I recently visited London in order to graduate from King’s College London, saying goodbye to the student part of my life and saying hello to the hopefully short ‘unemployed historian’ chapter. As I was spending a week in the city I desperately want to get back to I decided to put on my tourist gear and head to the museums (a hobby I regrettably never took full advantage of whilst living in London). My first stop was to see Ian Hislop’s exhibition “I Object”: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent and I was not disappointed.
If anyone doesn’t know, Hislop is an entertaining character in the British media having been the editor of renowned satirical paper ‘Private Eye’ since 1986 and for his witty, cutting comments on ‘Have I Got News For You’. Naturally, since satire and political lampoonery have shaped his career, it seems very fitting that he chose to create an exhibition on dissent and resistance all over the world, hand choosing objects, artwork and clothing that have defied religions, governments and wars throughout history. The objects that show dissent in this exhibit hail from a wide range of countries across very different eras and regimes. The acts of dissent as well vary from possible mistakes such as a misprint ‘thou shalt commit adultery’ in a King James Bible, to outright political statements such as a coin defaced by the women’s suffrage movement stamped with the slogan “votes for women’. As well as choosing the objects himself, Hislop has plaques around the exhibit telling the audience the reason why he chose these specific objects and asking questions about how we might oppose the status quo in our everyday lives. He interacts with the public throughout giving the reader a chance to think deeper about the objects on display and how dissent is shown in national media today.
These photographs from the exhibit above are just a small number of objects on display at the exhibit. The plate ‘Say yes to vodka! Papa Mikhail says no to vodka!’ from Russia around the year 1991 reproduces a Soviet-era anti-alcohol poster from the 1950s. The plate satirises the temperance movement of the 1980s instigated by Gorbachev. This type of satire is perceived to have been made after the collapse of the Soviet Union as an act of blatant opposition such as this would have no doubt had dire or even lethal consequences.
The image of the Hindu goddess Kali shows a very popular act of political dissent of creating images where a figure ‘wears the enemy’ to show violence and victory. The image, estimated to be created around 1895, shows the goddess of destruction wearing a necklace of severed heads to signify the death of the ego. The heads being painted akin to European skin tone and fashion can be seen to signify the politicians of colonial powers as the Indian people start to form a fight for independence. This act of sedition, showing Kali to represent all of India defeating the British colonisers is a great image to represent the tensions in India at the time.
Trump. Oh god I know I know, everything in the media today is all about Trump since he won in 2016 so it would be irresponsible not to include an object of dissent from the Tump era. On January 21st 2017, women from all over the world gathered in cities to march against Donald Trump being elected to the highest office in the United States. One of the main reasons why women marched all over the world was for his derogatory comments and actions towards minorities, disabled people and women. The infamous “grab her by the pussy” comment sparked outrage from women across the globe. One act of defiance in the march was the wearing of pink ‘pussy’ hats which aimed to reclaim the word as a form of empowerment and show that women can and will fight these comments and injustices. This modern act of defiance sparked other movements such as the Me Too campaign which highlighted sexual assault across the globe and sought to hold those accountable for their crimes.
My favourite piece from the exhibition however, was one that directly poked fun at the British Museum itself. This piece of wall art was created by the infamous graffiti artist Banksy showing a seemingly primitive drawing of a man with a trolly going out to fetch a killed buffalo. This ‘cave painting’ fragment was hung in the British Museum unbeknownst to the museum staff for three days. It was even given a fake identification number and label mimicking the other labels at the museum. Part of the label reads that the painting was created by a Banksymus Maximus stating that the majority of his work has not survived due to “zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of drawing on walls”. The museum was alerted to this fake by Banksy’s website and it is a perfect representation of dissent at the expense of the museum.
The exhibit is a must see for anyone who enjoys satire and resistance to the status quo and depicts both funny and very serious acts of defiance to regimes around the world. It teaches us that we should always question our governments and not just willingly accept the status quo if it does harm or promote injustice. It is a love letter across the ages to those who sought to have their voices heard and defy those who ruled them no matter how covert or outrageous. It is a homage to satire and resistance telling the audience that there should always be debate and opposition to make the world a more learned place.
(All images were taken at the British Museum and all objects belong to the museum. The exhibit ‘I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent’ is in the British Museum until the end of January)