I am consistently reminded that art, education and social activism do not and should not be mutually exclusive. In fact, when each of these entities is spoken of, the other two should be lingering, if not in a prominent position, at the very least in the background. For me, the intersection of these three disciplines is a beautiful thing.

14 July 2021

Art as a key component of social and educational transfiguration

I love art 

I love education

I (don’t always) love being a social activist

More and more, especially through the stimulating, challenging and transformational research projects I have been carrying out with my Rivers colleagues, Alanna and Ekow, and the events I regularly attend or help to facilitate, I am consistently reminded that art, education and social activism do not and should not be mutually exclusive. In fact, when each of these entities is spoken of, the other two should be lingering, if not in a prominent position, at the very least in the background. For me, the intersection of these three disciplines is a beautiful thing.

Art, or ‘the arts’ (I’m thinking here of fine art, photography, music, theatrical performance, and I even believe sports can be placed in here) is often considered to be the preserve of society’s more privileged. This is especially true when considering the art housed behind impenetrable glass, within impenetrable colonial spaces. The thing about art, however, is that it is everywhere. All of us will have engaged with it, irrespective of our socio-economic backgrounds.

The arts have always carried with them a political message; Particularly for the underprivileged and marginalised, art was and still is the space in which otherwise muted voices are heard. From the beautiful singing voice of Mahalia Jackson, the same voice which can be heard imploring Martin Luther King to ‘tell them about the dream,’ to the rage-filled art of Basquiat – critiquing the racist and classist society within which he lived. From the social commentary of Hip Hop to the feminist resistance and corporeal reclamation and celebration of the 1990s Jamaican dancehall queens.

All art.

All messages.

All important.

All transformative.

All from oppressed people. 

Debates abound as to whether those from disadvantaged backgrounds are responsible for producing work that is political, social and a commentary on their particular struggle. Even when artists vocally oppose the projecting of this responsibility, in a society in which to be white and able-bodied is fashioned as the ‘norm,’ those actively trying to disassociate themselves from becoming hyphenated artists, are often unsuccessful. Simply ‘being’ ‘black/poor/differently abled’ and so on, and taking up white space, makes them political.

Specific to social justice movements, art has always played a pivotal role; from the screen-printed flyers advertising radical protests to the wonderfully imaginative, hard-hitting and informative placards carried to protests, artists and social justice organisations and charities understand the power of art to express vital messages. They understand that sometimes…oftentimes….words between the pages of unread tomes do not have the impact needed. Sometimes, the message needs to be explicit and visible. Movements such as the Disability Arts Movement used art as a way to bring about phenomenal change. Within prisons, mental health institutions and domestic abuse shelters, art is often the first step towards recuperation, restorative justice and the expressing and healing of unresolved trauma. Art can bring to life that which is too traumatic to document in reality. I recently came across a gorgeous website called Positive Negatives, which does just that. The site produces beautiful comics and animations to document the personal testimonies of those who have suffered unimaginable human rights injustices.

The fight for a just education system has often been a bloody and deadly one-see such historical moments as the Soweto Uprising.  Many have fought and continue to fight for educational rights. Much of our awareness of these fights come as a result of the raw footage of talented documentary photographers, intent on showing the world the price many young people have to pay to fight for what should be a human right.

More and more in schools, art is being used as a tool for social activism. Such organisations exist as WE.org, a charity that supports schools in creating social justice campaigns, and numerous theatre groups travel to schools around the country, performing plays that highlight and interrogate the social justices and human rights violations existing not only globally, but also locally. Charities such as The Mouth That Roars give control of filming and editing equipment to students, in order for them to produce the social commentary of THEIR CHOICE. Many more collectives and individuals (including dedicated educators within schools) push for art to be used as a social justice tool in education. This is something they often have to do with little support from the powers that be, who can be dismissive of the importance of the arts in education.

As mentioned briefly, art has the ability to be a restorative tool. Art can be extremely therapeutic and life-saving, for many. Even when not delivered by qualified art therapists, art as a cathartic release is something that can and is facilitated by many people wanting to be a part of the healing and empowering of others.

In addition to all of the above, let’s not forget that art can be fun. SO MUCH FUN! Nothing brings me more joy than watching a bunch of four-year-olds covering a page (and themselves!) in bright, shiny poster paint! Actually, scrap that. Nothing brings me more joy than to see a bunch of trauma-filled teenagers covering a page (and themselves) in bright, shiny poster paint…being for a moment the adolescents they deserve to be.

’The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is-it’s to imagine what is possible.’

-Bell hooks

The societal systems within which we operate need to be radically dismantled and reimagined. The issue is, that even if we know what this reimagining looks like, it has never been seen before. As such, art is a powerful tool that allows us to envision an equitable world, free of oppressive systems. Art becomes our periscope into the future. Art becomes the healing we need as we head into this new world.

Art is progressive.

Art is futuristic.

Art permeates the boundaries of the society within which we exist.

Art is freedom.