A Brief History of the Power of Angela Davis Posters

On August 18, 1970, Angela Yvonne Davis’s name was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for kidnapping, murder, and interstate flight. Being hunted by J. Edgar Hoover for a crime she clearly did not commit made Davis instantly as famous or infamous, depending on your point of view, as revolutionaries such as Che and Mao.

Almost from day one, posters were the way the world connected with Angela Davis. During the two months she was on the run, head shops did a brisk business selling reprints of the “Wanted” poster that graced the walls of post offices across the United States; by some accounts, Angela’s “Wanted” poster, with its appeal to call the FBI director personally at National 8-7117, was a better seller than hash pipes.

After she was apprehended on October 13, 1970, Davis’s release from prison became a cause célèbre.

On the local level, hundreds of committees in the U.S. and abroad agitated for her freedom. These grassroots groups expressed their support via countless posters and flyers. Crowned by a halo of hair, Angela, as the world soon came to know her, was frequently depicted holding a microphone, her unflinching, clear-eyed features speaking truth to power.

Angela Davis, with a large afro, holding a mic on a poster

Prior to her arrest, Davis had been an articulate advocate for what she called “the cause of freedom… the cause of my people,” and all those who were racially and economically oppressed. But it was Davis’s oppression (first she was fired from her position at UCLA for exercising her First Amendment rights, then she was denied bail for almost a year and a half when charged with a crime whose actual perpetrators were either in prison or dead) that made her a powerful voice of the protest movement, a symbol of social justice, and the face of political prisoners everywhere.

Posters of Davis were the key way supporters spread her message in that pre-Internet era. “Because of her giant ‘Fro and her role in the Communist and Black Panther parties, Angela Davis was a role model for a lot of different people, so it wasn’t a total surprise that her imagery became pretty dominant,” says author and archivist Lincoln Cushing, who has curated several exhibitions about political art, including “All of Us or None” at the Oakland Museum of California in 2012.

Many people, even those from subsequent generations, empathized with that human side of Angela Davis, but for some, the meaning of Angela could be even more personal. “I never saw Angela as an icon,” says poster collector and fellow archivist Lisbet Tellefsen, who has known Davis socially since about 1980 and who, according to Cushing, may have the largest collection of Angela imagery in the United States. “I saw her as a righteous woman, a sister, an elder who didn’t crack. A lot of the older folks I grew up around were disillusioned and broken. But Angela just stayed true to her beliefs, lived her beliefs. It was really powerful to have a model like that.”

Tellefsen’s light-filled studio fairly brims with images of Angela, which stare back at you on everything from protest art to newspaper clippings, all of which are obsessively organized. Tellefsen has so many posters of Angela Davis, she gives them their own informal classifications. For example, there are examples in which Angela appears almost angelic, what Tellefsen calls the “black is beautiful” posters. “They were produced by the black community, for the black community,” she says. “It was really about the promotion of her image as a strong black sister.” Her collection includes this poster by David Mosely: 

A drawing of Angela Davis staring straight at the viewer

The international Angelas are some of Tellefsens favorites. “Look at these two,” she says excitedly, pulling out a black-and-white poster printed by the Havana-based Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OSPAAAL), followed by a blue-on-white drawing from a Paris group called the Union des Étudiants Communistes de France. “The Cubans focus on her strength. She’s in chains, but she’s not broken. Here,” she says, pointing to the French, almost Lena Horne-like portrait of Angela, “she’s soft and beautiful.”

Back in 1971, Félix Beltrán was one of Cuba’s leading graphic artists and designers (in the mid-1980s, he moved to Mexico, where he still lives).  According to Beltrán, who says he has never spoken to Angela Davis, the Revolutionary Orientation Department supplied him with several photographs to use as sources for a poster of Angela Davis. The most famous one appears to have been taken from a photo that Tellefsen has identified as the work of F. Joseph Crawford, who snapped an image of Angela at a press conference in New York City on September 9, 1969.

Beltrán gave Crawford’s photograph a stylized look that abstracted the curls in Davis’s hair and some of the shadows on her face and neck.

Simple screenprinted poster of Angela with red and blue background that says in spanish "free angela davis"

Those colors were deliberate, too. “The red color combined with blue,” Beltrán says, was supposed to evoke “the U.S. flag.” Except, fittingly, Beltrán’s Angela flag, as it were, was dominated by black rather than white.

 “The poster was created by me in the beginning of 1971,” says Beltrán, “and is one of he most reinterpreted posters of the end of the 20th century. For me, it is an honor to see it framed in homes as if it was a painting. But I am concerned that this has happened due to the attractiveness of the poster, not its content, which for me is most important.”

More recently, in 2003, Shepard Fairey appropriated F. Joseph Crawford’s photograph, as re-imagined by Félix Beltrán, for a poster called “Angela Rough.” 

Initially issued in a signed-and-numbered edition of 300, plus a metal version in an edition of just two, “Angela Rough” features a black-and-beige version of Beltrán’s Angela behind of grid of mud-red colored lines, like prison bars. According to ExpressoBeans.com, which has tracked 26 sales of “Angela Rough” over the last decade, the average resale price is about $250. Here are two of Fairey’s posters:

Shepard Fairey version of the iconic Angela poster, a sillouhette of Angela with a simple red background

 “I think she feels both proud and shrugs her shoulders at the idea of something that’s taken on a life of its own,” says curator Cushing. “She really did become an icon, which was both a burden and a blessing. But I think she’s proud that her role led to the perpetuation of the movement’s spirit.”


This is an excerpt from a longer article originally published with Collectors Weekly. Read the full version here! Many of the images in this post are from the collection of Lisbet Tellefsen.

Watch a clip from the 2013 documentary about Angela Davis: Free Angela and All Political Prisoners

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