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Using art to lead change

Using art to lead change

Artists, activism and becoming an artivist

In a four-part in-depth series, Leading Change talks to five activist artists – artivists – who are making measurable social change. They start by telling us why they use art for activism.

From the Great Depression in the 1930s to recent social movements like #NotTooYoungToRun in Nigeria, #BlackLivesMatter in America and the global #MeToo, art has always been a powerful catalyst for social justice. 

Meet five young changemakers from around the Commonwealth who are using art to change the world.

Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile, Botswana

Katlego was Botswana’s first openly transgender woman and the Founder and Artistic Director of Queer Shorts Showcase Festival – the first and only Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) festival in her country.

Founded in 2014, Katlego created the festival to bridge the gap between contemporary queer livelihoods and how they are understood and discussed in Botswana.

Although she originally started using theatre as a platform for activism, Katlego now uses multiple art platforms like music and poetry. “The most accessible work that I do is poetry, but the most inclusive I have worked on is the theatre,” she says.

Katlego performing

On using art for activism, Katlego says, “There is an overlap between art and activism because they are both driven by something personal. It comes from a place of saying the truth from a personal perspective – to empower people.

Arts used for activism allows people to freely express themselves. For instance, you can share a song that talks about gender-based violence or troubled household without necessarily engaging in a conversation about being in an abusive relationship or living in a household that you are not personally comfortable in.”

Arinze Stanley Egbengwu, Nigeria

Arinze is an international award-wining hyperrealist artist who uses his art as a medium for social and political activism. His art addresses social issues across the world, especially matters that concerns people of black descent.

Although he started drawing as a hobby, his personal encounters with people over the years opened his eyes to the importance of using his art as a voice for the voiceless. He believes art is a universal language understood by everyone because “we live and breathe art”.

Black and white photo of hands covering a face

“Not using your art for activism is like making beautiful things without purpose,” says Arinze. “I use my art as a form of shoe-shifting – putting people in my shoes and also for people to put themselves in the shoes of others.

It is also a means to allow people to feel empathy for those in tough situations with the hope of provoking a new dialogue towards solution. We have tried violence and protesting, it didn’t work – why don’t we speak to ourselves through our other senses, through the art.”

Abrahim Simmonds, Jamaica

Abrahim is the Co-founder of Jamaican Youth Empowerment through Culture, Arts and Nationalism (JAYECAN).

His organisation’s art programme includes ArtReach, where volunteers visit children homes and rehabilitation centres to provide music, art and drama sessions, and HerStory which encourages young women from disadvantaged communities to use spoken word and writing to explore their past.

“A bulk of our work is centred on helping young people to actualise their talent and also the opportunity to express themselves as opposed to resorting to crime and violence which is high in Jamaica,” says Abrahim. “This is because people don’t know how to have conversations when they have conflict.”

Graphic with silhouetted people and caption: fill yourself up with respect!

Personally, Abrahim mainly relies on the power of visual art to raise awareness on inequality and injustice, for people to see the bigger picture.

“Not everyone can listen to long speeches. Sometimes, it is a song or the graphic art that will speak to people about a problem or drive conversation to a probable solution.

“I have done plays at the university that focused on issues that are popular in Jamaica, particularly in Kingston. It ranges from violence to poverty and inequality. These issues come out in our play and people see how it impact people’s life. At the end of the play, we are not only able to present the challenges but we are also able to educate our audience on how they can address such problem.”

Wang Junyong, Singapore

Trained in Japanese Taiko Drumming for more than ten years, Junyong Wang is the founder of Mangrove Learning Pte Ltd, a social enterprise that provides alternative art and music-based trainings to vulnerable people.

Through the use of Japanese Taiko drums, Junyong engage and transform the lives of people by teaching them about team building and communication, confidence building, as well as early childhood and youth-at-risk training.

“After struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia in secondary school, I learnt Taiko drumming at a youth centre during a volunteer programme. I saw how the Japanese youth committed themselves into the training every day and I decided to adopt it.”

Taiko drummers raising sticks in the air

Junyong says, “Art allows people to express themselves. In Singapore where everything is academic driven, art provides an avenue for students who do not have self-confidence in themselves.”

Amelia Kami, Tonga

Amelia is a second-year Law student and a musician who uses her art to share positive message to women about their rights.

Amelia started writing music at the age of 11 to communicate her views on issues around the world. She recently wrote a song for an anti-logging campaign in Papua New Guinea.

“It’s a song that speaks about the importance of unity and the power that exists in people. I’m hoping that this song will stand as an anthem, not only against anti-logging, but of unity and strength,” she says.

“Using art as activism for me is being able to bring together a person’s passion for the arts with their desire for change in different aspects of life. Using music for activism makes people think and re-evaluate the way they look at themselves and their relationship with what happens around world.”

Amelia Kami playing guitar

“Music gives you a platform to make a difference. When you link your art to activism, it just creates this dynamic duo.”

Amelia Kami

In the second of our series on art and changemaking, five young artivists tell Leading Change about their processes, responsibilities and the importance of inclusion and collaboration.

Motion of red food colour. Image credit: Gorobei

“The creative community of artist are like dye in water. When you put a drop of dye in the water it diffuses throughout the water. The same way, your single impact, no matter how small it is, can cause a large ripple effect." 

Abrahim Simmonds

In the third part of our series on artivism, five young leaders from across the Commonwealth tell Leading Change about the challenges of using art for activism.