Art in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement
Have you ever thought about why art is important for change?
Shirien Damra – artist of one of the most popularly circulated images for the #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd movement on Instagram – declared that “art can touch our emotional core in a way that the news can’t .”
Art forms have been influential in the ways that people, particularly on social media, are engaging with the global #BlackLivesMatter movement. Art, however, is varied in form and moves beyond being interacted with and mobilised just virtually. For instance, the recent toppling of Edward Colston’s statue by protesters in Bristol – a symbolic rejection of white supremacy, uprooting white life that has been historically ‘valued’ as a result of being enmeshed with Britain’s slave-trade – is an example of how more traditional forms of art, like statues, are intertwined with the movement.
This political act echoes debates around the #RhodesMustFall movement a few years back, which has now started again. The toppled and drowned statue is understood as a symbol urging the public to recognise and engage with the histories, memories and futures such artforms project, particularly with those that stand for the insidious past of slavery and the message of racism that continues now.
More broadly, this act was part of peaceful protests all over the world mobilizing banners, words, and symbols to express their anger – their desire for a better future, where mass incarceration for Black communities is no longer an issue; where racism ceases to exist to divide people. A question that persists, then, is: how can we achieve such a future, and how does art contribute to change?
‘Social justice’ calls for fair and just relations between the individual and society measured by for example; the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges. And so, ‘social justice art’ is Art that takes multiple forms (i.e. murals, paintings, sculptures, posters, banners etc.) to work towards exposing such disparities in how humans are valued in these ways. Artists, – which we all have the potential to be – then, “not only document social change; they promote, inform, and shape it,” says Maria X. Martinez in The Art of Social Justice. 
If art is borne of personal experiences, memories and observations, it is deeply personal. Each artwork contains choices, abstractions from and repetitions of reality. Creating art for the purpose of representing Other voices that are often unheard, by illustrating the experiences of those who endure violence (physical, emotional, chronic, momentary) for their ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, amongst other human characteristics can often be herded under social justice art. But in this, art connects people because our experiences of living overlap, even if we cannot see this straight away.
Examples of social justice art range from the works of Chicago-based Palestinian designer, Shirien Damra (at the beginning of this article) who illustrated the peaceful, loving George Floyd, to more well-known artists, such as Chicago-based Black painter, Kerry James Marshall. Marshall, for instance, in an interview with artist Theaster Gates, reflects on how his work operates around the “500 years of history that’s structured around a representation of an ideal of beauty that’s not us [as Black people].” His art, he says, through projecting the ideal vision of inclusive beauty and attempting to deconstruct whiteness by illustrating the beauty of Blackness, then projects these ideals into the world for people to evaluate and engage with (Click here for the full video).
But you, too, can create social justice art. We must think about the futures we want to see in the world, and what kind of message we want people to reflect on. How can your art project a better future where everyone works against racism, where people want to value life equally?
Art can be a tool to visually communicate the changes you want to see; it can take many forms – poetry, film, painting, to name a few. Some of our amazing guests at M.Y.O have been creating art for #BlackLivesMatter (see below), and you can too.
At M.Y.O, we want more people to engage with their ability to be creative because it has power. Together with you, we want to think about the potential of our creativity and artwork: who it can reach, who it can inspire.
But more importantly, we must all remember that active anti-racism is not a ‘trend’; it is not something that you engage with just for the beginning of a movement; it is something that we all must continue to acknowledge the insurmountable importance of, and build active anti-racism into your lives, always.
Because ultimately, art helps to inform the way that we value certain kinds of life: we have a say in whether it can either divide or unite. And before concluding, we acknowledge that this blog post has not been able to cover the depth and complexity of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is an introduction to social justice art and how in this small (but nevertheless important) way, you can inspire change and a better future.
 Bruner, R. (2020) ‘'Art Can Touch Our Emotional Core.' Meet the Artists Behind Some of the Most Widespread Images Amid George Floyd Protests’, Time Magazine. Retrieved from: https://time.com/5846424/george-floyd-protests-art/.
 See the Oxford Union’s debate ‘Must Rhodes Fall?’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3aBDBdDIgU.
 David, E.A. and McCaughan, E.J. (eds.) (2006) ‘Editors' Introduction: Art, Identity, and Social Justice’, Social Justice, 34(1): 1-4.
 On more about how to be ‘anti-racist’ and why it’s important, see https://www.itsnicethat.com/news/resources-supporting-black-lives-matter-movement-creative-industry-010620.
We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!