The world’s largest ever exhibition on street artist Shepard Fairey, better known as OBEY, opens its doors today in France, at Lyon’s Musée Guimet.
The pioneering American author of the famous Obama Hope poster and one of the greatest figures in the world of street art is exhibiting stickers, posters, paintings, skateboards, films and objects representing over 40 years of work in his '1001 Reasons To (Dis)OBEY: The Art of Shepard Fairey'.
The art centre Spacejunk, in partnership with the city of Lyon, is organising this immersive exhibition in the former museum of Natural History inaugurated in 1879 by French statesman and philosopher Jules Ferry. The exhibition also places a great deal of emphasis on cultural mediation, with many lectures and visits for the public, including schoolchildren.
Speaking to the French newspaper Le Figaro, curator Jérôme Catz stated that "seeing street art (at the Musée Guimet) says that this museum is not a place stuck in a particular aesthetic - it can accommodate any type of art.”
"A committed artist par excellence, (Fairey’s) work explores the themes of justice, minority rights, ecology and the power of lobbies. He also highlights personalities from the world of music, skateboarding and art in general", Spacejunk underlines.
Among Shepard Fairey’s most striking works are the iconic ‘Hope’ portrait of Barack Obama created during the 2008 presidential campaign and the Marianne piece with the motto of the French Republic "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité".
"I did it as a mark of support for France after the attacks of November 13. "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" was made more for the French people than for any politician, so I hope that it embodies this idea, that it is a symbol to do good for everyone, all citizens".
Since 2017, the image has been hanging in the presidential office of French President Emmanuel Macron, who even met with the artist in 2019.
Who is Shepard Fairey?
Before becoming a key player on the international scene, Shepard Fairey started to be interested in art and punk rock as a teen skateboarder. Born in 1970 in Charleston, South Carolina, he began to customize and silk-screen T-shirts and skateboards in the mid-80s for his friends.
In 1992, he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and pursued his interest in artists such as Andy Warhol, Alexander Rodtchenko and Barbara Kruger, as well as being inspired by hip hop aesthetics and communist propaganda – hence his affinity for his signature use of the colour red.
His career took off when he decided to create stencils and stickers of French wrestler and actor André Roussimoff, aka: André The Giant. He found an advertisement in the newspaper with Roussimoff’s face and created the phrase “André The Giant has a Posse”. This later became his first campaign: "Obey Giant" in 1998. These stickers spread like wildfire in the US and ended up being displayed all over the world.
Unlike Banksy, Fairey did not hide his identity. He did, however, decide to go under the pseudonym OBEY, which is a reference to John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, whose political commentary derives from then-US President Ronald Reagan's economic policies (also known as Reaganomics) and what Carpenter viewed as increasing commercialization in both the popular culture and politics of the era.
According to Fairey, OBEY addresses the themes of obedience and submission in our societies: "People submit, conform and do not question the tacit rules of society. When they are told to obey, they are obliged to think about what they are willing to submit to. It is therefore a way to encourage people to think more and analyze things".
This streak runs throughout Fairey’s work, as he gives a political dimension to his art and his works often highlight the dysfunctions of our society.
"I call my art propaganda because I believe that any art that defends specific objectives contains elements of propaganda,” commented Fairey. “There is a difference between propaganda in the sinister sense of the word, which wants to have the last word in a conversation, and art that aims to open a conversation".
In 2008, the artist created Hope, Barack Obama's campaign poster.
Once elected, the President of the United States thanked him: "I want to thank you for using your talent to serve my campaign. Your political messages encouraged Americans to believe that they could change the status quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a billboard".
He was however sued for copyright infringement by Mannie Garcia, the photographer who took the original (John F. Kennedy-reminiscent) picture Fairey used. Nevertheless, Fairey’s poster became one of the most widely recognized images from the Obama campaign.
Over the years, Fairey has explored many different themes through his works, including ecology, and militant values, always to insight change and question authority. He has never turned his back on the commercial dimension of his work and has embraced this facet in various ways, even designing clothing and album covers for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Billy Idol, The Smashing Pumpkins, Flogging Molly, The Black Eyed Peas and Stone Temple Pilots.
1001 Reasons To (Dis)OBEY: The Art of Shepard Fairey runs from 8 March to 9 July 2023 at the Musée Guimet in Lyon, France.