12 Jul 2020


Palestinian protestor in Gaza
Palestinian protestor in Gaza

The continually oscillating political climate in various parts of the world has, in recent years, catalysed a surge of artists’ involvement in expressions of protest, resistance and defiance. These may range from banners, signs and posters that are brandished at marches, to works that are shared on social media platforms or orthodoxly displayed in museum or gallery spaces.

Visual culture has a historically intimidating ability to illustrate bitter truths about complicated structures embedded in society. From the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian infant refugee whose lifeless body washed ashore on the Turkish coast, the shirtless Gaza protester whose photograph was compared to the iconic ‘Liberty’ French Revolution painting, to the recent photo of a Kashmiri toddler sitting on the chest of his martyred grandfather, images have the potency to rapidly spread around the world and to prompt international reaction, spark outrage and vehement criticism, which includes responses from the art community. For instance, several Moroccan artists collectively recreated the discovery of Kurdi’s body in tribute. Ai Weiwei also published a controversial photograph for an Indian magazine, in which he posed like the infant by imitating his dead body.

Artists have always been agents of cultural change. They have the power to influence opinions through their work and to direct opposition or reform. Many of them use their practice as a platform to broadcast marginalised or oppressed voices and create artworks that question notions around recognition, representation and equality.

Turkish artist Erkan Özgen’s video ‘Wonderland’ is a painful narration by a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, Muhammed. The deaf and mute child uses his body and facial expressions to illustrate the atrocities led by ISIS that he and his family escaped. His performance compels us to question our silence; our inability and unwillingness to comprehend the gravity of the humanitarian crisis.

Throughout history, art has played an active role in challenging social and political issues by highlighting them poignantly

For her installation “’10,148,451’, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera conceals a gigantic portrait of a Syrian refugee beneath a heat-sensitive floor. Visitors must lie, make contact and collaborate in group in order to reveal his face. The work’s title is an ever-increasing figure — the number of people who migrated from one country to another in 2017 added to the number of migrant deaths recorded in 2018. This changing numeric title is stamped on visitors’ hands before they enter a small room where organic vapours are released to induce tears. She questions the status of the ‘neighbour’ in face of a migrant crisis by provoking ‘forced empathy’, ‘false activism’ and ‘collective action.’

Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei posing as the toddler Aylan Kurdi| Photo courtesy Rohit Chawla India Today
Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei posing as the toddler Aylan Kurdi| Photo courtesy Rohit Chawla India Today

‘Ignorance = Fear’ is a 1989 street art poster by prominent artist and activist Keith Haring. By the late 1980s, the HIV/Aids disease felt like the most visible threat to life in America, with one American being diagnosed with HIV every minute. The use of simple lines and the primary colours may look like a fun illustration. However, the addition of the text completely shifts the setting and the perceivably dancing figures now seem to jolt in panic. Haring challenged the state’s and society’s apathy towards the crisis, when their silence discounted the lives of sexual minorities.

The Guerrilla Girls is an anonymous group of feminist, female artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world. They employ the visual language used in posters, books, billboards and public appearances to expose discrimination and corruption. One of their works spotlights the lack of women artists’ representation in modern art galleries, and compares its statistics to the absurdly high percentage of artworks by male artists that glamourised the nude female body.

Theaster Gates is a social practice installation artist whose work involves people and communities. In most of his practice, Gates looks at African-American history, racial segregation and the villainisation of black people. In his work ‘Minority Majority’ Gates uses decommissioned fire hoses to create a tapestry to refer to the violent use of the fire hose against peaceful civil rights protesters.

Graphic artist Song Byeok was employed by the North Korean regime in the 1990s to create propaganda art. An economic depression led to a famine that killed his parents and sister. However, the artist managed to escape to South Korea where he sought asylum. Now a political refugee, Byeok uses the same aesthetic style to satirise the regime he was once forced to celebrate. He practises under a pseudonym to protect his remaining relatives.

Art history reveals that protest art and public life regularly coalesce. Protest art may not necessarily galvanise revolutions but, as a non-violent and non-aggressive change agent, its immense value lies in portraying truth in the face of power. Besides being a facilitator of social change, this particular genre of art is also educational, cathartic and empowering in situations of injustice and oppression.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 12th, 2020