POLITICAL PROTEST AND CONFLICT can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. Defacement of commonplace items is one of these. It forms the basis of a temporary exhibition, “Defaced!”, being held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) until the 8th of January 2023.
Many of the exhibits on display are banknotes that have been defaced or altered in design to express a political message or protest. One example of this is a five-dollar US banknote with the words “All Lives Can’t Matter until Black Lives Matter” embossed on its portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Another is a five hundred Indian rupee note with a coloured picture of an endangered rare bird printed over it. Yet another banknote is designed to look like a British £20 note at first sight, but it soon becomes apparent that it is not what it seems: it has been modified to include a portrait of ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the words “The ruling class. We own you.” It also includes the words “We were born to lead, you were born to follow.” Other banknotes have been redesigned so that they appear to be valueless: e.g. zero Japanese Yen and zero US Dollars. The diversity of altered banknotes and parodies of actual banknotes on display is staggering.
Occasionally banknotes lose their value during periods of hyperinflation. The exhibition includes several examples of objects, such as wallets, made using trashed valueless notes. Particularly striking is a life-size sculpture of a hand grenade made using shredded PRC ten Yuan banknotes.
There are also many coins on show. They have all been altered to express protest and/or political sentiments. One dramatic example of this is a coin issued in France during the reign of Napoleon III. This was altered by carefully cutting around and removing the portrait of Napoleon III from the coin, leaving the rest of the coin intact. There are several coins and medals on display that depict political events such as the American Revolution and the Peterloo Massacre. A few coins relate to the unrest in Northern Ireland. One of them is a 1970 Republic of Ireland fifty pence coin with the words “Ulster is British” stamped on it.
The show at the Fitzwilliam does not confine itself to the defacement and parody of currency for political and protest purposes. It also includes currency either modified or specially created for special purposes. Simple examples of these are overprinting of low value notes during hyperinflation and modification of currency for use by the military or in POW camps. There are also coins, notes, and certificates created for specific purposes, for example for use in the Siege of Mafeking and for use by Boer prisoners imprisoned by the British in India.
Although most of the exhibits are related to currency (coins and notes), one room is dedicated to a spectacular sculptural exhibit, an installation called “Big Bang 2. Debt in transit”. A video is projected onto a wall. It shows a Ford Transit van being blown up by explosives. As it flies into pieces, bits of paper all marked with the word ‘debt’ float down like snowflakes. The film is projected in a room in which the fragments of the van are suspended from the ceiling so that the viewer appears to be seeing a still from the video but in three dimensions. The installation, which is a protest on the exorbitant interest on payday loans, makes a very powerful visual impact. (SEE my video of this posted on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7MgdDTfBivw)