Art & Activism

In 2019, the people of the country protested against the injustice exerted on them and basically ‘settlers’ who have been a part of the Indian culture for decades. Interestingly this protest was nonviolent and very peaceful, yet achieved to make the bold statement that it intended to. The sole means taken to make that statement was ART — Graffiti, Street art, installations and posters.

A picture says a thousand words and when thousands of pictures culminate at one point to show a focused gesture of solidarity against oppression or stands up for a section of people who need representation, all without violence showcase of dissent, art for activism solves the purpose of its existence. This is the impact of art that has always been in the history of bringing social change and will always continue to be so.

So what is ‘Protest Art’ according to

Protest art is the creative works produced by activists and social movements. It is a traditional means of communication, utilized by a cross section of collectives and the state to inform and persuade citizens. Protest art helps arouse base emotions in their audiences, and in return may increase the climate of tension and create new opportunities to dissent. Since art, unlike other forms of dissent, take few financial resources, less financially able groups and parties can rely more on performance art and street art as an affordable tactic.

The term ‘Protest Art’ refers to more modern movements like Pop Art, Polish Posters and much more. But all of this started with artists using art to express their dissatisfaction toward societal injustices taking place around them. Though a proper timeline cannot be established for the beginning and growth of Protest Art since it has been spread all over human history in various forms, the prominence of Protest Art grew in the 1900s, like Picasso’s Guernica in 1937, the last thirty years have experienced a large increase in the number of artists adopting protest art as a style to relay a message to the public.

Guernica is an oil painting on canvas by artist Pablo Picasso which was made in the June of 1937 to voice a response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain, by German and Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. The primary colour palette of the artwork was black, white and grey showing the turmoil of people, animals and buildings drowned by violence and chaos. The 3.49 meters (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) wide painting, prominently portrayed an impaled horse, a bull, howling women, death, dismemberment, and flames. Upon completion, Guernica was displayed around the world in a brief tour, becoming famous and widely acclaimed, and believed to have helped bring worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War.

Much before taking art as a tool to voice out injustice and show disapproval and instigate the necessity to stand up against oppression, art movements began to question and protest against the more “established” art movements. One such movement was the “Impressionist” art movement. At some point in the 1860s, a group of young artists decided to paint, very simply, what they saw, thought, and felt. They weren’t interested in painting history, mythology, or the lives of great men, and they didn’t seek perfection in visual appearances. Instead, as their name suggests, the Impressionists tried to get down on canvas an “impression” of how a landscape, thing, or person appeared to them at a certain moment in time. This movement though not a protest in its literal form, is a take against rejecting academically accepted artwork. This was considered more to a bold move against one’s own fraternity. If the expression is against any kind of affront, we might call any work of art, a piece of “Activist work”.

In European history, where the press emerged, the first target of protest was the church. In those days, the church was the state. They ruled the government and were the source of society’s cohesion — as well as the oppression that comes with totalitarian rule. Martin Luther protested the church directly in 1517, allegedly nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Thus began Protestantism — and the use of printing to effect tidal change in society. Gutenberg’s printing press spread the voice of the people from the 15th century on, opening whole new avenues for protest through text. Art was always used to complement this text, but the early 20th century is when visual art truly began challenging the status quo.

The 20th century brought huge technological vaults, but it also divided the wealthy from the poor like never before . Developments in industrialization coupled with world-wide struggle for power made the earth a smaller, more volatile place. Warfare took place on a global scale, and the weapons behind it were suddenly capable of immense destruction. It was the common citizens, not the elites, who had to wage these wars, so there was plenty against which to speak.

And these common citizens had to express themselves; their feelings, their struggles and their culture and art was a way inn which it came forward. This is the most effective in the works of Frida Kahlo, one of Mexico’s most iconic women artists. Her works were an outlet for personal state of life, as well as common societal problems. Made in a style that blended the fine art with folk art from her homeland, her paintings became vivid reflections of her life and of those who were close to her.

Frida Kahlo typically uses the visual symbolism of physical pain in a long-standing attempt to better understand emotional misery. Prior to Kahlo’s efforts, the language of loss, death, and selfhood, had been relatively well investigated by some male artists (including Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Goya, and Edvard Munch), but had not yet been significantly scrutinised by a woman. Indeed not only did Kahlo enter into an existing language, but she also expanded it and made it her own. By literally exposing interior organs, and depicting her own body in a bleeding and broken state, Kahlo opened up our insides to help explain human behaviors on the outside. She gathered together motifs that would repeat throughout her career, including ribbons, hair, and personal animals, and in turn created a new and articulate means to discuss the most complex aspects of female identity. As not only a ‘great artist’ but also a figure worthy of our devotion, Kahlo’s iconic face provides everlasting trauma support and she has influence that cannot be underestimated.

Protest Art is possibly the best to represent people and their issues because the functionality of it is such that the problem and the outcome concerns the individuals or groups who are directly involved/affected. But Protest Art is not just visual forms of art but also performing arts. “Therukoothu” literally translating to ‘street show’ in Tamil was one of the most famous and powerful performing art that was taken up by drama troupes to educate and inform the people about freedom fight and independence during the colonial rule. Music has the power to touch hearts; to heal or hurt, making it an effective medium for raising voice. Advertising is a functional art domain, which utilises music for commercial benefit. Music has always been able to represent the marginalised, their voices and concerns at various platforms with the advent of media and communication.


A picture says a thousand words and when thousands of pictures culminate at one point to show a focused gesture of solidarity against oppression or stands up for a section of people who need representation, and all this could happen when art is more accessible and is brought out of art galleries where art is decoded and understood instead of putting it into effective use to transform lives to the better. And its time to get art out on to the streets to change the society for good and heal it, move and transform it



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