As arguably the most controversial American presidential election ever takes all the international headlines, it’s easy to forget that eight years ago another landmark election changed the USA’s entire political landscape. When Barack Obama became the president, the mood was upbeat and there was little of the fear over America’s future that the country is experiencing now. And the biggest artistic symbol of that era? A red, white and blue poster of Obama with the word ‘hope’ in bold at the bottom. This was the work of Shepard Fairey.
The ‘hope’ posters went global, helping to cultivate a larger-than-life Barack Obama on an international scale. They’re still a symbol reworked constantly, making Fairey a pretty important figure in art history. The 46-year-old has since produced numerous thought-provoking works and prints that have made him incredibly popular in the art world. And now he’s in Hong Kong unveiling new large-scale public murals and presenting a selection of his work in a new exhibition titled Visual Disobedience. Fairey invites viewers in our city to re-evaluate power structures, authority and the importance of protecting the environment in these works.
Born and raised in South Carolina, USA, Fairey’s path to becoming an artist was obvious. “I’ve been passionate about drawing and painting since I was a little kid,” he tells us. “As soon as I realised I wouldn’t make it as a professional skateboarder, I decided that art was the only thing I was good at, therefore it was my only career path.” Much like skateboarding culture, street art for Fairey is a creative outlet to express and push the boundaries of his ideas. “I come from punk rock and skateboarding,” he explains, “which are both rebellious and push the idea that if a scene doesn’t exist, create your own scene from scratch. Street art was an extension of that idea but also a way to take the art directly to the people and connect with an audience outside of the patrons of galleries and museums. Freedom of speech is very important to me, so the idea of being able to say what you want on the street, if you’re willing to take the risk, appealed to me.”
Fairey is a graduate from the renowned Rhode Island School of Design, which boasts alumni like comedy-animation guru Seth MacFarlane and abstract artist Julie Mehretu. “I learned a lot about different mediums and techniques at RISD,” says Fairey. “But the most important thing I learned is that I need to be very rigorous and a harsh critic of my own work because only I know whether I have honestly fulfilled my vision conceptually and technically.” With a concrete vision and a message to share, it was at this university that Fairey first created his ‘Andre the Giant Has A Posse’ stickers and where he began his career producing thought-provoking prints and posters.
With a foot still deep in the skateboarding world, Fairey is also the creator of Obey clothing, which predominantly features T-shirts and street pieces with a giant shadowed face above the red and white bolded word ‘obey’, a re-working of his original Andre the Giant sticker design. For the artist, clothing design and art go hand-in-hand as a platform for creative expression. “[The clothing] comes from my background in skateboard and music culture where the T-shirt is the most common visual currency,” remarks Fairey. “Clothing is a very accessible way for me to share my art and ideas. The big difference is that fashion is challenging because it changes so quickly, so I have to find a balance between staying true to my creative vision and navigating the constantly changing fashion world.”
Obey is a brand that’s politically and socially provocative and, to some extent, addresses anti-establishment ideas, so it’s easy for Fairey’s designs to experience the problem of achieving mainstream popularity where the meanings become lost and the pieces just become the next fashion trend. “The danger with fashion is that it is inherently shallow,” he says. “That’s something I try to counter with my brand and my hope is that people who latch on to my brand for shallow reasons might discover more depth to my art and ideas eventually through the clothing.”
Despite Obey’s popularity, though, Fairey is probably best known for the Obama ‘hope’ posters, which are still to this day referenced and parodied. He claims, though, that he didn’t foresee the massive response to the posters. “I never expected the Obama image I created to connect with people the way that it did,” he says. “But I was and am very proud that I can point to it as a tool of grassroots activism that came from someone with few resources, relatively speaking. The problem in the US and probably many other countries is that many people feel their voices don’t count politically and I think the Obama poster demonstrates that people who aren’t powerful can make a difference.” However, there has been, over time, criticism that the posters are essentially propaganda, not unlike images that promote dictators. As a response, Fairey has this to say: “Propaganda is designed to dictate and be the final word. My art is designed to create a conversation.”
Contemporary art lovers in Hong Kong now have the chance to determine for themselves what they make of Fairey’s art with his first exhibition in our city. Presenting up to 300 canvas works and prints at Repulse Bay’s The Pulse, Visual Disobedience, presented by The Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation, showcases Fairey’s creations over the years, from the iconic to the obscure, many of which feature his signature bold black and white lined designs, as well as predominantly red-coloured images with figures in the forefront and repetitive patterns in the background. “The show is a career survey,” says Fairey. “I chose the pieces that I thought were crucial at each stage of my development.” Phrases like ‘obey’, ‘power and equality’ and ‘make art not war’ are also familiar sights in his repertoire. The artist says he hopes to show how his work ‘has consistently asked people to question injustice and social structures in general’.
As part of the exhibition, which runs until November 27, Fairey has also worked on several new large-scale murals around town including on Hollywood Road, outside Sai Ying Pun MTR station and at Cornwall House in Quarry Bay. They are comprised of patterns and motifs that are Asian-inspired but these murals actually share a single vision, pushing forward messages that are recurrent for Fairey throughout his life and work. He states: “[They’re] messages of peace, visual disobedience and respect for the planet and its species.” His new works also highlight environmental issues, especially in a city that faces constant air pollution. “Environmental issues such as air quality and carbon emissions affect everyone on the planet because the planet is a finite space,” he says. “It’s especially true in a densely packed place like Hong Kong. I hope that anyone who sees my works about the environment considers what’s at stake for future generations.”
With the presidential elections just days away, Fairey had to get involved. He’s produced satirical posters on Republican nominee Donald Trump with the word ‘demagogue’ across it. They speak for themselves. So, while Fairey continues to produce work that addresses political and social issues, at the end of the day, his actual art is the most important. “Creating images is what I’m most passionate about,” he says, “and no-one would care what I have to say socially or politically if I couldn’t capture their attention with my art and design.”