In 1970, ten billboards went up across Oakland and Berkeley. The artist Cleveland Bellow never explicitly stated the meaning of the billboards. He is, however, quoted describing his work:
“Some have labeled my particular style as social protest, but I beg to differ. If I would label my work at all, it would be called social reality.” —Cleveland Bellow
1970 was a turbulent year in which race and identity were central issues in society, much as they continue to be today. These ten billboards, sponsored by the Oakland Museum and the Foster-Kleiser Billboard Company, offered the artist an opportunity to depict this social reality on a public scale like never before. So, specifically, what do these billboards say?
Bellow doesn’t give you an obvious answer to this question. The boy in his work stands with his hands raised above his head, but it’s unclear whether he is raising his hands voluntarily or by command. His facial expression is also unclear: Is he smiling in laughter? Grimacing in pain? Who is he looking at? No title or text explains the image.
It’s clear that Bellow left this artwork open to interpretation; some may see a portrait of a happy young Black boy, while others may find different personal meanings in the work. Although we can’t be certain of Bellow’s intention, there are some contemporary visual connections in his work that are hard to ignore.
“Hands up, don’t shoot.”
The phrase became a slogan at protests after the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Contemporary viewers may draw a connection between this tragic event and the billboard figure’s raised hands, as it speaks to the long history of violence by police toward communities of color, especially against young Black men.
This is an issue that Oakland residents and the entire Bay Area knew all too well. In 1966, a San Francisco police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Matthew Johnson as he was running away, prompting the Hunter’s Point Rebellion. In the same year, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was organized to protect communities of color from police brutality. Black neighborhoods in Oakland, where many of these billboards were installed, were frequent targets of this violence.
How does this historical context add potential meaning to the social reality Bellow portrayed?
Were these billboards a coded message about police violence and racial injustice or does this work hold a different meaning?
Although the ambiguity of Bellow‘s billboards makes it impossible to be sure of their meaning, it’s this very ambiguity that gives these billboards their power. It raises questions for viewers, allowing them to find their own interpretation. What does Bellow’s work mean to you?
The original sketch for Bellow’s billboard hangs with other thought-provoking works of art in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983 which ran at the de Young museum from November 2019 through March 2020. The exhibition features works by artists who were on the front lines of creating social and political change, altering both the course of history—and the canon of art history—for decades to come.