Art and social change: Five artists with a cultural strategy for change

Sara Z.E.Hughes works as AFSC's social media specialist. Sara is an artist, filmmaker and cultural worker who uses art for social change, a tool AFSC uses in our program work in many places including two recent traveling exhibits, Boycott: The Art of Economic Activism and All of Us or None: Responses and Resistance to Militarism. This piece explores several artists who effectively use different media to work for social justice. As we work to change narrative around militarism and racism, art can be a critical tool for changing the way people see. - Lucy

As an artist committed to racial and economic justice, it can be difficult to navigate the arts and activism worlds. They can range from a pressure to abandon history and have beauty be “apolitical” to a pressure to be outright, literal and dogmatic at all times. There’s few pathways laid out for those of us trying to navigate that space in between. 

For me, the role of artists in social change movements is not to just provide visuals for activists’ communication strategies and immediate needs, but rather to develop what artist Favianna Rodriguez calls a “cultural strategy” to help shift the way people think about the world. It’s our job to imagine the possibilities, shift the thinking on individuals and situations through our representations of them, to explore the grey areas that make humans complicated and interesting, and to uplift the hope and resilience of communities we are a part of to sustain them. 

Here’s a list of five artists who are people I look to as models of how to do this kind of cultural work. Each of them is creating work within their discipline to initiate the conversation with their audiences of what it would look like if everyone’s humanity was truly recognized. (There’s many others out there as well--these are just a few whose work has informed my own recently.) 

Octavia’s Brood (Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown)

Octavia's Brood

Octavia’s Brood is an anthology of science fiction, inspired by writer Octavia Butler’s collection of stories Lilith’s Brood. The book’s editors Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown offer a series of workshops bridging the worlds for speculative fiction writers and activists, showing how these stories can offer visions for social justice movements. “Any time we try to envision a different world—without poverty, prisons, capitalism, war—we are engaging in science fiction.” Says Walidah in an interview in The Nation. “When we can dream those realities together, that’s when we can begin to build them right here and now.” 

The Peoples Cook (Robert Karimi)

Robert Karimi

Performance artist Robert Karimi, aka Mero Cocinero Karimi or The Peoples Cook, can be found cooking a meal for his audiences while on stage, throwing a dinner party in a public space as part of an interactive installation, or peddling his mobile kitchen cart down the street. While cooking, his performances are filled with humor and engagement, while also addressing community issues from food justice to displacement and violence. 

Toshi Reagon

Toshi Reagon

Toshi Reagon carries on the tradition of her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon—one of the original Freedom Singers during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock—with her own unique style of music that blends folk, rock, funk and gospel. Her shows are often described as being like “going to church” as she leads audiences into joy, revelry, outrage and healing through her singing and stories. Her cultural work also includes speaking engagements, often as a conversation with her mother and/or daughter

Akosua Adoma Owusu 

Akosua Adoma Owusu

Akosua Adoma Owusu is a filmmaker with Ghanaian parentage whose work evokes conversations between the continents of Africa and America. Her experimental storytelling approach juxtaposes images that draw in audiences to conversations about race, slavery and colonialism in ways not often presented. For example, her recent short film Bus Nut uses an educational video on school bus safety along with recreated vintage quality footage to re-articulate the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Akosua successfully raised money to reopen the Rex, an abandoned movie theater in Accra, Ghana, that was built by Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah. The theater now serves as a training engagement space for emerging Ghanian filmmakers and artists. 

Favianna Rodriguez

Favianna Rodriguez

Favianna Rodriguez is a visual artist whose poster prints address social justice issues from war to reproductive justice. Favianna’s artwork has become iconic in the immigrant justice movement in particular—her monarch butterflies accompanied by the phrase “migration is beautiful” appearing at press conferences, vigils and protests nationwide. “I don’t believe in our lifetime we are going to see open borders. However, I think it’s an important idea to push out, because art sometimes is about imagining what could be, it’s about allowing people to think really big.” says Favianna. “Even though it may not translate to a policy outcome just yet, it’s important for the idea to be there because people in their subconscious associate migrants with really ugly concepts... so we need to counter those with more positive symbols.” She co-founded Culture Strike, a collective of artists bridging the worlds of activism and arts, together with hip hop journalist Jeff Chang and is at the forefront of organizing artists to come together for social change.