University of South Florida

College of The Arts

University of South Florida

Creative Pinellas - The Rich History of Poor People’s Art

There’s religious art, environmental art, still life art, court painters’ royal art as in Velázquez for King Philip IV of Spain… but what is poor people’s art?

Poor People’s Art came up as the title of an exhibition at the USF Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) that opened in January.

There’s no specific category for “poor people’s art” in art history books, but plenty of artists do engage with issues raised in this broad category head-on – sometimes also called protest art, activist art or resistance art.

Marie Watt’s Companion Species

One notable artist is Käthe Kollwitz, 1867-1945, providing empathy and advocacy through the strength of her stark etchings, woodcuts and lithographic depiction of women, the downtrodden, oppressed and war victims during the first half of the 20th century.

A riff on the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the exhibition Poor People’s Art with the subtitle, “A (Short) Visual History of Poverty in the United States” responds to injustice due to racial, economic disparities and messy political discourse in the second half of that century – more specifically The Poor People’s Campaign of the Civil Rights Movement and following years.

This campaign was a mass protest planned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to bring the plight of the poor to the doorsteps of the nation’s leaders by occupying the National Mall in Washington DC.

Rico Gatson’s Black iconography series

Cut short by his assassination in April 4, 1968, King’s vision was carried forward by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, mobilizing people across the country.

For five weeks, from May 12 to June 24 in 1968, people set up camp at the National Mall, christening the encampment “Resurrection City” and bringing their demands for employment opportunities, fair wages and equal housing.

Protest posters by USF students, faculty and staff

In the exhibition are 57 works from 18 artists, plus over 30 placards created by USF students, faculty and staff inspired by the protest posters used in the original Poor People’s Campaign.

Read the full article on Creative Pinellas

Story and Photos by Tony Wong Palms