Recently, an investment firm, State Street Global Advisors, commissioned Fearless Girl, a sculpture of a little girl staring at the famous bull of Wall Street with her arms on her hips. It was an endorsement for an index fund which comprises of companies that have a higher percentage of women among their senior leadership. The plaque below the statue reads as, “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” Coincidently, “SHE” is also the fund’s NASDAQ ticker symbol. The Fearless Girl had a statement to make.
There are many such unique examples of artworks scattered around the world these days; art that has a purpose besides being just aesthetically pleasing. It uses public spaces to address socio-political issues and to encourage community and public participation as a means of bringing about social change. This kind of art is referred to as Activist Art.
In earlier days, people were a bit afraid of expressions of protest because they were frequently associated with violent and aggressive activities like riots, stone pelting and shrill chanting of slogans. These days, protests are more peaceful and are marked by candlelight vigils and strong open letters in newspapers and social media. This has led to an increase in awareness and activism among the youth. Yet, there is still a section of society that is disconnected or indifferent about social issues or feel that they lack a platform to express their views. This is where art provides a safe vehicle for individuals to express themselves. The beauty of ‘art with a purpose’ is that it reaches a much wider audience and in a much more palatable manner.
The use of art to spread awareness about social causes has been gaining popularity these days, but the practice has been going on for a while. In the West, it has its roots in the late 60s and early 70s. America was going through a turbulent time socially and politically. Many people were protesting against the Vietnam War and had lost faith in Nixon and the government after the Watergate scandal. Women, African Americans, Native Americans and gays came out to protest the second class treatment meted out to them, while art itself was undergoing a transformation at this time. It was inevitable that the two would marry.
In India, it was quite common to disseminate information and knowledge through plays, songs, dance and music since ancient times. Most of our traditional dance and music have important stories to tell. Art forms like dance, music and theatre are particularly useful in imparting a message in rural areas where such art forms are sometimes the only source of entertainment. These have universal appeal and have a lot of scope to make a statement.
Twenty-one-year old Sarah Naqvi embroiders white underwear with silken threads and tiny beads in different hues of scarlet, crimson and ruby to spread the message of female body positivity and bring menstruation out into the open. She is one of the growing number of artists who are using their talents to change the socio-political environment using their talents and unique perception. That is the beauty of activist art. This kind of activism does not need a group of people to spread its message. An individual person can spread their own point of view using their unique talents.
The concept of art itself had expanded to such an extent that many new forms of art such as rap, graffiti, manga and hip-hop that originated because they were expressions of angst and repression, have not only been included into the mainstream definition of art, they are now big industries by themselves. These kinds of art forms usually have a strong message to convey and it is because of this quality that the masses connect easily with these art forms.
Susan Sontag has rightly said that interpretation is the revenge of intellect over art. The definition of art itself has undergone a dramatic transformation. Art no longer needs to be aesthetically pleasing to be perceived as art. In fact, beauty without any depth or any message is considered mere decoration. Artists are pushing traditional and cultural boundaries of what used to be considered art and don’t mind making their audience a little uncomfortable. In these cases, the idea that the artist is trying to express is more important than what an audience might find visually appealing. Sculptures and installation art made out of waste or everyday objects like tin cans, bicycle wheels or soft drink bottles fall into this category. Even abstract or modern art falls into this category. Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair series is a good example of this. Death by electrocution was a controversial topic in the 60s and his silk screen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas was conceived to reflect this.
Nothing sums the connection between art and activism more than the works of Zena El Khalil. An artist and former TEDxHyderabad speaker, she has an interesting story to tell about how she uses art as a form of protest. Her mother’s house in Lebanon was blown up by the US. The house was rebuilt but the house next to it never was. She lived in that abandoned house for a while to soak in the energy and draw. It is easier to describe her art in her own words… “I started trying to connect to the energy in this house. I did some paintings and little drawings, but the turning point was a performance where I dressed in the black and white religious clothing of the people of my region, the Druze. Then, I set fire to the white veil. I burnt many veils. From their ashes, I created an ink that I used to paint with — an ink that investigates the absence of light — and started making site-specific paintings where a great violence took place. I worked outdoors, directly on the land, and I dipped the veils that I hadn’t burned in ink, pounding the canvas really hard. They are energy-based paintings. I would have a period of meditation in the beginning, and then I’d hit the canvas with the veils. So all the paintings are both the imprints of the veil and the land underneath the canvas. At the last stage, I embroidered the poetry on top.”