Visual art can serve as a form of recognition and representation of oppression, history, and violence, especially in the case of visual art created by and for marginalized communities who are denied space in the public sphere. I am speaking specifically about street art and social media art. This type of art is accessible to millions of people across the world, unlike traditional “high art” which is steeped in Western cultural imaginary and acceptability. Public art often pays tribute to narratives which belong to those whose voices are suppressed, and sometimes to the artist. In this way, art is a political tool used for advocacy and social justice.
Art is a political tool used for advocacy and social justice.
In the era of Black Lives Matter and social media, art has proved to be a powerful tool for speaking out against police brutality and the systemic oppression of Black people in the United States. Since the tragic murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd this summer artists have been paying homage to victims of police brutality through murals and mixed media images on social media platforms.
Shirien.creates has created powerful visuals of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George on Instagram that hundreds of thousands of people have liked, commented on, and shared on their own profiles as well as other media platforms. The art pieces read “Justice for Ahmaud,” “Justice for Breonna,” and “Justice for George” with their faces, eyes closed, surrounded by a wreath of flowers. These pieces of art are a beautiful contrast to the brutal way all three of these Black men and women were murdered in the name of systemic racism.
Taking the time to draw and paint the faces of those brutalized by racist acts and rhetorics is impactful – it is an act of compassion and respect. Through these drawings, the faces of Ahmaud, Breonna, and Floyd are immortalized.
The art of the artists mentioned above are also championing Black people, Black culture, and Black power in a way that people have not been able to do before. This art has been around for decades. For example, the killing of Rodney King, which was the first incidence of police brutality on camera, inspired incredible art that illustrated the systems of violence in the United States.
The advent of social media, however, has allowed for the fast spread of images and has created an environment in which people cannot get away from these images without completely logging off of all forms of media.
The spiraling events of 2020 have also spurred a huge surge in art created for social justice, partly because social media allows for the simple sharing and transference of art. Art is now made specifically to be shared and reproduced rather than remain isolated in one place.
The street artist who goes by the name, Dugudus, creates murals to bring attention to specific social justice issues. Recently, a mural on the wall of a building in Paris, France of George Floyd’s gruesome death has been circulating social media. In it, the ex-officer who murdered Floyd by kneeling on his neck has Donald Trump’s face and is also holding up a bible, a reference to Trump’s recent photo op preceded by the forceful removal of peaceful protesters with violence in front of St. John’s Church in DC.
This mural proves Black Lives Matter goes beyond US borders and public art transcends the material the world. In his art, Dugudus has implicated and connected so many facets of power that are responsible for the oppression of Black people in the United States. From depicting the ex-officer kneeling on George’s neck as Trump, to Trump holding up a bible as he kneels, to George Floyd’s eyes – which show fear and shock – Dugudus reveals the intricate network of oppression in America that is characterized by police brutality, intolerance and corruption of religion, and an apathetic leadership. These are all parts of a system that purposefully holds Black people and other people of color back from safety and success.
On George Floyd’s body is written, “I can’t breathe.” A phrase that echoes Eric Garner’s pleas and haunts hearts and minds.
More murals of George Floyd have been painted all over the world. From Syria to Ireland, to cities all over the United States. These murals are not just art, but symbols and reminders of the progress that needs to be achieved to eliminate systemic oppression and violence.
When art is advocacy, it is also a decolonial praxis and historical evidence of the state of society.
When art is advocacy, art is also trauma. Art is pain and anger. Art is social justice.
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