Art as Activism: 8 Artists Who Led the Way
We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and call for an end to racial inequality and injustice. Artists have never shied away from expressing outrage over oppression and injustice. From the 1700s, when Jacques-Louis David painted his support for the French Revolution to modern-day designers who create revolutionary political posters, art has mobilized people to act. Today, artists, writers, and ordinary people are protesting, making art, writing, singing, and organizing to speak out against injustice. The following artists can help us see the way forward. Looking at their artwork inspires us to stay engaged in the fight for a more just society.
#1. Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) is one of the best-known American artists of the 20th-century. During his long artistic career, he explored the history and struggles of his fellow African Americans. His most important work, the 60-panel Migration Series, tells the stories of the millions of African Americans who migrated from the rural South to the urban North as part of the 1916-1970 Great Migration.
Lawrence narrated each panel in his series, starting in the South, where poor wages and an unfair justice system made survival difficult. The narrative moves to the North then, where crowded city-living led to new threats such as tuberculosis outbreaks, and the wages and justice system were still unjust. Two museums exhibit the paintings: The odd-numbered paintings are on display at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the even-numbered paintings are on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
#2. Elizabeth Catlett
Sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) used her art to advocate for social change in both the U.S. and her adopted country of Mexico. Much of her work focuses on the experience of African American life and political struggle during the middle of the 20th century. Her posters of well-known activists, including Angela Davis and Malcom X, were widely circulated at the time.
Catlett’s 1968 wooden sculpture, Black Unity, shows the raised fist that became a powerful symbol of the Black Power movement. The work is featured in the monumental exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which is traveling around the United States after the Tate Modern organized it in 2017.
In 1946, Catlett was awarded a fellowship that sent her to Mexico City, where she worked for twenty years and eventually became head of the sculpture department for the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas. During this time, she met Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who inspired her artistic and political work. In 1949 she was arrested during a railroad workers protest in Mexico City. The U.S. State Department barred her from entering the U.S. and declared her an “undesirable alien” because of her political affiliations. She was unable to return home to visit her ill mother before she died. In 1962, she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen, although she eventually regained her American citizenship in 2002.
According to the artist, the main purpose of her work is to convey social messages rather than pure aesthetics. Art students study her work looking for dramatic ways to use social activist art to effect change in race, gender, and class issues.
#3. Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera (1886-1957) was a Mexican muralist and painter. His large frescoes helped establish the mural movement in Mexico and around the world. A member of the Communist party, Rivera painted murals that criticized the ruling class, the Catholic church, and Capitalism.
Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera painted murals in Mexico, including Mexico City and Cuernavaca, and in the U.S., where he painted large-scale murals in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York. In 1933, he traveled to New York with his wife, artist Frida Kahlo, so that he could paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center. He called the mural Man at the Crossroads and planned to depict comparisons between Capitalism and Communism. Nelson Rockefeller famously fired Rivera from the Rockefeller Center project when Rivera refused to remove a portrait of Vladimir Lenin in the mural. Rockefeller ordered the mural to be plastered over, which resulted in protests by other artists.
Luckily photographs were made of the mural, and Rivera was able to recreate it in 1933 in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, calling this version Man, Controller of the Universe. Throughout his career, Rivera depicted the plight of farmers and laborers who lived in poverty, while wealthy people benefitted from their labors.
#4. Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold (born October 8, 1930) is an African American multimedia artist. She paints, quilts, writes, creates sculptures and masks, and does performance art. She is most famous for her beautiful story quilts that show the lives of African Americans living in New York, visiting Paris, and celebrating with family members. You can learn more about her art and life at her website: https://www.faithringgold.com.
Ringgold’s 2010 Dear Selma silkscreen is about Selma Burke. Selma Burke was an African American sculptor and a member of the Harlem Renaissance group of artists. She is best known for her bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A version of this portrait appears on the American dime.
A lot of Ringgold’s art in the 1960s and 1970s was overtly political. In 1968, Ringgold joined fellow artist Poppy Johnson and art critic Lucy Lippard to found the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee. The committee protested a major modernist art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, demanding that women artists account for fifty percent of the exhibitors.
In addition to creating visual art, Ringgold wrote a number of books. In this video you can hear her reading from her Tar Beach children’s book. The book started out as a story quilt. Ringgold’s work is featured in the Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition which is traveling around the U.S.
#5. Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican painter who combined realism, surrealism, and fantasy with icons from her Mexican culture. While visiting the U.S. with her husband, Diego Rivera, Kahlo wrote to a friend that she was interested in the industrial and mechanical developments of the U.S., but she felt “a bit of a rage against all the rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery without anything to eat and with no place to sleep.”
Kahlo’s artistic career was a success despite a lifetime of physical pain and a difficult and famous husband who overshadowed her during her lifetime. She proudly wore her Mexican heritage in her clothing, jewelry, and hair styles, and readily expressed her distrust of authoritarianism and Capitalism. She was disabled, bisexual, outspoken, and revolutionary. Her art resonates with feminists, politically-active people, diversity advocates, and anyone who has experienced physical or psychological pain.
You can learn more about Frida Kahlo here.
#6. Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) was an American photographer, photojournalist, and social activist. She is best known for her work during the Great Depression when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration, a federal government agency that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created to combat rural poverty in the United States.
During World War II, Lange photographed the unjust internment of Japanese citizens. She traveled around urban and rural California to photograph families who were preparing to leave and visited several internment camps. Her images were so critical of the forced evacuation that the U.S. Army impounded most of them, and they were not seen publicly until after the war.
Lange’s compositions borrow techniques from modernism, using dramatic angles and stark imagery to startle the viewer. Her work makes us think about the inner lives of the subjects. It helps us really see the Japanese internees and the migrants who were displaced by the twin disasters of the Dust Bowl drought and the Great Depression. Lange’s photos show us the resilience, dignity, and individuality of the people she photographed.
You can learn more about Dorothea Lange here.
#7. Wadsworth Jarrell
Wadsworth Jarrell (born November 20, 1929) is an African American painter, sculptor, and printmaker. Jarrell attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and after graduation, joined the local Chicago arts scene. His art depicts the working life of African Americans in Chicago and was inspired by the sights and sounds of jazz music. In the late 1960s he opened WJ Studio and Gallery where, along with his wife Jae, he hosted regional artists and musicians. Jarrell’s career took him to Africa in 1977, where he found inspiration in the masks and sculptures of Nigeria.
Throughout his life, Wadsworth has created art that captures the beauty and power of black lives, creating portraits and scenes in vibrant colors that influence and inspire contemporary artists. Jarrell’s Revolutionary screenprint celebrates the renowned radical activist and intellectual Angela Davis. It incorporates Davis’s words with Black Power slogans to depict the intensity and power of Davis’ activism.
Jarrell was one of the founders of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), an African American artists collective that formed in 1968 in Chicago. He also contributed to the Wall of Respect, which was a montage of portraits of heroes and heroines of African American history painted on the side of a building on the South side of Chicago.
Notable images in the Wall of Respect included Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Aretha Franklin, and Harriet Tubman. Jarrell’s section focused on one of his favorite themes, rhythm and blues, and featured portrayals of James Brown, B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Aretha Franklin, and Dinah Washington.
#8. Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden (1911-1988) was an African American artist who worked in several media including watercolor, cartoons, oils, and collage. He was also a writer and composer and co-wrote the jazz classic “Sea Breeze” that Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine recorded.
Bearden’s 1941 Sacrifice watercolor references Picasso’s Guernica, which was Picasso’s response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and is one of the most famous examples of art activism. Bearden’s painting shows four abstract figures, including a central figure who holds a knife at the throat of the character at the far right. The topic alludes to the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible and also alludes to Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Issac. Bearden’s style was influenced by numerous sources, including the Bible, Greek myths, Western European art, African sculpture, the art of his American and Mexican contemporaries, and music, especially blues and jazz.
Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, but later moved to New York City, where his family hosted music and art salons in their Harlem home. Bearden graduated from New York University, where he worked on illustrations and political cartoons. In the 1940s, Bearden was part of a Harlem community of African American artists and writers known as the “306 Group” based on the street address of his studio.
In 1977, Bearden finished a series of 20 related works that retell Homer’s “The Odyssey” with the characters depicted as black-skinned. The Smithsonian Institution hosted a national seven-city traveling exhibition of Bearden’s Odyssey from 2012 to 2015. In this excellent video, “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” you can hear the artist talk about his work and see his hands creating the pieces. The video also features experts and scholars discussing Bearden’s work.