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When art meets activism

When art meets activism

How to use art to inspire change

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

Street graffiti, protests, theatre, satire, and spoken word poetry are all connected to socio-political change. They are all instruments used to expose alarming truths, often inspired by anger, fear and a burning need to speak out.

Find the ‘why’

When Arinze was an undergrad, he was assaulted by military men in his school hostel. It was a case of mistaken identity.

“If I were living in a developed country, I could sue them to court or report them to the military police. But you realise that we are in Nigeria where there is no justice for that kind of thing. They are just going to cover it up,” Arinze says.

Not long after that, when Arinze was preparing for his first art exhibition in 2016, someone asked him a question, “You are very good at drawing but why do you draw?” That question provoked him to grow purpose for his art.

“I began to use my art to talk about things that matter – things happening in my society like racism, child abuse and feminism. My experience with the military men and other life experiences made me understand that if my voice is not loud enough, I may as well use my art.”

Graphic with caption: Fill yourself up with integrity!

Have a purpose

“Speak the truth till your lips hurt,” Arinze’s twitter profile reads. According to him, everyone must have a purpose for their art, find an inspiration and work on it.

“Last three years, while speaking with Joel Rea, one of the artists I look up to, he said: ‘Arinze, you can be the best pencil artist in the world for all you want, but after 200 years, what do you want people to remember your art for?’ This encouraged me to direct my art to important things and not just making something beautiful.”

Find your rhythm

Amelia uses music for activism. She believes there is no limit to what your imagination can achieve when you use art as activism.

“Music gives you a platform to make a difference,” she says. “The cool thing is that you can literally go anywhere with it. There is no limit to your imagination and your creativity. When you link your art to activism, it just creates this dynamic duo.”

Socially educate responsibly

In Botswana, Katlego uses her art to undo the dehumanisation of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) people.

“When I started out, I was working on making people understand the diversity in the LGBTQI  people,” Katlego says. As an example she explains that people often identify feminine qualities with male homosexuality.

But I try to showcase the diversity and the challenges faced by this group – like what a gay construction worker faces at work. So it is not necessarily the gay hairdresser, dancer or performer.”

Katlego says artivists have a moral responsibility to their audience.

“There should be a sense of responsibility because art as a medium for activism can either be used well or it can get out of hand. So it’s not just about you putting a statement or a message out there,” she says.

“The responsibility of the work and message is where I work from. I find a way for people to self-identify with my art and not force my values on them. That is why every time I stage a show, there is always a follow-up dialogue with the audience so that they can be part of the conversation on what has been presented to them. Doing that, you will be able to communicate effectively with your art.”

Taiko drum workshop with the elderly

Taiko drum workshop with the elderly

Inclusion

Wang Junyong uses the Taiko drum to inspire and cultivate the values of hard work, confidence, discipline, and innovation among people of all ages. The Taiko drum is a traditional Japanese drum used many years ago to encourage soldiers to fight the Samurai – the military nobility of medieval and early modern Japan.

One of the successes of this art is its reliance on team building because Taiko drumming requires several people to come and play together.

Junyong explains, “Because there is no lone Taiko drummer the art creates inclusiveness among everyone and encourages everyone to come together and play the rhythms together. The drumming requires a lot of discipline for people to come together.”

He adds, “Taiko drum is not only a musical instrument, it is also a physical movement that involves moving around.”

Networking and collaboration

To avoid frustration, artivists shouldn’t work in isolation.

Abrahim says that the close connection presented by a creative community is important to the art.

“In Jamaica and the Caribbean, art is not a money maker,” he notes. “Using your art for social good only becomes powerful when you have someone that supports and promotes your work, or encourages you.”

Graphic with caption: Fill yourself up with love!

Arinze agrees with Abrahim.

“The togetherness of artists speaking in one voice will definitely help the purpose of their work and message,” he says.

“I work with a group of ten hyperrealist artists. We share ideas and together, we focus on pushing our art to neutral areas and speaking as one voice.”

Meanwhile, Katlego hopes Botswana will be able to achieve that sense of community soon.

“The creative community in Botswana is still somehow polarised. But I think it is definitely important to have a sense of community to push our art forward.” 

Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile

“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."

Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile

In the first of this series on Using art to lead change, five young artists tell Leading Change why and how they started using their creativity in activism to become 'artivists'.

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.