September 10, 2016 maHp News 0 Comments

Artivism: art as activism, activism as art

By Ché Ramsden (OpenDemocracy)

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.

Equal Airtime exhibition at the AWID Forum (September, Brazil).

Equal Airtime exhibition at the AWID Forum (September, Brazil).

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

“I wear my body without shame” – Fearless Collective in partnership with HOLAAfrica (July South Africa).

“I wear my body without shame” – Fearless Collective in partnership with HOLAAfrica (July 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.

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.

[For the rest of this article visit Artivism: art as activism, activism as art]

All photos by Ché Ramsden and Rahila Gupta.