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How to Leverage Your Art for Activism

Three Ideas to Get You Started

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

Artists play an essential role in activism. From political cartoons to guerrilla marketing for social change, to popular gallery shows, art can illuminate so many different spaces and minds with messages advocating for change. Artists like Moneta J. Sleet Jr. and Barbara Jones-Hogu were integral to capturing and illustrating the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Judy Chicago’s images and Lauryn Hill’s music signal-boosted the second- and third-wave feminist movements respectively. And, of course, artists like Josephine Baker, Marsha P. Johnson, Ifti Nasim, and so many other artists of colour were integral to breaking down barriers and building momentum in the movement for LGBTQIA2s+ rights.

As protests build in the United States and Canada in support of Black lives, communities are powerfully denouncing systemic racism and brutality within police and societal systems. People are speaking out more widely than I’ve ever seen against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. And it’s making a difference. We have seen police services de-funded, school contracts with police cancelled, arrests of violent police officers secured, and more. In the wake of a series of tragic and needless deaths across the United States and Canada, we say their names — Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, George Floyd, Chantel Moore. And it’s important that we continue to take action to honour those names too. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is at once a factor contributing to the strength of current protests as well as a deterrent for many to participate as they typically would, due to social distancing. It’s amazing to see how many people have gathered to stand against injustice. It’s also good to see that people are being supportive of those choosing to engage from a distance for health and safety concerns. Participation can take many different forms. If you are an artist, your platform is your biggest asset for getting involved. Art is powerful. It can change minds and unite people for a common cause. Here are just a few ideas for how you, an artist, can leverage your art for activism.

Reach Out to Your Platform Whether you have 100,000 followers or a couple dozen friends you share your work with, you have a platform. Don’t underestimate that. When you use that platform to draw attention to an important issue, that’s impactful.

I’ve spoken to artists who were nervous about being too politically outspoken, for fear of alienating possible followers. I believe authenticity in your output will ultimately result in a fan base that is more aligned with, and therefore loyal to, your work. Just as speaking out in favour of a cause might make someone uncomfortable, it will make others feel seen and supported in their activism. If you have the gift to convey meaning and depth through any medium of creativity, put it towards what matters most. Put it towards the change you want to see in your communities.

Contribute Protest Materials One tangible way of promoting change as an artist is to create items for protests. Think buttons, protest signs, email templates, memes, face masks, t-shirt patch designs, posters, informational flyers, relevant online workshops; the potential is limitless and I invite you to keep this brainstorming session going.

Greg Ito, an LA-based artist, set up sign-making stations in his community. He provided the supplies and created a great opportunity for people to connect. He noted that with so much online activism these days, he was compelled to take his activism out into the physical world. Reach out to organizers in your community and ask what would be appreciated and, this is crucial, provide it for free. If you don’t have the means to do that all on your own, crowdsource the materials from your network. This is not a time to make a profit or market yourself. This is a time to give resources you can to support activists who are using them on the front lines.

Invest in the Movement With COVID-19 has come widespread financial strife. Largely, the most vulnerable workers have been most seriously impacted. For those who can, donating funds to community organizers and social services is an extremely impactful way to get involved during this politically charged recession. Artists may also choose to sell their work and donate the funds. Alternately, they may divert a portion of proceeds from their product and service sales to relevant organizations. Another option is to open a fund with a specific and transparent plan for the proceeds, like supporting financial requests from protestors and victims of police violence.

To reiterate my first suggestion for leveraging your art for activism, use your platform to highlight where funds are going. Promote and encourage your network to make their own contributions. Another way to indirectly offer financial support is by promoting the work of Black artists. Don’t let #BlackoutTuesday be the start and end of your efforts to amplify Black voices. Keep the momentum and credit flowing.

Final Word

This is by no means an exhaustive list of potential efforts. Please take the energy from this story and keep it going by thinking of ways in which you can make a positive difference with your talent and your audience. As these protest efforts continue to mount, more great examples of how to support the movement through art are becoming available. Get inspired by what others like mural artists in Toronto and graphic designers around the world are doing to convey activism artistically. Write that story, paint that picture, send those signs to the protest organizers, produce that song, sell that sculpture, do whatever you can to put the power of your artistic voice behind a movement that demands widespread support. Black Lives Matter. Let’s make that truth so vibrant, so loud, so poetic that it can not longer be ignored or disputed by anyone.

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