Artivism: art as activism, activism as art

Art can be a powerful tool for activists. It can grapple with the world and bring about change. This piece explores some of the artivism on display at AWID 2016.

Che Ramsden
10 September 2016

AWID Equal Access exhibition.

This article is part of 50.50's in-depth coverage of the 2016 AWID Forum being held on 8th -11th September in Bahia, Brazil.

There is a bridge in Cape Town, at a busy junction outside the city centre, under which homeless people shelter and cars pass throughout the day and night. For many years the long stabilising wall, which lifted the bottom of the bridge from the ground, boasted a colourful mural. I most clearly remember the months when it denounced then president Thabo Mbeki’s harmful stance on HIV and AIDS: I’m sick of President Mbeki saying HIV doesn’t cause AIDS! My memory has eroded much of the detail, but the line – and the lesson – remains clear.

During the second day of the 13th AWID International Forum, in an ‘Artivism’ session led by the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, I discovered that murals and graffiti are some of the most commonly used forms of artivism – activism through art – around the world. Murals are more time consuming and resource intensive than most graffiti, but similarly occupy publicly visible space which can be reimagined as a canvas, a setting in which to discuss and display social issues.

The Mbeki mural is a good example of effective artivism. Its location made it impossible not to see, if you were passing, so It forced engagement with a memorable political message. The tagline identifies the issue at hand – Mbeki’s comment that HIV does not cause AIDS – and, by specifically mentioning HIV and AIDS, also helped to combat the surrounding denialism and misinformation Mbeki had tapped into. It may also be that the artist is HIV+ (I’m sick) which further helps eliminate stigma and personalises the message. The outrage expressed is educational (I’m sick of [it] because, of course, HIV causes AIDS) while offering an indirect threat to Mbeki (I’m sick of [you]…). The political message operates effectively on many levels. 

Artivism to inspire

‘The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible.’ – bell hooks

 #fearlesslyfrida posters displayed at the #AWIDForum from the @fearlesscollective team.

 "I wear my body without shame" - Fearless Collective in partnership with HOLAAfrica, July 2016, Johannesburg, South Africa.

At a South African food sovereignty project, young people cook and eat together. They use their communal time to talk about capitalism and consumption, and further collaborate on ventures such as poetry and open mic nights. Through collective, artistic acts, they explore their relationship with society and educate one another.

One of the project staff attended the Youth Coalition’s session. She explained that she was there because she was inspired by the young people she works with. Other attendees shared experiences of artivism in their contexts: storytelling within campaigns, eye-catching puppetry to encourage men to care for their children, songs to educate children about FGM and early marriage, spoken word and other literature over local radio stations, struggle songs to undermine the government. 

Around the AWID forum, artistic projects convert hotel lobbies into galleries. Forum attendees pause before or between sessions and interact with the exhibitions. The Equal Airtime project is displayed at the main arena, organised by the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement and the African Centre for Migration & Society (University of the Witwatersrand). The project explores the lived experiences of migrant sex workers in the Limpopo province of South Africa; it was created following a collaborative three-day workshop involving visual, narrative and theatrical exercises.


From the Equal Airtime exhibition.

Originally produced for the 16 days of non Violence Against Women campaign in 2014, the multimodal images call attention to hate crimes and violence committed against sex workers, as well as important aspects of their lives – including their identity within the community. The pictures, collage and text highlight gender, sexuality and health among others: ‘We gay. We sell sex. Get over it.’ is repeated twice, each sentence framed with felt-tip pen with three exclamation marks added at the end. ‘I NOW KNOW HOW TO USE A CONDOM’ is pasted diagonally over an outline of a ‘SEXY GIRL’ whose eye peeks out behind a tilted hat, drawn over a pink background and sparkling stars and hearts.

Artivism is transformative

‘Art is good for our communities and artistic collaboration is a bonding experience. We make art together, not just because of the changes it can bring to the world around us, but because of the way it changes us internally.’ – Tatiana Makovin, organiser with Creative Resistance

From the Brilliant and Resilient exhibition.

From the Brilliant and Resilient exhibition.

The Brilliant & Resilient exhibition, organised by Mobility International USA (MIUSA), is on display outside the main arena where plenaries take place. It features a collection of 30 portraits of women with different disabilities, all of whom are alumni of MIUSA’s Women’s Institute of Leadership and Disability. The striking portraits, dominant on an otherwise imposingly large white wall, are complemented by personal stories which highlight the issues that significantly impact the women’s lives, including access to education, health services and violence prevention.

Proudly African & Transgender is similar artist-subject collaboration displayed on pillars in one of the lobbies. Artist Gabrielle Le Roux drew portraits of ten transgender activists to be displayed alongside their stories; the collaboration emphasises how the activists want to be seen and heard. On each portrait, like halos, the activists have written how they see themselves around Le Roux’s drawing of them. 

Artivism here operates to centre people who are marginalised, ignored or erased by society. The art is literally taking up space – the fact of the exhibition itself is resistance. Through collaboration with the subjects, in both exhibitions the artists transform the way the observer sees. There is also an implication that the artwork, and the act of collaboration, can also transform the way the subjects see themselves.

'Madam Jholerina Brina Timbo, Namibia', from Proudly African & Transgender exhibition

'Madam Jholerina Brina Timbo, Namibia', from Proudly African & Transgender exhibition.

Victor Mukasa, Ugandan LGBTI human rights defender, explains, ‘I felt lost for a long time. I thought there was no other like me. I thought I was abnormal, strange and this made me powerless.’ Thanks to Proudly African & Transgender, future generations ‘will not feel lost. They will look at my portrait and they will gain power, hope, peace of mind and pride. They will know that another transgender existed before and it is ok to be gender non-conforming.’

Art – both from the experience of the creator and the observer – incites an emotional response. It can synthesise unwieldy and confusing emotions, but it can also touch a nerve to provoke feelings which are difficult to rationalise. Both elements can be useful for activists as they navigate their movements and seek to change society. Artivism is not simply a communication device or a campaign tool, but a way of understanding where we are located in the world and expressing the depth of our feeling about it.

In the Youth Coalition’s workshop, two young women performed a poem. It was written by 19-year-old Meeni Levi for The Watchdog newsletter to commemorate IDAHOT 2016. The performers recited alternate stanzas to the audience from opposite ends of the room, describing the colours of the rainbow as they moved forwards in the trajectory of an arc. Their voices merged in the final stanza to reflect moments of defiance. At the end, they repeated the poem’s title in unison: “Society, watch me survive you.”

All photos by Ché Ramsden and Rahila Gupta.

Ché Ramsden will be reporting daily for 50.50 from the AWID Forum. 

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