Sitting just inside the Great Hall and squeezed between two major retrospective exhibitions of wedding dresses and fashion photographs at the Victoria & Albert in London sits Disobedient Objects, a small but powerful show examining the materials, methods, and inventions of political dissent across the world since the late 1970s. Rich and diverse in its choice of objects, the one-room gallery places a strong emphasis on forms of artistic production and labor that continue or reimagine artistic traditions of craft and handiwork—genres typically associated with times of war, political oppression, and belief in forms of transformative utopian politics. Chilean arpilleras (three-dimensional textile murals) depicting scenes of violence and repression committed under Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1979 sit alongside finger puppets made in 2011 by the Syrian artist group Masasit Mati to lampoon President Bashar al-Assad. Gas masks worn by protesters in Gezi Park in 2012 are juxtaposed with chrome jewelry crafted by a group of Black Panther Party members serving extraordinary periods of solitary confinement in Angola Prison in southern Louisiana. Each object harnesses forms of tactile materiality to make timely political statements.
But while the exhibition encourages viewers to think productively about the ways in which the aesthetic and the political do and can coexist, it also forces consideration of what is lost or compromised when these objects are removed from the streets, favelas, public spaces, and prison cells, and then domesticated within one of the most important collections of art and design in the Western world. At a moment when protest and civil disobedience seem to be intensifying around the globe, are these objects flattened and defanged by the museum’s invitation to sit among the golden riches of empires past, or is there something hopeful in the gesture—something truly disobedient?