Part 22 of Joy and Tranquillity digital guide

George Vasey describes the ‘Smiley Face Protest’

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This black-and-white photograph depicts around 50 people in a field, holding hands to form the image of a smiley face. People are wearing flares and duffle coats, which dates the image. The photograph was taken in the winter of 1971. They are students at the University of Maryland in the US, protesting against the Vietnam War, posing for a photographer from the college magazine.

People are standing in a large circle on the outside of the image, enclosing a smaller line of figures suggesting an upturned mouth. Above that are two small groups huddled together, forming two eyes.

The photograph is taken from a slightly elevated position, and everybody is looking at the camera and smiling. The students decided to form the image of a smiley face, which had become an increasingly popular icon at the time. The photographer has said that they did this gesture in response to clashes between police and protestors on campus, and wanted to create a positive and cheerful image.

From Extinction Rebellion to acid house, protest movements and youth groups have often used the image of the smiley face. The icon has become known for its countercultural associations, suggesting that the act of protest and making change is a way of expanding what happiness is and who gets to experience it.

About the speaker

Photograph of George Vasey

George Vasey

(he/him)

George Vasey is a curator currently working on projects with Wellcome Collection and Leeds Art Gallery. He has curated exhibitions and projects in public, academic and commercial contexts. He has previously worked as a curator at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland and as a curatorial fellow at Newcastle University. In 2017 he co-curated the Turner Prize. His writing has been published in Art Monthly, Art Review, Burlington Contemporary, Frieze and Mousse, as well as numerous artists’ catalogues and books. He regularly teaches and has mentored artists, writers and curators for various organisations.