Artivism: The Artists and Artwork Fighting for Social Change
A combination of art and activism, or artistic activism, artivism is the use of creative and artistic methods of expression to denounce, cultivate awareness, and motivate change in society.
The objective of these artworks, whether in the form of paintings, murals, videos or performances, is to advocate for tangible change, at times in a physical form, other times in the mind of the viewer, to ultimately discuss issues of social justice and injustice.
Much like protestors in a demonstration, these artists use their art as a means of communication, which today can reach millions at the touch of a button.
The use of art to protest and raise voices is a non-violent method, aimed at promoting open dialogue.
George Floyd protest, Minneapolis, June 2020. Credit: Renoir Gaither/Wikimedia Commons
PROTESTS IN SUPPORT OF UKRAINE AND IRAN
A recent example of artivism is the unveiling of twelve long red banners at the Guggenheim Museum in New York staged by the Anonymous Artist Collective for Iran in October 2022.
Each banner depicted a black stencil of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died in custody after being detained by the morality police in September.
The banners read: “Zan zendegi azadi! Woman, life, freedom!”
The protests in Iran are continuing to grow. While some women have rebelled against the law by taking off their veils and showing their hair, others cut their hair in protest.
Women the world over have spoken up in an act of solidarity too.
As of writing, 300 people have been killed during the protests and over 14,000 arrested.
A statement by the Anonymous Artist Collective pointed out: “This homage is a call for action to support the current revolution in Iran, led by brave Iranian women risking their lives to stand up against oppression to overthrow a long-time authoritarian regime”.
The happening at the Guggenheim brings the focus back to the protests and back to the women in Iran.
In another instance back in March, 350 paper airplanes were thrown into the Guggenheim atrium by a group of New York artists calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
The text on the airplanes read: “Protect the sky over Ukraine. Full embargo on Russia. Boycott Russian influence in cultural and political institutions.”
ORIGIN OF THE ARTIVISM TERM AND ITS MEDIUMS
The portmanteau “artivism” was first coined in 1997 in reference to the gathering of Chicano artists and the Zapatistas in Mexico.
The Chicano art movement focused on the work of Mexican-American artists who aimed to establish a strong artistic identity, influenced by the Chicano Movement in the 1960s.
Their work manifested in both political and aesthetic forms, affronting themes of cultural and social issues and aiming to resist and challenge social norms and damaging stereotypes.
From murals to commercial paintings, from video art to messages written on quilts or on placards for a demonstration, political art can take many forms.
In response to the Black Lives Movement, murals and street art appeared, again as a method of reaching more people, not only those who have access to the arts or cultural events.
The Red Rebel Brigade is a group of performers dressed in bright red and painted faces, who fight for the planet’s rights, aiming to spread awareness of the imminent climate crisis, and ask for action from citizens and governments.
Through the organisation of exhibitions, performances, and events as a means of protesting, raising awareness, and instigating a discussion regarding the topic an open dialogue can begin.
These events not only bring in the general public and reach a wider audience but also act as a way to fundraise and contribute towards practical actions such as legal support or alleviating costs.
The Red Rebel Brigade, 2020. Credit: Stefan Müller/Wikimedia Commons
THE POLITICAL POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Thanks to the globalisation and continued growth of social media platforms, political happenings, artworks, and acts of protest can be photographed and shared internationally through various social media platforms in a matter of seconds, reaching millions of internet users, let alone if the art should be shared in a daily newspaper or via other sources.
A discussion surrounding the topic can take place online, inviting varying opinions to meet, debate, and hopefully come to a conclusion.
Art can have an immediate impact from the imagery, the text, and even the choice of colour.
ARTISTS THAT ARE ALSO ARTIVISTS
Some of the most prominent artivists have managed to shine a spotlight on issues that matter through their works.
Making good use of creativity, they have pushed the boundaries of art – while at the same time, create awareness and call for change.
Tania Bruguera (born 1968) is a Cuban visual artist whose work centres on power and control, and their abuse by authoritative figures, such as the government, and politicians.
Bruguera presents installations and performances, which by directly confronting Cuban history and contemporary issues, have landed the artist in jail on several occasions.
Examining how power structures exist, the artist puts into question the use of borders and consequently the migrants who defy these confines.
In 2018, Bruguera occupied the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with a series of interventions, which called for the public to participate.
The work’s title was 10,148,451; a number which continued to change as it referenced “the number of people who migrated from one country to another last year added to the number of migrant deaths recorded so far this year – to indicate the sheer scale of mass migration and the risks involved”.
Love is in the Air (Flower Thrower) by Banksy, 2003. Credit: ZaBanker/Wikimedia Commons
The anonymous street artist Banksy (born 1974) often confronts themes of migration, borders, capitalistic greed, and extortion as well as others within his stencil works, examples of which have been found in various countries and on both public and private properties.
Banksy is known to make use of humour and the appropriation of well-known imagery, such as logos or characters, leading to photographs of his work reaching a wide audience.
Everyone knows the work of Banksy, but his identity remains unclear. Again the choice to remain anonymous not only is in keeping with the fact that his work is often technically illegal as it is done on property that is not his to paint but also demonstrates an act against the commercialisation and fame of the art world.
One piece can be found on a house in Palestine with the image of a protester about to throw a bouquet of flowers, instilling a message of peaceful and non-violent protest.
Segregation by Pyotr Pavlensky, 2014. Credit: Missoksana/Wikimedia Commons
The intersection of art and activism can at times manifest in extreme acts, as shown by the works of Pyotr Pavlensky (born 1984).
The Russian contemporary artist involves self-mutilation and acts of vandalism within his artwork, calling on governments and society to awaken from their numb slumber and react to the injustices of the capitalistic economic system; Pavlensky’s acts have landed him in jail on several occasions, where he sees art, the judicial system sees a crime.
Among his noteworthy performances, in 2014’s Segregation, Pavlensky climbed onto the roof of a psychiatric unit in Moscow, proceeding to cut off his own ear lobe in protest of the political abuse of psychiatry.
Titled Seam, the artist decided to sew his lips shut in 2012 after being arrested by Russian police when he was protesting the detainment of Pussy Riot members.
Cover Credit: Dylan Shaw/Unsplash
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She has written for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Wales radio. @glesniw