed in it by its creator, possesses a credibility that a mass-produced cardboard placard simply cannot. This is a vital consideration in the current political environment, which often seems to reward expressions of conviction more readily than carefully reasoned argument. Syjuco also notes that the lengthy process of making a banner encourages her to interrogate her own views: “the slowed-down timeframe of having to actually make and sew something forces me to spend more time thinking about what it was that I was arguing for … the commitment to making a fabric banner can speak volumes about your conviction to a message.”
This belief in the transformative power of craft also animates another initiative, happening in Chicago: the Protest Banner Lending Library. This collective project, founded by Aram Han Sifuentes, takes Syjuco’s distribution tactics one step further, circulating handmade banners to anyone who wishes to borrow them for a march. For three months, the PBLL was headquartered at the Chicago Cultural Center; visitors could check out banners, and also learn to make one through a series of hands-on workshops. Many participants who make a banner ultimately leave it for the collection. Once finished by Sifuentes and her lead collaborators Verónica Casado Hernández, Ishita Dharap, and Tabitha Anne Kunkes, it can be loaned out.
The level of interest has been high. In less than a year, the library has accumulated more than 150 banners, which have been used not only in marches, but also in schools and in one instance, as the set of a community theatre production. So far, participants seem to be respecting the honour system of the lending library. A few banners have been “checked out indefinitely,” as Sifuentes puts it, but nearly all are returned, carrying with them “the histories of the hands that made and held them, and the places they have and will travel.” This collective approach stands against the individualistic, anti-civic ideology of current right wing politics.
Like Syjuco, Sifuentes and her team use fusible cloth to make their banners; their design sensibility is much more straightforward, however, with simple block letters against uniform backgrounds. It takes only about two hours to make one. Slogans also tend to be direct: “black lives matter,” “no wall,” “otro mundo es posible.” Sifuentes says that many of her artistic choices derive from the inexpensive cloth she sources. On her trips to Joann’s Fabrics, she likes to choose particularly outré patterns – “the ones where you ask, who would ever buy this?” – and these sometimes suggest a certain motto. PBLL banners are also uncomplicated in their construction. Some have a stitched-in sleeve for a crosspiece, but most simply have straps at the corners, which can be used for carrying or zip-tied to poles. Often, protesters end up wearing them as capes, another reason to keep to unfussy, centralised designs.
The pragmatism of the PBLL approach extends beyond graphics and into a broader consideration of agency. Sifuentes says that the idea for the library came from her own experience as an immigrant to America and being a new mother. Though she now has her citizenship, she empathises with people who fear arrest, or possibly even deportation. A march, she points out, is not necessarily a safe space. “The banners that my immigrant community make can be used without fear,” she says. “It becomes a stand-in for us and our voices.”
It is a long way from the earnest simplicity wielded by the PBLL to the edgy graphics employed by Stephanie Syjuco, and still further to the elaborate creations of Ed Hall. Yet these banner-makers share an important set of commonalities, which go well beyond the literal matter of stitched cloth. All are concerned to support a sustainable infrastructure for protest, aware that the fight is likely to go on for many years to come. In their material and visual choices, they also look back, to the great activist movements of the past, and deeper still. Just as Walter Crane suggested, their creations can be seen as a carnivalesque inversion of medieval heraldry – a repurposing of the knight’s pennant, to which soldiers once rallied. Few who march are likely aware of it, but in the contemporary protest banner, this ancient iconography of power is inverted. At a time when many feel disempowered and disheartened by political processes, hands-on activism is more important than ever. Will it help in restoring a more reasonable civic order? It’s hard to say. But if a brighter day does dawn, we’ll know that banner bearers led the way.