Freedom Then, Freedom Now exhibition on display in Upper Sayles

History students gain hands-on experience by using printmaking to create and study protest art.

Mileana Borowski ’25 11 March 2024 Posted In:
Close up of colorful posters
Photos by Harry PoundPhoto: Harry Pound

On February 28, Carleton’s Office of Intercultural Life (OIL) and the history and studio art departments hosted an opening celebration for the exhibition Freedom Then, Freedom Now: Black History and Protest Art, which is on display in Upper Sayles through March 14. At the opening reception, a statement was given by Jade Hoyer ’07, assistant professor of art, before the event transitioned to a more informal gathering where students and faculty mingled and admired the artwork. While many prints were hanging on the walls, there were even more available for attendees to take with them, continuing a common printmaking tradition of sharing artwork.

Colorful posters hanging up next to a sign that reads "Freedom Then: Freedom Now"

The Freedom Then, Freedom Now exhibition is made up of work created by students in the course African American History II: 1865 Until Today. Seven weeks of study preceded the creation of the artwork in the exhibition. Through the course, students studied mass protests, particularly exploring the intersection of social movements and protest art. Starting with Reconstruction and ending with protests in the 2000s, students covered a lot of ground, so part of the challenge in creating the artwork for the exhibition was to synthesize all the course material into a single visual.

Students drew on many sources of inspiration to inform their work. Considering the mass activism stage of the mid- to late-1960s, students analyzed posters from Emory Douglas and the March on Washington. Associate Professor of History Rebecca Brueckmann challenged her students to identify which elements of these posters still translate to activism in our present age. Exploring historic primary sources, students sought to uncover the meaning of Black freedom activism today. From there, students constructed their own slogans for Black activism in 2024.

The slogans created by each group, while all inspired by the same sources, vary dramatically. “Fight fists with flowers, together we bloom!” reads one poster, hung up beside a poster asserting, “Settling for little is settling for nothing!” Other slogans include, “Pride for martyrs, pride for sacrifice, pride for progress” and “Legacy of resilience, future of promise.”

Colorful posters on a wall next to a hallway

For Brueckmann, this variety was a lesson in and of itself. Brueckmann pointed to the ways each group took different things from what they learned as an example of how history is not uniform. “There are always different ways of understanding and approaching,” said Brueckmann.

With so many different perspectives, learning how to collaborate was an important part of the creative process. Collaborating with each other connected students to the history they were studying. Breuckmann valued the opportunity to give students “the experience that a lot of people had at the time,” going beyond “just talking about it” by providing “an embodied experience.”

“There was a lot going on behind the scenes [of Black activist protest], and I wanted to give students a taste of this,” said Breuckmann. Through the process of printmaking as a group, the students experienced how social protests require “a lot of collaborative effort.” 

While posters from the March on Washington informed much of the content of their work, the visuals were inspired by artist Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and his Rosa Parks series. Kennedy Jr. has carved out a unique style for himself in the world of printmaking by layering colorful words on top of each other to form a background upon which he prints a final, overarching message — usually a pithy quote or short sentence. 

Wall of colorful posters angled upwards

The students of African American History II selected words for their layered backgrounds by crowdsourcing. Each team chose three to four terms that encapsulated the most important themes they had learned in class. These words were then put together by Conor McGrann, digital studio arts technician, to form a word cloud. The size of each word on the poster indicated the number of times that word came up in the class. The larger the word, the larger the number of students who had identified that term as a key concept. After McGrann created a digital background from those words, he ran the image through AI to create more variations. On top of these backgrounds, students then screen printed their own slogans on top. Throughout this process, students learned about how to make each slogan the most prominent component of their poster by considering the visual hierarchy of their work.

“I’m just incredibly proud of them,” said Brueckmann, reflecting on the students’ artwork.

Participating faculty and staff: Rebecca Brueckmann, Renee Faulkner, Jade Hoyer ’07, Conor McGrann, Ty Quigley ’22

Participating students: Amina Ali ’27, Aurora Davis ’25, Devin Dennis ’26, Nate Ellis ’25, Bensen Han ’27, Alonna Hannibal ’27, Shauntavia Hooper ’27, Aaron Lobsenz ’26, Tyler Tutt ’25, John Win ’25