Above all, it's iconic: bright glowing colors, sweeping lines. The face of Aung San Suu Kyi stares warmly out at you in the latest image by urban artist Shepard Fairey.
It's possessed of the same inspiring character and visual catchiness as much of the artist’s work, including the Obama poster, which still can be seen on t-shirts and walls more than a year after the election. Also like its predecessor, Fairey hopes this image will live not just on the paper it was printed on, but also in the hearts and minds of the audience he hopes to inspire with it.
" I only make art for the reasons I want to make art," says Fairey, " I love making pictures, the cathartic feeling of it. But I also want to share a point of view. This will raise attention and, hopefully, some money."
Burma came to the artist's attention in September '07 when the Burmese government's violent reaction to protests by Buddhist monks made news. Fairey would later respond by making an image of a Burmese monk as a symbol of non-violent resistance. However, the scale of his involvement with the cause grew when Jack Healy, former director of Amnesty International and well-known human rights activist reached out to him.
"He'd seen the work I did to bring attention to Darfur, and said that human rights issues in Burma are just about as severe as in Darfur, but the media is shut out and there's no US foreign policy tie in to force the issue,” Fairey recalls.
So Fairey began researching Aung San Suu Kyi’s life and became inspired by her.
Since a military coup d'etat took place in Burma in 1962, the government has been accused of a series of human rights violations. They are accused of destroying villages, and terrorizing their own people. In 1996 a decree was issued that promised up to 20 years in prison for anyone who opposed government policies. Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the League for Democracy, won 82 percent of the vote in the 1990 election, which would have meant that she would take the role of Prime Minister. The government responded by ignoring the results and placing her under house arrest, where she has remained for more than a decade. A fearless advocate for change, she won the Nobel Peace Price in 1992, and continues to be a rallying point for reform in Burma. In Fairey's words: "A perfect symbol."
"The more I read about her, the more impressed I was,” he says. It was almost inevitable that Fairey would use his art to raise awareness about the plight of Aung San Su Kyi and Burma. "To me, this is an extension of participating in democracy,” he continues. “We do live in a consumer culture, and icons can be very powerful in catching peoples attention and creating memes.”
The final product, a bright icon with the words "Freedom to Lead" across the top and a dove motif under Aung San Suu Kyi's hopeful face, was hand-illustrated based on a photo. "I changed a few things from the photo: I added a Burmese motif on the collar, and I changed the flowers in her hair, which she usually has in her appearances. It's sort of a 'best of Aung San Suu Kyi's Flowers' now," Fairey jokes.
The illustration was then scanned, with color infused digitally, and printed. The print has been given to the US Campaign for Burma and the Human Rights Action Campaign Center to use however they want, according to Fairey. A casual glance at the Web sites for both campaigns show the image printed on T-shirts and offered in poster form to donors. It's also plastered prominently over Causecast.org, a social network site that works to connect people with ways to advance causes they believe in.
Since a physical print of the image may be difficult to deliver to a place like Burma, Fairey also provided a digital copy of the image in the hopes that it would circulate more freely. Not one to do things half way, he's also incorporated the image into other work, such as wall murals in New York and Miami.
"Art that has any point of view gets seen as propaganda, and that has negative connotations," says Fairey, referencing the political bend of his recent work. "I think that's a shame, because it's possible to make art with opinions for very noble reasons. The level of discomfort people have with this is unfortunate, because it means that the people who are going to do the more sinister sort of propaganda will do it because they have no reservations, and the people that could do more positive work to counteract that don't do it."
He compares the participation aspect of creating opinionated art with blogging, but to a greater degree, saying that, “I don't want to minimize the power of writing, but I think images function in a visceral way. I think they have the potential to get past people's intellectual defenses against arguments, the filters of opinions they carry around.”
While Fairey's recent Obama poster brought him into the public eye, he's no stranger to using his art to support causes he believes in. However the love of pop culture that distinguishes his viral art projects and some of his less mainstream work is undiminished, and he speaks of designing the poster for this year’s Grammy Awards with the same enthusiasm as an image for a clean energy campaign.
Summing up his merger of pop culture and politics, Fairey says that, "these days a lot of people have stressful lives. It's not natural for them to want to turn on the news and here more bad news. But if you can work that into pop culture, create something that gives people pleasure but also raises awareness? I think there's a lot of value in that."