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"Every revolution is sparked by an art movement"

HippieVan at 12:00AM, Nov. 27, 2015

Jane Alexander, Butcher Boys

That happens to be a line from one of my favourite albums, a combination CD/graphic novel from an obscure now-defunct South African hip hop group.

I think it’s pretty easy to understand how a South African group would come to that conclusion. When I wrote a paper last year investigating the role of art in the anti-apartheid movement, I found art at all levels of resistance. Of course there were the professionally-done pieces that were displayed in a small number of traditional galleries, many of them very moving (and/or disturbing), like Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys (above). But I always preferred the art made by those on the lowest rungs of society – made by those for whom the act of making art was, in itself, a form of resistance.

Art by an unknown miner

Perhaps the most compelling example of art as resistance was, for me, the amateur works of art that appears on the walls beside miners’ bunks in the cramped quarters in which they were forced to live. Through these painting and collages, the workers expressed their individuality, the creativity of their spirits and their right to their own physical space in a system that barely accorded them recognition as human beings. Wall art also popped up in the cities as well as the townships, often with images of government violence or banned figures like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.

Female artists engaged in cultural resistance both by using and by rejecting their traditional roles. Many women combined traditional techniques like beading with new practices such as doll-making to create artworks that were, while nonpolitical and thus nonthreatening superficially, were nonetheless important representations of their daily lives. Others, like Noria Mabasa, rebelled against apartheid and patriarchy simultaneously; her medium of choice was wood carving, a technique traditionally reserved for men.

Not all political art was produced spontaneously; organizations like the Medu Art Ensemble, comprised of exiled South African artists, formalized the process of cultural resistance. The Medu aimed to fight apartheid through forms of culture that were accessible to the wider (black) public, i.e. posters and t-shirts rather than gallery displays.

In South Africa, art served as a call to arms, a mirror held up to an oppressive and violent society, a triumphant representation of black African people and their culture, and a simple method of expression. I see a similar process beginning in my own city, where many believe we are experiencing an indigenous ‘renaissance’ of sorts. Aboriginal activism - demanding most recently some kind of government action to address missing and murdered indigenous women - has been accompanied by some really incredible cultural production that can be seen both in galleries and on the streets. A gallery curator I was speaking to recently told me "If you want to make a point about something, you write an essay. If you want to point to something, you make art." Art is often evocative and visible in a way that academic essays, while useful, just aren't. The activists in my city - and, I believe, in various places throughout history - have understood the importance of art in this regard.

Do you believe that art plays an important role in changing society? Does art spark resistance, is it a parallel process, or is it not at all an integral part of revolution? Have you ever seen a piece of art that compelled you to act? Is your art political?

(By the way, the topic of South African resistance art is really fascinating. I was only able to touch on a tiny portion of my research here, but I highly recommend Sue Williamson’s Resistance Art in South Africa as a very accessible book on the subject, with lots of full-colour pictures. Or if you want to read my essay…wait, where are you all going?)


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Z74 at 11:04PM, Dec. 2, 2015

I once saw a documentary about how the Nazis used symbolism , and how the strong graphic design of the flag and swastika as well as the "fashion" aspect of the ss uniform helped to further their cause. Also I have noted a sort of covert message in many works of fiction as of late where the underlying message is not to blindly trust the government but instead to question their motives and stand up for what you believe in . Something that I feel is our duty as Americans !

HippieVan at 10:33AM, Nov. 28, 2015

@Jeremy: Die Antwood hasn't broken up! But Constructus Corporation hasn't been around for ages, and they were definitely a different group than what Die Antwood is now. I didn't want to get into all the details of how some its members are now a new group.

Jeremy Ray at 7:48AM, Nov. 28, 2015

Die Antwoord broke up? I can't find anything about it. Howard Bloom says revolutions come from spoiled rich kids -

KimLuster at 6:13PM, Nov. 27, 2015

I've always considered myself a decent student of history and at least acquainted with art history and appreciation, but I've never really made these kinds of connections!! This is very interesting, and compelling! There's a reason dictatorships have all that powerful 'patriotic' art (workers and soldiers, lots of clenched fists...) - they know art is moves people and so they seek to use it to bolster their regimes (and suppress art counter to them).

Banes at 9:40AM, Nov. 27, 2015

Fantastic! I belive art must have some kind of power, to represent us and to nourish and lift the spirit. Thanks for this one, Hippie!

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