The aesthetics of protest

A look at visual icons of the age of protests and how they have spread to other cultures.

by Mattia Salvia

Culture 28 April 2021

Hermes Ferrari is a 51-year-old restaurant manager and one of the leaders of the #IoApro (I’m opening) movement that is against the restrictions placed on bars and restaurants to fight the pandemic. On 6 April 2021, he protested in front of the Italian Chamber of Deputies imitating Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman” who went viral last January during the Trumpist storming of the United States Capitol in Washington DC because of his eccentric outfit. To impersonate Angeli, Hermes Ferrari got himself a furry hat with horns and painted his face with the Italian flag. He wanted to attract attention, and he sure did. He ended up on TV news and in newspapers. And in the following days, he was also invited to TV talk shows, where he showed up wearing the same outfit.

Yet, Ferrari was not the first to copy the American conspiracy theorist’s outfit. Since January, shaman costumes have become a kind of symbol of protest, and other shamans have been seen in public demonstrations. The first was spotted in Moscow during the pro-Navalny protests, a few weeks after the Capitol riots, wearing not just a headdress but what looked like a full-fledged “Jake Angeli costume,” complete with sleeves with fake tattoos. During the same week that Ferrari put on his show in Piazza della Repubblica in Rome, another shaman was also reported to be attending an anti-vax event in Brussels.

Probably all of these cases started out, at least at first, as playful attempts to get attention by appropriating what had become, for all intents and purposes, a meme. But it’s not a neutral meme—somewhat like the use of Pepe the Frog in the West is now automatically linked to the alt-right, the shaman costume is linked to the Trump-led riot. Jake Angeli’s original costume made sense; it was an expression of a tribal ritual contrasting modernity, identified as the QAnon conspiracy theory dominated by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. However, the costumes of his imitators take on another meaning: shamans are becoming the costume of the revolt of the downgraded middle class, the symbol of the uprising staged by Trumpism that more or less all the West observed with interest.

The spread of this costume speaks volumes about the times we live in. According to a recent report by the American think tank CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies), we have entered an age of protest. They are becoming increasingly large and widespread and becoming a major factor in the production of the culture we are a part of. The age of protests is the playing field of costumes such as that of the QAnon Shaman. If we were not living in a context of global protests, it would have stopped with Jake Angeli and not become an outfit that can be worn by others and be transposed and adapted to other contexts.

But it’s not just the shaman. Many other cultural icons have recently gone through such a process, which is not limited to the visual realm and memes. The global success of the Netflix series Money Heist took the Dali mask worn by its characters along a path similar to that already taken in the ’00s by the mask of V for Vendetta, making it the faceless face of the masses protesting against authorities. Bella Ciao, in itself a song linked to political struggle and that precisely because of this antagonistic attitude plays a major role in the soundtrack of the series, has been transformed by the global success of the series into something else: it is still a protest song, but those who sing it no longer think (only) of the partisans of the Italian resistance movement; they think (also) of the characters of the TV series. And this is how Bella Ciao made its way to Iraq, where it became a very tacky protest music video with souped-up cars and outfits taken from Money Heist, and to Colombia, where it became Duque Chao, a song calling for the resignation of President Ivan Duque.

The leveling of consumption models and the speed of communication enabled by the Internet and social networks make this type of cultural cross-contamination possible, together with the fact that at present the West’s supremacy crisis also implies a crisis of its “monopoly on the right to speak”, of its ability to steer global cultural production and discussion, fostering the rise of voices from elsewhere.

The same process means that the protests of the “age of protests” are taking inspiration from each other and influencing each other, both in terms of the methods and tactics they use to take to the streets and by sharing helpful material with each other. The great Hong Kong protest movement of 2019-2020 was a key turning point in this respect: infographics created in Hong Kong on how to dress at a protest or how to behave during a march were translated and passed around in Belarus, and even used by the police in the US during Black Lives Matter events. Methods to circumvent Internet blocking and facilitate communication and self-representation of protest movements are taking a similar path, as shown by the cases of self-published and home-printed newspapers seen in Iraq and recently in Myanmar.

However, this ease of communication is still often outbound, addressed to a Western audience. Protests try to turn into a show to entertain Westerners, who are perceived as being able to provide crucial support in getting what the protesters are seeking. This is why we see signs in English—even in countries where English is not spoken—created specifically to be photographed or signs with memes made with the aim of going viral on the Internet. If, on the one hand, this helps overcome language barriers and attracts international attention, on the other hand, it risks driving protest movements towards an attitude of passive waiting.

Not always, however. Sometimes there are cases in which this process, although initially it is influenced from the outside and even if it maintains an entertainment aspect, remains fundamentally local and inward-directed. This is what happened with Baby Shark, a children’s song featuring a little dance about a family of sharks, which by chance became the anthem of the 2019 protests in Lebanon and spread from there, being sung in Iraqi streets on several occasions. In this case, the movement created a meme, but it did so to speak first of all to itself, not for an outbound communicative purpose: the song and the dance become part of the actions in the streets spontaneously and unconsciously—proof of this is the fact that apart from the first case, the videos of Baby Shark sung in the streets are of terrible quality. The outside eye that is usually always present is missing here.

The cross-contamination of protest movements is not a new trend but rather an inherent part of how they work and how they spread by contagion, from one country to another, the only necessary condition being latent social conflict. At the same time, however, if we have indeed stepped into an era in which the increase in large protest events is exponential, it is because the world has become smaller. The greatest contradiction that anti-systemic movements have historically faced is that between the size of the system and the extent of their actions, well expressed by the concise slogan “think global, act local”. This contraposition is certainly still there, but the ease of dissemination of social imaginary is showing that we have reached a turning point and that a “global culture of protest” is in the making.