When we think of modern-day protest, often our first visual cues are the large, bold, creative and arresting signs and placards that poke through seas of people and often go viral on social media. The visuals of the protest has become an art in and of itself, and nobody understands that better than South London-based graphic designer Kemba Earle. “I’ve been interested in activism and speaking out about important social issues from a young age,” Kemba tells It’s Nice That. Kemba’s graphic design skill is vast and incredibly accomplished, and focuses largely on posters that speak to protest and activism in explicit terms. “I started creating posters and sharing them on social media during the Black Lives Matter movement and was initially inspired by images I saw of home-made protest signs,” she explains. “I decided I wanted to use my Instagram as a platform for activism and starting important conversations about inequalities.”
Drawing on a spread of eclectic inspirations – such as their own life experiences, current news and famed art provocateurs the Guerrilla Girls – Kemba is always looking for ways to unpack and denaturalise ingrained norms and values within society. “The world around us is constantly changing and I like to explore the impact of this change,” she says. It’s specifically the Guerrilla Girls’ “disruptive and direct approach to activism” that we see pulse through Kemba’s own work, as she uses “statistics and hard-hitting slogans to challenge racism, sexism and corruption.”
The bold, solid sans serif type of protest signs, of course, is also prevalent throughout. “I want my posters to imitate the style of newspaper headlines and protest signs which are deliberately attention-grabbing and create a bold statement,” Kemba explains. “There’s something powerful about big lettering that adds to the disruptive theme of my work.” Direct wording from real protests is often incorporated into Kemba’s work, followed by associations to the said words that Kemba can “translate visually using colour, texture, layout and imagery to communicate the meaning behind the words”. The raw, unique style of traditional printmaking methods (such as screen printing) are what usually call Kemba to the drawing board. “During lockdown I didn’t have access to a screen printing studio, so I decided to replicate the effects digitally and this has become a part of my signature style,” she adds.
When asked about graphic design as activism, Kemba simply refers to a striking remark by artist Ai Weiwei: “If anything, art is... about morals, about our belief in humanity. Without that, there simply is no art.” For Kemba, using creativity in protest “blurs the lines between art and politics”, and allows her to engage with the emotions of her audience. “Art has the potential to make complicated issues more understandable and allows people to connect with the issue on a personal level,” she says. “Graphic design plays a big role in protest and spreading the message of a movement, especially when using typography. Activism is all about dialogue – from speeches to campaigns to public demonstrations – and words can be bold, impactful and thought-provoking.”
Kemba Earle: Forgotten (Copyright © Kemba Earle, 2023)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.