At the Heart of Reform: Does Art Speak Social Change?
by Mariyam Fatima (Writer & Editor at The Curator Mag)
This article is written in collaboration with The Curator Mag.
Art has mobilized crowds and brought people together since the beginning of time: from the cave paintings of the Neanderthals to the flyers and placards that ignite protests and revolutions today.
Art has never been created in isolation; it reflects the disposition of a society, and in turn, provokes that society to reflect on its inherent rules and traditions.
In the last couple of decades, there has been an increase in the use of artwork as a major symbol for resisting oppression and for tackling the undemocratic structures that plague our world.
Many visual artists have expressed social and political issues through their art, and, today, I’d like to touch on five specific artists who have changed the world, both artistically and politically, through their artwork: Vik Muniz, JR, Mihaela Noroc, Zanele Muholi, and Anuj Arora.
Vik Muniz is a visual artist from Sao Paulo, Brazil who is currently based in New York and Rio de Janeiro. He is most well-known for Pictures of Garbage, an art collection that used pieces of trash to create portraits of the catadores (trash collectors). Muniz collaborated with the catadores of Jardim Gramacho, a 321-acre open-air dump outside Rio and one of the largest landfills in Latin America.
Through the Pictures of Garbage project, Muniz tried to raise awareness about the poor working conditions of the waste picking industry. By integrating trash into his artwork, Muniz pushed people to think about the lives of people who work in the waste industry. He says, “What I want to be able to do is to change the lives of people with the same materials they deal with every day”.
We encounter and generate waste every day, but we dissociate ourselves from the waste we create. We alienate and stigmatize workforces who are essential to the operation of our society. This is exactly what Muniz points out through his work: the need to be more sensitive and to strive towards giving back to society.
“There aren’t many transformations bigger
than a piece of garbage into a piece of art.”
JR is a well-known photographer and street artist whose work is evocative, unwieldy, and unavoidable.
In 2007 he undertook the Face 2 Face project, an outrageous and public photography exhibit addressing the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The project consisted of large, mono-color portraits of Palestinians and Israelis wheat-pasted side-by-side along multiple streets of both Palestine and Israel.
The portraits alternated between Palestinian and Israeli adults; each portrait a silly and candid face peering through a fish-eye lens. It’s a touching project that humanizes the very people both sides have tried so hard to dehumanize. JR’s goal was to highlight the “sameness” of expression between two opposing groups.
“These people look the same; they speak almost the same language, like twin brothers raised in different families,” JR said of the project and of the conflict, “It's obvious, but they don't see that. We must put them face to face. They will realize.”
Through the Face 2 Face project, JR hoped to resolve a conflict so deeply rooted in both cultures’ history. It forced people to acknowledge familiarity and find love in one another. To acknowledge that their similarities far outweigh their differences. To acknowledge the fabricated barriers that continue to sustain conflicts in Israel, Palestine, and all around the world.
“Can art change the world? Maybe ... we should change
the question: Can art change people's lives?”
Mihaela Noroc is a photographer from Bucharest, Romania who travelled the world for six years, from Afghanistan to Iceland, capturing five hundred portraits of women through a series titled Atlas of Beauty.
Noroc’s Atlas of Beauty contains portraits from approximately sixty different countries: Peru, Ethiopia, Russia, South Africa, India, Afghanistan, Korea, Cuba, France, Kyrgyzstan, Sweden, Uzbekistan, Iran and many more.
Through her Atlas of Beauty, Noroc explores the idea of female beauty in different cultures and traditions all over the world, breaking down the barriers between the different types of feminism. Her collection celebrates the diversity of women—their natural shape, size, ethnicity - and builds a colourful kaleidoscope of both the modern and indigenous woman within their unique, social contexts.
“Global trends make us look and behave the same,
but we are all beautiful because we are different.”
Zanele Muholi is a photographer from Umlazi, South Africa whose artwork focuses on South African lesbian women of colour. Muholi’s artistic goal is to photograph women like herself and to capture a side of feminism and sexuality many of us are not used to.
Muholi started a project in 2006 called Faces and Phases. For this project, Muholi photographed two hundred and fifty black lesbian women to bring about social empowerment and visibility for these underrepresented women in South Africa.
“I thought to myself that if you have remarkable women in America and around the globe, you equally have remarkable lesbian women in South Africa . . . I’m basically saying that we deserve recognition, respect, validation, and to have publications that mark and trace our existence,” Muholi said of her artwork.
She debunks the social stigma around lesbianism and challenges homophobic rhetoric in Africa. Her art sensitizes the viewer towards African homosexuality and demands acceptance, one portrait at a time.
“Our grandmothers might not have made it, might not have had the same tools we have in this digital age but the oral histories that they left for us to make sense of who we are today … And it’s very important for us to write in our own languages, our present visual histories.”
Anuj Arora is a photographer based in Delhi, India who has used his art to express ongoing support for Rohingya Muslims, one of the most persecuted groups in the world.
In his 2018 Project — Unsettled Identities — Arora covered the plight of Rohingya refugees who were forced to flee Myanmar for India after the Myanmar government delegitimized their citizenship in 1982.
Through the Unsettled Identities project, Arora explores the Rohingya’s repression and social turmoil that is often overlooked by the Indian government. The project builds a narrative through a series of photographs that capture the experiences of these refugees. The photographs highlight a minority group struggling through the socio-political issues that all too often emerge through nation-state politics.
The issue is a personal one for Arora, and his work reflects on the very struggles his own family experienced during the partition of India and Pakistan.
Of his family Arora says, “My grandparents fled Lahore [Pakistan] in 1947… I grew up hearing stories about all they had left behind, how difficult it was for them to rebuild their lives in New Delhi, and how they believe that a part of them still lives in Lahore… I used to wonder if they too had similar experiences and stories to share.” This personal narrative extends a hand towards the issues of Rohingyas through general encounters and takes shape into a plea which demands a structural solution.
“I feel that an understanding of universal emotions
is really important to bring social change.”
- Anuj Arora
Art can lead society to political and social progress. It has the capacity to expand minds, to normalize the stigmatized, and to question the standards by which we live our lives.
These five artists - Vik Muniz, JR, Mihaela Noroc, Zanele Muholi, and Anuj Arora – have all proven that art can be a catalyst for change. They confront the idea of the ‘other’: the people and ideas that are not accepted or included in the typical concept of a society. The catadores. Generational enemies. Color and sexuality in Africa. Persecuted groups.
Art speaks for these groups. It transcends barriers. And it brings us to a clearer version of a lost truth: that love and acceptance is the key to a life fulfilled.
The Curator Mag seeks to identify and present to you diverse, stimulating, and innovative art from across the globe while striving to enable artists and creators to continue their pursuits at every step. The Curator hopes to pique your curiosity, appreciation, and involvement by providing an informed, enjoyable and curated platform.
Mariyam Fatima is currently working at The Curator Mag as a writer and editor. She has a strong liking for arts and culture with special inclination towards Indian cultural studies, Muslim women writings and Historical novels. She is involved in translation studies, research, poetry and creative writing. She also loves working in new areas that can be assessed in comparative studies AND generating more holistic and developed ideas that she has learned in her literary experience.
Eric Prince is the creator and operator of howwegottonow.com, a platform designed to provide content and context on the most important events happening today. Eric enjoys the daily NYT crossword puzzle, underlining entire paragraphs in books, and drinking one-too-many cups of coffee.