The art of dissent: How Mia’s “Resistance, Protest, Resilience” photography exhibition came together

“Resistance, Protest, Resilience,” an exhibition of about 60 photographs connecting the protest movements of the 20th century to today’s political, social, and racial conflicts, opened at Mia on November 5.

My interest in images of protesters can be traced to my three-year exploration of the avant-garde art and photography of 1960s and 1970s Japan for the 2015 exhibition “For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In the exhibition, I argued that the intensive student protest movement in Japan during the late 1960s gave artists and photographers license to defy the tradition and experiment with the camera. What followed was a plethora of experimental photography, characterized by are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, out-of-focus) images, and conceptual photography in which artists used the camera to visualize a sense of time—what the artist Hitoshi Nomura called “sculpting time”—often using their own bodies in a kind of performance art.

The exhibition began with images of protesters, particularly those by Shunji Dodo, Kazuo Kitai, and Shomei Tomatsu, who documented protests in barricaded art schools and universities in 1968 and 1969. The protesters hoped to stop the Japanese government from renewing the Japan–U.S. Security Treaty, which has given the U.S. broad control over Japan’s defense, including the stationing of American military in Japan, since 1953.

After coming to Mia this past summer, I have immersed myself in getting to know the museum’s vast collection of approximately 12,000 photographs. The collection holds extraordinary images from various post–1945 protests and conflicts, often shot by Magnum photographers. The museum’s founding curator of photography, Ted Hartwell, believed in the power of photography—its particular realism—to disseminate protesters’ voices and viewpoints, otherwise unheard. Photographers such as Danny Lyon, Giles Peress, and Thom Arndt, deeply represented at the museum, prove his point.

While we are surrounded by an ocean of images of today’s street conflicts and protests, whether shot by a professional photographer or a bystander with an iPhone, I thought it was of utmost importance to display part of our strongest holdings in our protest exhibition.

I also invited artist Leslie Hewitt to show her double-channel film installation Untitled (Structures), which she recently created in collaboration with cinematographer Bradford Young, in conjunction with the exhibition. (The installation is part of her concurrent exhibition at Mia, “New Pictures: Leslie Hewitt, A Series of Projections.”) Leslie responded to some of the most canonical images of the Civil Rights and earlier Great Migration movements by filming buildings and sites in Chicago, Memphis, and the Arkansas Delta that had a profound impact on the movements. Her work, which consists of two sets of 17-minute-long, slow-moving and brightly projected vignettes shown in a black box gallery, is abstract. But it is her (and Young’s) analytical, controlled, and aesthetic protest of the current divides (racial, social, and political) in society.

I believe these exhibitions—my first two at Mia—resulted from my experience of growing up in late 1960s and ’70s Japan, but also in feeling and seeing the divides we now face in society, in my adopted home country of the United States, and the current images of protesters we see in the media everyday.

Photo illustration: Left side, images of protest in Japan. Top by Hamaya Hiroshi, c. 1962; below by Tomatsu Shomei, 1969. Right side, images of protest in the United States. Top by Danny Lyon, 1962; below by Danny Lyon, 1963.