Many of Bowers’ earliest work feature staunchly feminist subjects and highlight the role of women in contemporary society and culture. Her 2012 exhibition “Help the Work Along” returns to the genre of feminist-centric issues that focus on the rights of female workers, and discusses the relationships between feminism, immigration, and workers’ rights– all political subjects Bowers frequently considers. Overall, the exhibit celebrates “workers’ rights movements, highlighting nonhierarchical labor organizing strategies and the use of craft, artistry, and pageantry as valuable political tools.” Through a juxtaposition of workers’ rights images and graphics from the early 20th century with contemporary political posters and campaigns, Bowers compels her audience to evaluate the notion of “emancipatory progress.” Suffering and exploitation of workers is not a historic event relegated to the past; it continues to happen on a daily basis in our own cities.
The three focal pieces from the exhibition portray revive early 1900s political graphics that feature prominent representations of women: a May Day illustration by Walter Crane published on the cover of “The Comrade”, c. 1902; the cover of the sheet music for “Internationale”, a song written in 1872 that became the anthem for radical movements throughout the world; and the cover of Emma Goldman’s journal Mother Earth, the 1908 volume titled “A Menace to Liberty”. Each of the pieces was made using old cardboard and sharpies, thus connecting an archaic, cheap material with the new.
In addition to these centerpieces, the exhibit also displays various drawings and videos. As with the drawings from The Political Landscape, these drawings portray the individuals participating in the political sphere; in this case, the women holding protest signs suggest the underlying relationship between gender, ethnicity, and class.
Furthermore, other drawings blatantly promote the Dream Act movement and were intended to serve as political graphics for the campaign. Again reflecting on the relationship between art and activism, Bowers directly relates her art to its use as a political tool that can not only educate, but also empower social change. Two videos in the exhibition also focus on banners and signage Bowers’ documented at recent political marches: Occupy the Rosebowl Parade, and an “Immigrantes Unidos” banner at the 2011 Los Angeles May Day March.
Finally, a large and somewhat intimidating, yet interactive sculpture also runs through the entire installation. The piece replicates the activist activity of tabling, a method of reaching a large number of people by setting up an information table in a busy area or at an event. In the exhibition, tables line end-to-end and contain fliers and brochures collected from Los Angeles-based workers’ rights organizations, which may be taken and read by all visitors.
The sculpture also begins to archive the vast and often hidden amount of local workers support groups, revealing the scarce resources available to those working on issues of such vital importance. One of each of the brochures, fliers, and pamphlets is bound together in a hand-made book. Activating the sculpture, a series of flyer making parties took place throughout the exhibition, organized by the newly formed Art Union. The organization also held social events where artists, labor organizers, and the community could meet and exchange skills related to graphic design, public performances, and other ways to use aesthetics as a tool for organizing.
Ultimately, the exhibition further demonstrated the degree of political activism reflected in Bowers’ artwork; her art served to educate the community on a scale that exceeded portraying her beliefs and informing an audience through the aesthetic. Visitors were exposed to the political not only through the artwork, but also through direct information and activist activities. Bowers does not want her audience to stop at be exposed to and understanding the issue, but rather wants to motivate their participation as well.
Images from the entire exhibition: Susan Vielmetter Gallery