Activism and protest art has always been a significant theme in the art world. Artists who create artwork with a mission to raise awareness or educate on social, political or global issues have done so knowing that their art could potentially contribute to change. And the majority of the time, it has made a difference. We’ve put together a list of some of the more prolific artists and their most recognised pieces of activist artwork that has had a ripple effect on not only their audience but the world at large.
BANKSY AND WAR
We are all aware of Banksy through his unapologetic protest art. The activist has become famous through his unique approach to current social issues. One of his most recent pieces of protest art was his dedication to George Floyd that accompanied his opinion on the BLM movement (you can read more about Banksy’s dedication to George Floyd in our past article.)
However, the street artist’s most recognised piece of protest art might well be Love is in the Air. Originally painted on the Palistinian side of the West Bank wall, which separates Palestine from Israel, the stencil depicts a masked man launching a bunch of flowers as if he would launch a grenade or weapon of some kind. The piece of art symbolizes the power of love and peace above conflict. Stenciling it on the side of the West Bank wall signifies his opinion between the Israel-Palestine conflict. The work has been reproduced many times and prints remain in high-demand, with one selling for $248,776 in June 2013.
KEITH HARING AND RAISING AWARENESS OF AIDS
American street artist Keith Haring made a name for himself for the signature stick-men he would paint on New York underground walls. His work had always carried a message – particularly shrinking the social gap and delivering art to the regular people who travel on the subway. However, after being diagnosed with HIV in 1987, his focus shifted and he soon propelled himself into producing artwork that would raise AIDS and HIV awareness.
Haring had painted murals all around the world, each including the captions, ‘IGNORANCE = FEAR’ and ‘SILENCE = DEATH’. It was appropriate at the time because the discussion of AIDS was still very taboo, with limited education surrounding the virus. However, his art soon encouraged people to open the conversation about AIDS and as a result, his murals helped in the reduction of deaths caused by AIDS.
You can view one of his murals at the Museu de MACBA in Barcelona, Spain. The artwork, titled Todos Juntos Podemos Parar El SIDA (Together we can stop AIDS) was initially painted in 1989 on the walls of Raval, a poor barrio in Barcelona, where drug use was rife and AIDS was a large cause of death at the time.
PAULA REGO AND ABORTION RIGHTS
Portuguese artist Paula Rego created a series of ten pastel works called Untitled: The Abortion Pastels back in 1998. The work was created in protest towards a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal, which did not pass. The images depict women undergoing unsafe abortions. After exhibiting the series in Lisbon, her work is thought to have been an integral influence in changing the public’s perception of abortion.
Paula Rego said in a statement about her series: “It highlights the fear and pain and danger of an illegal abortion, which is what desperate women have always resorted to. It’s very wrong to criminalise women on top of everything else. Making abortions illegal is forcing women to the backstreet solution. I’m doing what I can with my work but both men and women need to stand up to this. It affects men too. You don’t get pregnant on your own do you?”
Rego had been very vocal about her opinion on anti-abortion movements, using the theme of abortion and women’s rights as a focal point in her art. She has also expressed her belief that the criminalisation of abortion also criminalises women. Moreover, without a safe procedure available, illegal backstreet solutions or traveling abroad are the only option. Emphaising the urgency about discussing the controversial abortion laws.
AI WEI WEI AND THE STUDY OF PERSPECTIVE
Ai Wei Wei has always been good at upsetting the Chinese government for his politically critical artwork. You can read more about this in our past article, The Artist vs The Authorities.
Although China’s communist party has been a major theme in his artwork, there are a few specific instances where he really caught their eye.
Study of Perspective is a series of photographs taken between 1995 and 2003. The series depicts Ai Wei Wei flipping the middle finger at different iconic landmarks around the world. The most famous photos from the series is when the artist gestures towards the Tiananmen Square Gate. Also known as ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’, it is the former entrance to the Forbidden City and the site where soldiers shot and killed protesters in 1989.
The offensive gesture is a sign of disdain and protest towards state power and invites viewers to question their acceptance of their own government’s authority.
But Ai Wei Wei didn’t get off scot-free without an interrogation from the Chinese police. Back in 2011, the authorities questioned Ai Wei Wei about his photo at the Tiananmen Square Gate. He claimed that it was a gesture of protest against “feudalism”, referring to the fact that the gate was built by a Ming Emperor.
KARA WALKER AND THE FONS AMERICANUS
Multi-disciplinary, American artist Kara Walker has produces many pieces of art that protest against systemic racism, sexual violence and the tragic legacy of the slave trade.
The Fons Americanus was exhibited in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall from October 2019 to February 2021. The 13-metre tall, working fountain was inspired by the Victoria Memorial, which is located outside the Buckingham Palace in London. However, unlike its muse, the Fons Americanus does not celebrate the British Empire but rather explores the true history of America, Africa and Europe. Water plays a key role in the transatlantic slave trade and the tragedies of the people who were affected by the slave trade.
The monument is built from recyclable or reusable cork, metal and wood. The surface is made from a non-toxic acrylic and cement composite.