From the off, Hope is Strong is a very different type of exhibition. The promotional posters look as though they have been pulled straight off a placard; the artwork title cards are backed on red rather than traditional white; a jukebox plays protest songs loudly into the space; there are bean bags to lounge on; and on stepping over the threshold, the viewer is immediately greeted by six taxidermy foxes in red hats carrying books by Karl Marx.
However, it seems entirely appropriate that the expectations we have around what art exhibitions should look like are subverted when visiting an exhibition about how art can disrupt systems of power. After all, why shouldn’t we lounge on beanbags listening to Slipknot in an art gallery? Hope is Strong brings together art from all over the world to question social and political structures – whether that be here at home in Sheffield or across continents in Africa or America.
One of the cross-continent pieces is The Seven Rages of Man by Keith Piper. Taking Shakespeare’s reference to the “seven ages of man” as his starting point, Piper recreates seven rages through which the black community has passed. The incredibly moving work traces slavery, cotton farming, immigration and organisation to narrate a history of both hardship and resilience, ending in a hopeful nod to a future of total freedom. It seems that the very retelling of history can be a provocative tool in itself. Piper brings together poetry, documentary photography, sculpture and vivid colours to capture a series of historic events, and in doing so provokes the viewer into anger, empathy and finally action.
Many of the works incorporate factual elements into their artistry. Mona Hatoum creates a performance piece out of high unemployment rates in Sheffield in 1986 in Unemployed, while Hester Reeve revisits the hard-won victories of the suffragettes in The Broom Cupboard of the Emily Davison Lodge. In both works, the artists respond to the factual event with a creative interjection. This is not the case in Democracies, where Artur Zmijewski replays footage of far right groups in public settings. He doesn’t interject, just presents the footage as an observation, ensuring the world keeps an eye on their movements.