Art as Activism

In the 1920s Mexican Muralists like Diego Rivera painted murals that told the stories of the working class; miners, farmers, and industrial laborers. Today artists all over the world are answering an artistic call to action.


“The Uprising” by Diego Rivera

Art as activism encourages empathy and awareness. Both are needed to enact social change. Rivera’s painting “The Uprising” shows a woman holding a baby on her hip and a working man being attacked by a uniformed soldier. Theo Ponchaveli painted a mural in Dallas depicting police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck.

From Pittsburg to Pakistan murals commemorating George Floyd are popping up in solidarity of the fight for racial equality in America. These murals capture a historic moment, the social shift in recognizing the existence of systemic racism. But is that enough?

Mr. Detail Seven of Kenya

Protest art is an act of civil disobedience. On June 5, 2020, Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser revealed Black Lives Matter Plaza. Artists including Keyonna Jones were secretly commissioned to paint the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ in all-cap yellow letters that can be seen from space. “Mayor Bowser wanted to use art to make a statement at the site where peaceful protestors were attacked to create a photo op on Monday,” writes John Falcicchio, chief of staff for Mayor Bowser in a statement to Fast Company. Referring to the photo op President Trump took holding a bible in front of St John’s Episcopal Church on June 1, 2020.

This statement of protest has spread all over the nation and for some, it feels like a rallying cry. For others, it represents the gentrification of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter DC is critical of Black Lives Matter Plaza, calling it “performative and a distraction.”

On a sign in Charlotte, North Carolina each letter was assigned to a different artist. Creating an opportunity for collaboration and individual expression.

 

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In Los Angeles, on the street between the TCL Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a message of solidarity and inclusion. “All Black Lives Matter” is painted in the colors of LGBT+ pride flags.

The question asked in Flint Michigan was, is street art imitating life? Are these artistic protests a catalyst for change or just a distraction? Or worse an insult?

Or is it something else entirely? A symbol of hate as the U.S. President suggests? New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, ordered the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ to be painted outside Trump’s longtime office on Fifth Avenue. Trump responded with a tweet saying “NYC is cutting Police $’s by ONE BILLION DOLLARS, and yet the @NYCMayor is going to paint a big, expensive, yellow Black Lives Matter sign on Fifth Avenue, denigrating this luxury Avenue.”

Donkeeboy of Houston, Floyd’s hometown.

 

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Still, the question remains, is protest art a valid step in the direction of change, is it purely performative, or is it a symbol of hate?

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