Seeing the Invisible: Art, Activism and Oppression

By Ellie Church, GLOBUS Correspondent

“If anything, art is… about morals, about our belief in humanity. Without that, there simply is no art.”

Ai Weiwei

Described by the Tate group as “art that is grounded in the act of ‘doing’ and addresses political or social issues”, activist art is an important concept in the contemporary world. Understanding and communicating our political and cultural landscapes, activist art can take any form: photography, film, paintings, posters, poetry or stories. By creating surprising openings in the world of activism, it accessibly engages a general public audience; activism art enables creative tactics to be developed and used as a positive force for change. It manages to continually energise individuals and communities, when the force they are fighting is much greater than themselves, and when they are looking into the eyes of situations that make others turn away. This inherently peaceful method is all about creating long term changes in our beliefs and behaviours. Art gives the vision and activism paves the path towards it; the combination of both is one of the most powerful weapons of our time.

Using an art form to communicate a message can be traced back to the parables of the Bible and has had a vast and rich history since then. We only need to look through modern history to see just how important activist art is for speaking out and speaking up. Post-WW1, the Zurich based Dadaists used art to express post war turbulence and its impact on society, creating unapologetic reactions. In 1920’s North America, the Mexican Muralists used traditional painting techniques to advocate for the protection of workers’ rights. Again, in North America, Jacob Lawrence depicted violence and oppression by capturing racial inequality. Alongside these American artists, activist art was popping up across the world, reacting to the AIDS epidemic, South African apartheid, Vietnam War, the Arab Spring, Irish terror, police violence and the Berlin Wall. Perhaps one of the most prominent of recent activist artists is Ai Weiwei, who has become a voice of disobedience, after constantly using his art to expose corruption in China. During an oppressive 20th Century, art gave a voice to those who could not speak: it has been and will continue to be a huge part of the fight against human rights denial and more.

Born in Tabriz, Iranian brothers ICY and SOT have become a present-day voice of this notion. The brothers started their artistic journey through stencils, and quickly ventured into the world of street art. Growing up in a hostile environment with intolerance and censorship, they worked quickly and discretely to complete their work. Offered a solo show in New York in 2012, the brothers emigrated to the USA, continuing to live and work there now.  Constantly experimenting with new mediums and materials, their work is full of beauty and urgency, tackling diverse issues. By speaking out, they risked their lives along with serious jail time, but have found a new freedom-filled life and an engaged audience of followers. Speaking in an interview, they said “the role of an artist is to advocate for the freedom and hope of the general public and to raise awareness about the issues of the time”.

Science and the arts are often considered to be two separate disciplines with little or no interconnectivity; however, to understand the issues of our time, intellectual facts and information is not enough. To fully engage our brain, it is important to utilise arts – the key point being the need to appeal to our imagination. By breaking down the big issues of our time onto a personal level, we engage the emotional side of our brain as well as the intellectual side. Climate change is arguably one of the biggest challenges of our time, and an issue that undoubtedly needs tackling. Climate change, as a global problem, is so huge that it can seem abstract and overwhelming, but by using art we can start to visualise this. In his 2005 article, Bill McKibben asked “We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?” – a question which still holds paramount importance. Ultimately, art demands attention by addressing common and universal values, enabling an important meaningful dialogue and reflection on what issues we face, and the solutions we can create.

One notable organisation working towards this climate change dialogue is Invisible Dust. Founded in 2009 by Alice Sharp, this environmental and arts charity works with leading artists and scientists to encourage both awareness and meaningful responses. Works to date include ‘Human Sensor’, wearable costumes that changed colour with air pollution levels, and ‘Under her Eye’, a collection of talks regarding women and climate change. The organisation has helped shape human perceptions of hugely important issues, showing us our own impact on the environment, and most importantly making the invisible visible.

‘Human Sensor’ by Kasia Molga, courtesy of Invisible Dust (Photo at Manchester Picadilly by Nick Harrison, 2016)

Art has been a commanding force for change throughout modern history and beyond for speaking up against oppression, as well as engaging the public in the big issues of our time. Art is something that can be used in harmony with all disciplines to create memorable messages and lasting conversations. Art used for activism is one of the most important weapons we have, to communicate the importance and seriousness of climate change, and we must utilise it to its full potential.

Header Image: “Imagine a world without borders” (Icy and Sot, 2017)

References & Further Reading

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