Examples of Visual Art Activism for Racial Justice


Female artist painting in studio

Art is usually viewed in the context of being a creative endeavor for people to express themselves. When thinking of art, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and animations often spring to mind. But rarely is it a person’s first inclination to consider visual art as a form of activism.

Art activism, or artivism, is any form of art intended to make a powerful statement about society and the lives that people live. Examples of artivism for racial injustice include, but are not limited to, Nikkolas Smith’s depiction of a young boy reporting a black man’s death in his “Lynched” painting and other artists’ depiction of equality. 

Artivism for racial justice is a long-standing form of advocacy used by artists. One of the most famous examples of visual artivism is a painting created by Norman Rockwell in 1964 called “The Problem We All Live With.”  It was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement’s fight for school integration and depicts a young black girl being escorted to school by federal marshals who protect her from angry protesters.

Painting created by Norman Rockwell and posted to his museum’s Instagram page, @norman_rockwell_museum.

Recent racially motivated tragedies and events have again unveiled the prevalence of racial injustice in America and the increasing relevance of visual art activism– or artivism. In this article we discuss what artivism is, highlight visual artivism examples, introduce you to the creators and the messages they want to convey, and tell you where you can shop for and buy the featured racial justice artivism work.

What is Artivism?

Artivism is the combination of the words art and activism. It’s meant to spread the idea of social justice through art, inspiring people worldwide to take action. In addition to being able to admire the art form for its beauty, viewers can often become aware, gain knowledge, and connect with emotions related to social issues and the messages being conveyed by the artists. Any creative form of artist expression can be artivism such as drawings, paintings, street art, poetry and music.

Artivism focuses on how “political intention, or how political action, can become creative, poetic, and sensorial” (Source: Artivism Online). Artivism is useful because, in today’s political climate and pandemic stricken world, not everyone is comfortable marching the streets to show their support for causes. As an alternative, people can share art on social media or with their friends to start conversations about social issues such as racial justice and related issues like poverty and access to healthcare.

Understanding one another has turned into a lost art, but artivism tries to cut down the walls between people. It tries to share the experiences people have in life that others may not be able to see or understand in a way that’s digestible for everyone. 

Artivism is essentially a creative way to participate in a movement or social cause. Artivism gives voices to people who may not be able to express their struggles verbally; it is incredibly inclusive and offers people a space to connect with others who are experiencing the same thing as them. 

And for racial justice, artivism effectively presents the opportunity for dialogue for those who want to bring awareness to or know more about the experiences of being a person of color.

Artivism & Symbolism

Artivism is often symbolic, and its creativity is often used as a vehicle to help people get in touch with the issues, problems or barriers other groups of people face. It can take the form of many different artistic genres. Sometimes it can be quite explicit, depicting images of police brutality and murder, for example. Other times it can be incredibly poetic, creating quiet contemplation in those who view it. Artivism doesn’t always depict the grim realities of social injustice, but the combination of art and activism tends to evoke strong feelings.

Examples of Visual Art for Racial Justice

For decades, visual art has been used to represent the fight for racial justice and is meant to serve as a mirror that reflects the experiences of people of color. Artivism seeks to make a statement, and many artists do so beautifully. The following are recent examples of visual art that depict powerful messages promoting racial justice.

1. Nikkolas Smith

One of the most renowned visual arts activists is Nikkolas Smith. His work has been featured across the world in countless magazines, newspapers, television shows and movies, as well as promoted by musicians, actors, celebrities, and other well-known social justice activists. His work is diverse from depictions of black culture to portraits of police brutality victims and civil rights icons.

Smith’s illustration of a young black woman kneeling before a barricade of police officers wearing riot gear is a powerful depiction of the Black Lives Matter movement as experienced by many protestors and demonstrators. In the image, the woman is holding a mirror up so the police can see their own reflection. Smith aptly entitles this image, “Reflect.”

Illustration created by Nikkolas Smith and posted to his Instagram page, @nikkolas_smith.

Smith’s Reflect painting feels reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s school integration painting. And yet at the same time it offers a troublesome contrast to the sense of progress for racial justice– in Rockwell’s school integration image federal marshals are shown protecting and serving racial justice efforts whereas in Smith’s image the police seem posed to resist racial justice efforts. This piece is a great example of Smith’s goal to spark important conversations and inspire meaningful change.

Smith also has a piece of art entitled, “APRIL 4TH, 1968 -MLK50” which is an image of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., wearing a hoodie. Looking at it immediately evokes the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was racially profiled and fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

Illustration of Martin Luther King, Jr., created by Nikkolas Smith and posted to his Instagram page, @nikkolas_smith.

In his comments about this image, Smith writes:

“His fight then is our fight today. Let’s not forget that he gave his life fighting against the injustice of being persecuted for your outward appearance. We will continue the fight.”

Nikkolas Smith, Concept Artist

To purchase Smith’s images on prints, t-shirts, greeting cards and other products, visit www.nikkolas.art. Smith has also compiled a hundred of his sketches into a book called, Sunday Sketch.

2. Michael Rosato

Michael Rosato is an artist who lives in Dorchester County, Maryland, and this is the place where you’ll find his mural depicting Harriet Tubman that has moved many to tears and received national acclaim. The “Take My Hand” mural shows Harriet Tubman extending a hand out through a wall as an invitation to freedom.

In May 2019, a 3-year-old girl walking by the mural reached out and touched Harriet Tubman’s hand. The image was captured by her grandmother and went viral on social media.

According to the Washington Post, this image was captured by Tracy Kilgore Lynndee and posted by @maidenmaryland on Instagram. The mural in the image is painted outside the Harriet Tubman Museum & Education Center in Cambridge, Maryland.

Harriet Tubman—the central point of Rosato’s mural—is an important figure in history because she presented a choice to enslaved black people: to either take freedom, regardless of whether it was given or not, or to remain a slave.  When asked about what message he’s trying to convey with this mural, here’s what Rosato said:

“The inspiration comes from that moment when a slave has to make a decision to go,” he said. “This incredibly strong and compassionate woman is about to offer that hand for that freedom. And I thought, how do I capture that moment where it all happens, when the risk was taken to run from the slave owner, to a woman taking a risk to bring you through to the other side.

Michael Rosato, Artist

This image is powerful because despite advances in society, people of color still experience systemic racism, discrimination, and inequitable conditions. This piece of artivism aligns with these struggles and connects with the current protests behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Its timeless message reminds us that we have a choice to make– will we wait for society to give equality? Or will we take opportunities, even in the face of serious risks, to strive for freedom and equality right now and every day?

To purchase prints and t-shirts with the image of the Harriet Tubman Mural, visit harriettubmanmural.com.

3. Danielle Coke

Danielle Coke creates visual images to spark conversation, incite change and create anti-racism awareness through her art. What makes her work unique is her combination of words with art to help educate and guide people towards love and unity.

Here’s what Coke said about her artivism in her interview with Allure.com:

“My art aims to make complex issues more digestible and provide practical ways to help you make a difference in your community,”

Danielle Coke, Artist

Coke has an illustration called “Anatomy of an Ally” that gained popularity during the Black Lives Matter protests in May 2020. Her artwork was the fuel behind her success in raising over $10,000 in a fundraiser dedicated to providing posters of her anti-racism illustrations to teachers and schools in America.

Illustration created by Danielle Coke and posted to her Instagram page, @ohhappydani.

Coke has also created a line of greeting cards featuring some of her artwork. She uses the greeting cards as an opportunity to educate and create dialouge about microaggressions, which are “comments that subtly (and often unconsciously) express a prejudiced attitude toward members of marginalized groups.”

Greeting cards created by Danielle Coke and shown on her Instagram page, @ohhappydani.

As an artist, Coke uses artivism to not only educate and bring awareness for racial justice, but also to present hope to people. She reminds us of the possibility that life can be fair, people can get along, and people can be treated equally.

To buy Danielle Coke’s illustrations on prints and greeting cards, visit www.ohhappydani.com.

4. Shirien Damra

Police brutality incidents in recent years spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn has motivated Black Lives Matter artivism. Many artists express their lament over racially motivated injustices in their creative work. One such example is Shirien Damra.

The day after George Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota, Damra shared her “Justice for George” illustration on Instagram and wrote the words “heartbroken, angry and disgusted” in her comments. She’s also created similar art for Elijah McClain and Breonna Taylor, both victims of police violence that was excessive, unexcused, and unaccounted for.

Illustration of George Floyd created by Shirien Damra and posted to her Instagram page, @shirien.creates.

Another illustration by Damra depicts two people holding hands—one lighter-skinned person and one darker-skinned person (assumed to be of different races)—with the sun shining in the background. It’s entitled, “Support One Another.” There’s a peaceful serenity to the picture, and it’s incredibly impactful. It stands out because something as simple as different races getting along and supporting each other can seem so out of the ordinary given the ongoing racial conflicts in America.

Illustration created by Shirien Damra and posted to her Instagram page, @shirien.creates.

Damra, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee family, became familiar with injustice and racism early on. Here’s what she says about her artivism:

I’m an illustrator + designer committed to using art and creativity as a tool to uplift social justice movements and campaigns, to amplify marginalized groups, to visualize that better world we’re striving for, and to heal.

Shirien Damra, Illustrator & Designer

To purchase Damra’s illustrations, visit shiriendamra.com.

5. Tiffany Graham

One of the great things about artivism is that it’s an advocacy method that can be used by anyone, regardless of age. So, it’s not surprising to see young artist, like Tiffany Graham, combining their creative skills and desire for advocacy into artivism.

Tiffany Graham's Artivism painting called "Beauty of Blackness"
Illustration created by Tiffany Graham and available on her website.

Graham is a high school student who expresses her support for various social issues, including racial equality. She uses colorful symbolism in her paintings to convey her messages of beauty, fairness, and unity. In the above image called, “Beauty of Blackness,” Graham’s goal is to highlight the inherent beauty of black people. She says:

In a world full of color, black seems to be the color the world cannot love blindly. So I say we show the world, the beauty of blackness and do it exquisitely, as usual.

Tiffany Graham, Artist

Graham’s art is a wonderful example of how those who aren’t old enough to vote or run for political office can still stand for what they believe in. Artivism is an effective way to help teenagers and even younger children deal with social justice issues while at the same time giving them a voice on issues where they may otherwise struggle to be heard.

To buy Graham’s paintings, visit www.tiffanysfinearts.com.

In Summary

It’s common knowledge that people of color have an increased chance of being stopped by the police for no reason, experience unfair treatment in the criminal justice system, have unequal access to housing and healthcare, and more recently, are more likely to work in environments where the risk of COVID-19 infection is high. Artivism for racial justice, civil rights and equality is a powerful tool for communicating these struggles.

Visual art activism can take many shapes, and each artist communicates something different with their work. And as we’ve shown in this article, activism artists come from all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and experiences. Above all, artivism inspires hope for the future of racial justice and equality. 

You can support artivism by sharing the works of these artists on social media and spreading the word about the messages they convey. Another way to support is by purchasing prints and other merchandise from the artists– artivism products make great gifts or beautiful conversational pieces for your home. And if you have creative talents and artistic abilities, I hope these examples of artivism inspires you to use art for activism towards the principles, ideas and causes that are important to you.

Author

  • I'm dedicated to helping others and using my skill set to help advance the causes I believe in. I enjoy writing articles to encourage others to do the same through advocacy and volunteering.

Shenetta Webster

I'm dedicated to helping others and using my skill set to help advance the causes I believe in. I enjoy writing articles to encourage others to do the same through advocacy and volunteering.

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