Art Marrying Social Causes: Art Activism

by Tushar Rustagi
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(It’s better to watch, observe and rebel rather to shout, fight and restrict)
Art Marrying Social Causes: Art Activism
(It’s better to watch, observe and rebel rather to shout, fight and restrict)

(Picture Credits:

Art has always been put in greater use to express on the sheets of canvas, and put in front of the world to understand the miseries or the message that the creators are trying to portray in the most peaceful way. Those colors and strokes of brushes across the white background, make all of us focus on the motive behind that creation. People might use the sheets in their hall or for big launches, at corporate buildings or entertainment places where the art enthusiasts will not be able to read in between the strokes, but art will always have a strong message to put in front of those eyes, who escape into the mystical colors and theme of that piece of art.
Whereas, some pieces were used for real issues in this world, where one could not have used a better way of expression! Fighting with the unnecessary obstacles, standing in our way to live a rightful life. When words lost their meanings and our volumes showed no change, when our voice lost its loudness and when they increased in numbers, effects of art affected our lives in a positive way. It spoke for many and destroyed all the ‘stop’ signs from our way for more peace. And as this strategy showed its positive consequences, it turned into a way to fight off all the wrong things, happening around the world, affecting the people’s society and scratching the fundamentals of living. Art is an essential part of all the rallies, protests and campaigns, carried out in the name of noticeable arguments in between two or more parties, standing strong on their pedestals, in a really huge number.

(Picture Credits:; Noise Festival)

Known to be categorized under “Protest-Art” or “Art Activism”, pieces of art that are already created or are especially created, based on the theme of the protests or disputes, are increasingly becoming popular with time. There are also contemporary and historical works and currents of thought that can be characterized in this way. Social movements produce such works as the signs, banners, posters, and other printed materials used to convey a particular cause or message. Often, such art is used as part of demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience. These works tend to be ephemeral, characterized by their portability and disposability, and are frequently not authored or owned by any one person. The various peace symbols and the raised fist are two examples that highlight the democratic ownership of these signs. And it’s not about just posters or big canvases painted with the cause’s message all over it. Protest art also includes (but is not limited to) performance, site-specific installations, graffiti and street art, and crosses the boundaries of art genres, media, and disciplines.
Since many variations of protest art can be found throughout the history, it is difficult to establish the beginning of this politically engaging artistic expression. Activist conceptual and performance art was majorly influenced by Dada, an anti-war movement which used satire, non-rational and anti-idealistic discourse to critique the First World War and its capitalist agenda. The scene at rallies and protests is no less than any political meeting, where the herd of the crowd has a leader to speak for their rights and to defend their reasons for that protest. That leader is supposed to be the strongest and the most confident candidate out of the crowd, who can convey our messages to another party, and reason their amendments and options. There has been a list of many famous personalities, who have been recognized as the strongest art activists in this world. With their number of protests, and assuring charismatic personality, they have brutally charmed their opponents, off the field. Following is the list of some of them, who were able to become one of them, whom we appreciate and get inspired from. Take a look:

  • Amin Husain:


(Picture Credits:; Amin Husain)

Amin Husain’s interests focus on resistance and liberation, as well as movement generated theory and practice. His research and teaching interests span debt and financialization, globalization and political economy, social movements and cultures of resistance, race, class and ethnicity in the media, and postcolonial theory. As per him, “I come from a poor background; my dad finished fourth grade and my mom finished high school. No one in my family was raised an artist. So I studied philosophy and political science and then went to law school at Columbia, thinking that law is an agent of social change.”

(Picture Credits:; Protest Ad)

Q. Can you talk about a project or intervention you’ve done that you thought was particularly successful, or that you were particularly proud of, along with Nitisha Dhillon?

A. For one of our actions against the Guggenheim we made our own art that named the trustees and placed it on the walls. We had to get into the space undetected and break up into groups, and people put media they’d created themselves on the walls. It was a transgression; it caused harm to the museum and simultaneously allowed everyone to make their own art. So that’s one example. Another example that emphasizes action more so than art and organizing would be the dropping of a 90 ft. x 45 ft. banner off of the Manhattan bridge that said “Gaza in our hearts/Boycott/Divest/Sanction/Israel”. We bought all of the pieces without credit cards and worked day and night for about 20 days, studying the NYPD and researching laws around federal terrorism charges. Then we did a successful action—and never got caught.

  • Jitish Kallat:


(Picture Credits:; At his installment)

Jitish Kallat, born in 1974, is an Indian contemporary artist. He currently lives and works in Mumbai, India. Kallat’s work includes painting, photography, collage, sculptures, installations and multimedia works. He was the artistic director of the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, held in Fort Kochi in 2014. Kallat is currently represented by Nature Morte -New Delhi, Chemould Prescott Road- Mumbai, ARNDT – Berlin and Galerie Daniel Templon in France and Belgium and he currently sits on the Board of Trustees of the India Foundation for the Arts.
Public Notice 3 by Jitish Kallat, 2010

(Picture Credits:; Public Notice)

Jitish Kallat’s site-specific installation was embedded in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Grand Staircase. The work, Public Notice 3 interweaves two pivotal historical moments: the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, which opened on September 11, 1893 and took place in the museum, and the attacks on the World Trade Center on the same day 108 years later. Kallat brings together two disparate moments, one of immense celebration and unity, the other of painful tragedy, through the words spoken by the Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda at the first Parliament of the World’s Religion.
Where there are these famous Indian personalities, known to be the strongest artist-activism, there are many in foreign countries as well. One of the most famous anonymous personality is listed below, who is actually popular for his messages been conveyed to political system of the country!

  • Banksy:

West Bank Wall by Banksy, 2005

west wall

(Picture Credits:; Banksy Installment)

A legendary and globally famous guerilla street artist, Banksy has been throwing his politically pointed, satirical, clever and often funny pieces all around the world. Using art as a deadly political weapon, his works always interact with global politics and global issues. He has dealt with various political and social themes such as anti-war, anti-consumerism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism or anarchism.
At least according to the photos of the enigmatic artist’s 2005 trip to the wall between Israel and Palestine, Banksy’s painting of the divide between the embattled nations was both risky and risqué. As the unnamed graffiti-prankster-provocateur put up windows to idyllic paradises and a ladder that went up and over the barricade, fatigued guards stood watch with assault rifles. Never content or politically satisfied with displaying his works through a gallery system, Banksy’s vandalism reached a subversive apex at the top of the wall. The nine pieces, he put up, were implicitly political simply because of where they were located, and more actively for the sense of constructivism they elicited.
Read more about Banksy on the link given below, with the blog written updated on the same:
Link to the blog: Banksy!
Where Banksy used to never face the audience, there was a group of female artists who used to challenge the political system of the country by painting the town in the colors of the causes and images.

  • Guerrilla Girls – The Feminist Masked Avengers:


(Picture Credits:; Guerrilla Girls on a roll!)

Wearing gorilla masks and miniskirts and sporting pseudonyms of deceased lady artists like Frida Kahlo, the feminist art collective Guerrilla Girls started shaking the art world over 30 years ago. Formed in New York in 1985 with the mission to bring into focus gender and racial inequalities in the fine arts, their legacy is marked by various forms of protest artworks and flagrant acts of misogyny shaming. Through stickers, posters, billboards, dialogues, debates, they have pointed out the hypocrisy of the art world traditions and institutions and their prevalent sexism and racism. Expressing their ideals and opinions regarding the variety of social topics, their works, mainly posters, are a combination of humorous images, outrageous visuals and statistics. The art collective is still very active, and they have expanded their practice to criticize politicians as well, especially conservative Republicans.
Why do you think they vanish after completing their pieces of art/installments, or put on masks to stay away from their credits and real identity? It is really not easy to face the political system or parties of a country, when you rebel in a way to criticize their doings. And making it clear to the world, who is good and who is bad, invites a lot of problems. But fortunately, artists and other people didn’t mind facing such situations and anyhow made their mark in this world. Everything is unexpected to happen and not easy to deal with, yet, activists stand strong to rebel for their justice!

(Picture Credits:; Political system)

After a heavy lot of difficulties and discrimination in different fields, they have managed to make their identity in this dynamic world. Due to which artists and rather common people are also discouraged for the same. But we cannot overlook the activists, in this world who are just not protestors. They are artists, just like the ones mentioned above, who want to join in with the crowd for several causes. But the question arises, on which there was a debate between different personalities in Mumbai (on 11th Oct), should an artist be an activist? There are several reasons that question the strength of the art to take on with the politics. Many say that politics is not the correct stream in which the artists should row their boats for too long else the crocodiles got no mercy to spare but others have a very different opinion on the same.
On the sketched outline of “Everyone has their set of rights that allow them the freedom of expression”, one should not stop from taking a stand for his rights just because he is an artist. An artist doesn’t hold up the veil behind their canvases, because if the person is more capable than others, then he or she should move forward with unyielding support from their herd. These are few points of the many, that came up in the debate that happened in Mumbai, at the launch of Art for Amnesty. It was an engaging discussion with actor Nandita Das, artist-activist Ram Rahman, and journalist Shekhar Gupta where they will mull over the idea if an artist must be an activist, with Mumbai Mirror’s columnist Anuvab Pal.

(Picture Credits:; Art for Amnesty)

The launch of Art for Amnesty was followed by an art auction, at the same venue, including all the Indian artists like Hema Upadhyay, Manish Nai, Sharmishtha Ray and Riyas Komu falling into the category of contemporary artists. The curator of this auction was by Mallika Sagar Advani, formely of Christie’s!
Most recent art auction at Christie’s is around the corner already, happening from 14-25th Oct’16. This online auction includes the second installment of the collection of a European connoisseur and with estimates ranging from US$500 to US$5,000, it is an exciting opportunity to acquire works of Indian art at accessible price points.

An artist is free to be just a creator of masterpieces or can be an activist as well, but it is all upto that person and his circumstances. While some protest art is associated with trained and professional artists, an extensive knowledge of art is not required to take part in protest art. Protest artists frequently bypass the art-world institutions and commercial gallery system in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Furthermore, protest art is not limited to one region or country, but is rather a method that is used around the world. For example, Publixtheatre Caravan is an international theatre troupe that creates critical performances in everyday spaces around the world. There are many politically charged pieces of fine art — such as Picasso’s Guernica, some of Norman Carlberg’s Vietnam war-era work, or Susan Crile’s images of torture at Abu Ghraib.
To conclude with this, art will always be a great input for all the output, that this world is ready for. The strength of art has been proved before as well, and will always be a support system for all those who cannot convey message for cause, in flow, to a larger lot of audience. And it’s better to watch and observe rather to listen and take time to understand. It will always remain the same, even if people use it to beautify their life. Indirectly, with all the protests and fighting for justified rights, art is helping the people to beautify their lives! Art should be pat for this act-ivity!

Center for art-activism

Read more about art and activism in India:

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