5 artists who use art as a form of activism

These renowned artists believe that all art is political.

by Portia Ladrido

© PX here

In 2016, the Tate Modern put up the banner “Art Changes, We Change” to signal the opening of the new extension of the contemporary art museum, the Switch House. This annexe was deliberately composed of 60 percent women artists, and the director of the museum, Nick Serota, emphasised how having more female voices within the halls of the galleries was of paramount importance.

Serota’s decision is one of the many ways art can become political. While these initiatives are often unbeknownst to those who do not follow the people behind art institutions, these are the initiatives that could make way for actual structural changes within the industry. However, there are also very obvious ways in which art can be political, which is when artists create the tangibles: installations, visuals, paintings, videos, and photographs that react and reflect on society.

Over the years, there has always been a steady stream of artists who have made it their purpose to use art as their personal form of activism. Indeed, in however way we look at it, the personal is always political. Here are renowned artists whose works have reacted and reflected on themes like violence, oppression, and injustice.

Ai Weiwei

© Wikimedia Commons

Known to use art to address human rights issues, particularly those perpetrated by the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei is also considered to be one of the most important political artists of the contemporary period.

Recently, the artist created a film called Human Flow, which traces the lives of the 22.5 million refugees across the globe. He made the film in the span of over two years, going to far-flung places, and noting that whilst the European refugee crisis is widely known to be the biggest humanitarian crisis of history, he highlights that the circumstances of refugees in the Middle East and Africa had always been far worse.

Another notable creation of Weiwei is Study of Perspective, a series of photographs that showed a middle finger with monuments around the world as its backdrops. He started the series in 1995 and ended it in 2010, which meant to challenge the viewers to question what they accept and adhere to — why we readily believe what institutions, establishments, and governments tell us. His works have always tried to empower people and remind people that the power resides in them; not in any form of authority.

David Alfaro Siqueiros

© Galería Fundación Héctor García at Wikimedia Commons

Even in the beginning of the 20th century, David Alfaro Siqueiros has always been involved in left-wing politics in Mexico. His activism was most manifested through his art, and through his muralism, he was able to democratize the often inaccessible art industry in his country by making it available for all to see: in the streets.

He was part of what was known as “Los Tres Grandes” or the three greats of Mexican muralism, together with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. His works were informed by Marxist ideology, and would even refuse to do commissioned work when it is not in line with his ideology. He was committed to educating the public through his public art and was certain that through art, it could empower the masses to initiate a revolution that would better their circumstances.


© Paul Bissegger at Wikimedia Commons

Within the graffiti art scene in London, Banksy’s stencil technique is looked down upon. Stencil and spraying on walls are “easy” techniques, especially in a subculture that has thrived in the dangerous and the difficult. But these artists are also quick to point out that while Banksy’s technique is not a sophisticated form in the graffiti scene, his messages that envoke socio-political conversations are what get him the respect he’s earned.

What also sets him apart from other graffiti artists is his ability to make global politics known to a larger audience. In a world where most of the standards followed until today were based on an Anglo-Saxon perspective, Banksy has put forth art that recognises the suffering, issues, and stories of people across the globe.

He’s had a series of works across the Gaza strip, in Syria, and even in the Calais refugee camp. In England, where he is from, he put up an art project and called it ‘Dismaland’, which mimicked the Disneyland theme park but with drab and dreary details. This project was made to critique consumerist society, where people are wildly obsessed with spectacle and entertainment rather than more pressing issues of the world.

Judy Chicago

© Donal Woodman at Wikimedia Commons

One of the pioneers of feminist-art, Judy Chicago aimed for her work to represent and reflect on the lives of women. There was a stark underrepresentation of women in the arts, and she addressed this by making females the subject and sole focus of her work. Most notable is The Dinner Party, an installation that sought to display the victories and achievements of women across history.

In the book Art and Feminism, Phaidon described it as such: “Each of the thirty-nine women is represented on a hand-painted plate by an abstract form based on ‘central core’ vulvic imagery: an embroidery and a chalice. On the base tiles are inscribed a further 999 names. The work’s chronological sequence traces the social origins and decline of matriarchy, its replacement by patriarchy, the institutionalization of male oppression and women’s response to it. The work toured internationally and attracted among the largest crowds ever to view a museum exhibit.”

She continued advocating for women through her artwork, and to even further her feminist vision, she co-founded the Feminist Art Program at Cal State Fresno and also created Womnhouse, an installation and performance space for women.

Guerrilla Girls

© Alice Coffin at Wikimedia Commons

In 1985, a group of women in New York formed a feminist art collective with the mission to dismantle gender and racial inequalities in the arts. Known as the Guerilla Girls, these women would wear gorilla masks whilst using pseudonyms of widely respected female artists, such as Alma Thomas, Frida Kahlo, and Kathe Kollwitz.

They rapidly gained worldwide attention through a myriad of art protests that they enacted — from glaring misogyny-shaming through posters to regular dialogues and debates. Their works would also be injected with humour, which makes their art easily relatable, even when all members have remained anonymous. Their anonymity is also with reason: They want to stay unnamed so their audience can focus on the issue at hand and not the people behind the masks.

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