Featureless, slightly crumpled paper faces of all different skin tones, facing right and overlaid onto each other in a collage style

Rebels, radicals and revolutionaries: art and social change

Art is a very important weapon to achieve human freedom. — Ai Weiwei

Sometimes, when people want to speak, they simply cannot. It may be that they have something to say that society doesn’t want to hear. Or obstacles have been put in their way to ensure that no one can hear them. They may have no one to speak for them. Throughout history people and communities have fought for their rights. The paths they have taken were often long, slow, lonely, strewn with opposition – and sometimes violence.

History’s most lauded changemakers have all had their images immortalised – Emily Davison, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Marsha P. Johnson, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg – but at the grass roots of the movements of change are the artists themselves. Dispossessed creatives who have no hand in politics but seek to use their command of image to harness imaginations and outrage. Many might view them as simply social commentators or documentarians, but this is far from the full story. Art has tackled our darkest hours and plays a considerable role in underwriting, and preceding, protests that have gone down in history.

A building front, brick on the ground floor and white plaster on the upper floor, with rainbow flags attached to railings above arched black doors and a window. There are posters in the window, one of which reads “Stonewall uprising”. Two men in t-shirts and shorts walk past the building.
The Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 riots and now spiritual home of the worldwide Pride movement. Gryffindor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The media as enemy and weapon

In the 1960s fine art, graphic design, performance, filmmaking and photography all combined to create an almighty panorama that sat as backdrop to the marches, rallies and protests of multiple movements. Among these, the art of the second wave of feminism provoked widespread shock as it drew attention to the hidden inner lives of women and body politics. Austrian artist Valie Export caused a media storm through a piece called Tapp-und-Tast-Kino (Tap and Touch Cinema), where she wore a curtained, box-like ‘movie theatre’ around her naked upper body, then went out into the street with a videographer and invited members of the public to reach inside the curtains and touch her, filming their reactions. The media disgust was such that she was even branded a witch, but it also created important debate around control and consent – conversations that are sadly still relevant fifty years on.

The riots at the Stonewall Inn that began on 28th June 1969 also received degrading media reports that reeked of homophobia. When news of the ‘Stonewall Uprising’ travelled, the LGBTQ+ community responded with the global ‘Pride’ movement. This opened the door to new, previously unexplored places for LGBTQ+ artists, gave them courage to speak their truths and paved the way for a new, intersectional way of looking at and representing sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity and class – the results were immediate, visceral and continue to this day.

However, the group of visual activists who perhaps received the most media scrutiny was the anonymous, gorilla mask-wearing female collective, ‘Guerrilla Girls’. Their frustration at a lack of female representation in the art world led them to take their art-as-protest to the street, in the long tradition of marginalised communities. They pasted posters – better described as factsheets – all over Manhattan, which openly pointed the finger at the people and institutions responsible, citing inequality statistics and taglined ‘Guerilla Girls, Conscience of the Art World’. The protested with placards, they pulled stunts. They were unafraid, controversial and…funny. 35 years on, they are art world royalty, still anonymous and still angry.

A monochrome image of two women (right) who are wearing gorilla-head masks and standing in front of a poster of a naked woman, who also wears a gorilla-head mask. The text of the poster is partially obscured, but the headline read “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”

Based on the famous painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres called La Grande Odalisque, when this planned billboard was rejected the Guerrilla Girls paid for advertising space on the side of New York City buses. Eric Huybrechts, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Interacting with image

Art as a means of social activism relied on the press in the same way that kindling relies on a spark to realise its essence. But while traditional media pushes the narrative, it doesn’t offer a way to pull affected people into its orbit. So, when the internet created space for global conversations, it also provided the perfect way for artists to independently share images of power to a world that had previously been closed to them. The age of social media gave art as activism wings, as viewers could both express their experiences and mobilise, and images became immediate and visceral. The minutiae of lived experience finally found its natural home.

In this respect, (and around eighty years on from when photojournalist and filmmaker Gordon Parks began his life’s work, chronicling the unseen Black America, segregation, brutality and racism), the art of Black Lives Matter has been extraordinarily powerful and shared globally. From social media illustrations, paintings, street art, sculptures and even stunning placards, the movement has been propelled and documented at a scale previously unseen. The necessary conversation around representation has never been more raw, and as a result, artists and disruptors all over the world are taking action to drive change at country, city and community level. One such artist is Raksha Patel, who also lectures at Camberwell College of Arts in London. A British woman of South Asian heritage, she is frustrated at the underrepresentation of second-generation British artists, and as a result has driven the formation of a new British National Art Network. Partnering with Tate and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, it focuses on thecomparative invisibility of contemporary British South Asian visual artists. “Black British Asian stories are not visible, not enough,” she says. “It’s well overdue. We need to start getting out work out there and making work and being present.”

A naked man reclines on a white bed, hands covering his nudity. He stares directly at the viewer. To his right is a another, clothed man wearing a scarf on their head. (George Chakravarthi Olympia 2003, video installation, projection dimensions variable © George Chakravarthi)

George Chakravarthi was born in India but raised in the UK from age ten. His video reworking of Manet’s painting, ‘Olympia’ raises questions of cultural and sexual power. (George Chakravarthi Olympia 2003, video installation, projection dimensions variable
© George Chakravarthi)

“I’ve lived a life where the world for me doesn’t fit.” — Deborah Williams

Visual activism in the fight for disability rights has been part of an ongoing battle in a world that puts up both literal and metaphorical barriers. Organisations such as Shape Arts in the UK, founded in the light of the 60s activism movement, New York’s ‘Seeing with Photography Collective’ and San Francisco’s Sins Invalid use the art they make to change the narrative around disability and celebrate the community. All over the world, individual artists with disabilities are gaining ground on Instagram to tell their stories and share art with incredible effect. For example, “Triple Threat”, Chella Man, (a deaf visual artist, model and YouTuber) has 460,000 followers and has set up another account purely devoted to their artwork.

Similarly, activist-artist Zanele Muholi takes the experiences of their community to the world. They gained notoriety through a series of works documenting hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community in their native South Africa. Fame has taken them around the world, with exhibitions in internationally recognised institutions, alongside the crème de la crème of contemporary art. But Muholi’s activism only increases with their recognition. In their latest series, showing currently at London’s Tate Modern, they turn the camera on themself, in portraits taken immediately after difficult and hostile encounters. Over 122,000 followers on Instagram follow their daily life in Durban, new artworks and updates from ‘Inkanyiso’ (meaning ‘illuminate’ in Zulu), their organisation founded in response to a “lack of visual histories and skills training produced by and for LGBTI persons, especially artists.”

When notoriety becomes infamy

There is perhaps some irony to be found in the fact that the works of some artists, that had no greater ambition than to be expressions of frustration, have found their way into the highest profile galleries in the world. Some are auctioned to the highest bidder, displayed on the walls of people’s homes or worn as t-shirts. Media, both old and new, has given them a space in public discourse and a profile in a world where the artist and their contemporaries were angrily absent. Does fame undermine their messages or amplify them? Opinions vary. But ultimately, the source and the subsequence are inextricably linked and perhaps it is better to feel that (to quote Bob and Roberta Smith) while we have art, we have hope.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard