In a world that often feels plastered top to bottom with advertising images selling products and services, the idea of a poster advocating for social justice can feel positively quaint. And yet there are artists and activists who spend their careers creating powerful images that will sell an idea or a cause as aggressively as Madison Avenue will sell a brand of deodorant or a new car.
The Bulgarian-born and New York-based artist Luba Lukova is one of those artists, whose career creating political and social-issue messages is documented in the 60 works featured in the Museum of Design Atlanta exhibition “Luba Lukova: Designing Justice.”
Lukova has created posters for a variety of causes, from the micro (Greek resentment of the recent influx of immigrants to the country) to the macro (world peace, abortion rights and critiques of genetic modification). She has designed posters for experimental theater companies La MaMa and the Living Theatre and to accompany a Hillary Clinton op-ed in The New York Times.
The images themselves have a minimalist and mildly surreal cast that can feel very familiar from Eastern European film and art of the 1960s, unsurprising considering Lukova’s Bulgarian origins. Lukova cross-pollinates her native aesthetics and experience growing up in the propaganda-saturated Communist bloc with a debt to Picasso and German expressionism that often aligns her with other politically minded activist-artists like the animal rights advocate Sue Coe.
In fact, Lukova’s work has a political urgency in general that can feel like a throwback to a time when social issues were conveyed with great immediacy and impact in television ads, political buttons and yes, poster art. Such small-scale, passionate messages now seem almost lost in the braying, relentless din of competing political messages. Lukova’s pared-back color palette and graphic simplicity also feel reminiscent of stencil-based street art, which works by similar means, to grab attention quickly and stop you in your tracks with easily digestible graphics and a strong message. Many of the works feature just one or two colors and black-and-white graphics so there is very little to interfere with the poster’s political thrust.
Lukova doesn’t always hit her mark: The image “Sudan” of a starving Sudanese man whose mouth opens to reveal a food nutrition label makes a juxtaposition of hunger and Western dieting and food restriction, but that parallel feels false and unfair. Other works have a startling potency despite their simplicity like “Income Gap,” in which a multitude of forks stab a tiny sliver of pie while the bulk of the pie is speared by just one fork in a graphic representation of income inequality.
Some of the images have a wry, caustic bite like “Fun in the Sun,” part of Lukova’s “gender inequality triptych,” in which a woman completely shrouded in a burqa and her male companion in a revealing swimsuit experience two very different visions of “fun.”
Depending upon your point of view, Lukova’s messages can feel didactic or appropriately furious for their purity of purpose and commitment to examining social issues many of us would rather not contemplate.