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Art and Activism – How Activists Use Art to Communicate.

Joan Amanwi February 07 2024

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Art and activism can be a powerful marriage when used successfully. Here are a few ways activists use art to communicate.

There are varied definitions of activism, but at its core, activism involves different actions born from the desire to influence social, political, economic, or environmental status quo for a perceived greater good. Forms of activism include rallies, strikes, boycotts, petitioning, creating art, computer hacking, etc. Despite the need to affect change, most forms of activism hardly get the desired results. Strikes and boycotts in particular sometimes go overboard and push activists further from their goal. Emily Wilcox, in her thesis An Investigation of the Intersection between Art and Activism, notes that an art-based approach to activism is “a positive alternative because it stimulates empathy… necessary to achieve social and environmental justice.”

The fact that art is a peaceful alternative for activists doesn’t mean it is always permitted. Throughout history, artists have been threatened, arrested, and killed for creating art pieces that contradict the narratives of those in power. As such, censorship around freedom of expression – including artistic expression – limits activists’ ability to connect with like minds and seek change. Governments sometimes fear art’s ability to carry a narrative that differs from their own and influence the masses, which proves that when used strategically, art is a powerful tool for activism. Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert – founders of the Center for Artistic Activism – believe that activism moves the material world and creates Effect; while art appeals to our emotions and “generates Affect.” As such, the art community is important for advocacy and combining art with any form of activism can yield desirable outcomes.

Activists finance the creation of artworks around a specific event or protest for documentation and to share with people around the globe. Creating art for activism is a difficult task; it requires that aspects of reality and abstraction be present and appealing to viewers. If the art depicts just what society desires, it becomes boring, but, if it is too out of touch with society’s views, it might seem unrelatable. Art thus needs to strike the right balance between relatability and abstraction to maintain its impact and effect change. Activists use art to communicate in different ways including creating artworks of live protests or social events, creating artworks around specific political or socio-economic issues, or creating specific artworks for activists. Below are a few examples of artistic creations used by activists.

The internet contains a plethora of photographs, illustrations, and paintings of activists’ activities from around the world. By capturing these protests, activists expand their reach beyond their immediate environment. Below is a protest image by Nan Goldin & P.A.I.N. from 2019, titled ‘Die In at the V&A’,.The aim of this protest was to prevent the organizations from accepting donations and sponsorship from the creators of the addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin.

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Die In at the V&A

Artists sometimes decide to create works of art around social and or political issues that intrigue or affect them. Alabi Mayowa, among other members of the art community in Nigeria, used his digital illustration skills to send a message about Nigeria’s 2019 END SARS movement; its main aim was to fight against police brutality.

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Alabi Mayowa

Activism sometimes requires the use of flags, posters, paintings, wall murals and other artistic creations. In some cases, artists may produce these materials for activists when requested, or as a personal gift to the cause. Below is an artwork of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement known as the “M” and “A” in Harlem, by Thomas Heath. You can find more photographs on BLM in this article by the New York Times.

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“M” and “A” by Thomas Heath

There are thousands of protest artworks from around the world available on the art in protest website. Feel free to go through and share your thoughts in the comment section.

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