The repeating silhouette of a female face spread across the page is boxed in geometric shapes. Repeating text questions ‘Which side of history do you want to be on?’ and the statement ‘The only virus present is your racism’ demands the attention of the viewer. The use of vibrant colors: orange, blue and aquamarine bring energy and movement to the art.
Amidst this pandemic, injustices that plagued our society beforehand continue to prevail. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been a surge in reported xenophobic and racist incidents in the United States. These stories of harassment and abuse are more than a mere statistic but can also act as a catalyst for the creation of artistically based protest which bring greater awareness to these social issues.
Leila Chabane is a Paly alumnus who uses her art to promote social change. While her traditional focuses generally include mental health, intersectional feminism, eco-feminism and queer rights, the current dynamics of the country motivated her to speak out about recent racial injustices.
Although she has not experienced these attacks herself, Chabane still wants to bring light to the situation through her art. “After hearing personal stories from friends and seeing Chella Man, an LGBTQ activist and social media influencer, speak about being treated as lesser than because of their race, I felt motivated to want to speak about this topic as an ally,” Chabane said. “Rather than recreating a story, I really wanted to share and bring attention to Chella Man’s story.”
However, Chabane also recognizes that racial inequality is not the only problem that has surged as a result of quarantine. “In addition to exploring the way that coronavirus perpetuates racism, I also intend on creating an art piece about the idea of ‘safety’ because it’s incredibly close minded to assume that everyone can remain safe while at home,” Chabane said. “In fact, since the lockdown, domestic abuse calls have gone up by 25%.”
The immediate relevance of a social issue is a common source of inspiration for protest artists. However, the core passions of the artist are more often developed over many years.
Chabane did not originally intend for her art career to be centered around protest, but instead naturally incorporated her opinions into her artwork, as her focus and style changed over the years.
Throughout middle school, whether it was in an art class or just small doodles in the corner of her notebooks, Chabane was always involved with art. But it was not until the summer before her junior year of high school when she began her path to finding her true inspiration.
“Early on, I started creating art because it was a fun thing to do when I was bored during class,” Chabane said. “That being said, I began creating art to speak about gender justice once I found how often gender would negatively impact my daily experience.”
She took inspiration from the experiences she had with sexualization. “At the time, I had been followed home, catcalled, sexualized, and devalued for my gender,” Chabane said. “Rather than continuing to internalize these issues, I developed a platform that allowed me to express my authentic self.”
In order to hone her artistic skills and better establish a platform to speak about social issues, Chabane attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). In her first year of college, Chabane had an experience that would expand her focus beyond advocacy.
“After attending SAIC for a couple of weeks, I had been sexually assaulted and was told to stay silent. When attempting to cope, I found it incredibly challenging,” Chabane said. “Suddenly, I began using art as a form of therapy, something I never realized I could do.”
As her perspective changed, so did her art. Chabane found motivation in the people looking to her art for comfort as it related to their own experiences.
“I strive to paint and design to create safe spaces where individuals can think about and discuss taboo topics ranging from sexual assault to homophobia to loneliness to depression,” Chabane said. “Above all, I create art to spark hope, regardless of how hopeful I’m actually feeling.”
Chabane found her true voice and inspiration through several events that have occurred in her life. Since then, she has been able to discover the influence that her art can have on herself and the world.
“To me, artistic activism is the perfect way of addressing intersectional feminism since it allows us to communicate social justice issues, while at the same time, nurturing our mental health through using art therapy,” Chabane said.
Chabane has had a long journey to find her true passions in protest art and even though she creates her art on a relatively small scale, she is still able to connect with others like never before.
In the Spotlight
Being exposed to the concept of protest art allowed visual artist Paul Richmond to find his artistic voice by the age of four. This experience jump started Richmond’s career and landed him a household name in the genre of protest art.
“[In art class] I first learned that art can be more than just a pretty picture on a wall,” Richmond said. “It can actually be a way of communicating.”
Art was first a source of expression where he could exhibit his feelings about the bullying he suffered growing up. As the bullying ended, Richmond started using the power of his art to help others.
“When someone close to our family was sick or going through a difficult time, my parents would often suggest that I make art for them,” Richmond said. “It helped me realize that I could create something with my imagination that might help make others feel better.”
Once he saw the power in art, he expanded the topics of his protest art to LGBTQ+ rights, animal abuse, mistreatment of immigrants and other politically charged topics. As Richmond continued to expand his views, he started to attract an audience. Richmond was put in blogs and invited to have his art displayed in different galleries.
One show that he was invited to focused on animal abuse in circuses. “Each artist made a painting … and they were all linked together in the gallery to look like a circus train,” Richmond said. “My painting showed an elephant on a tiny pedestal with an ominous ringmaster in the background wielding a large whip.”
Richmond was creating these socially charged art pieces in a time where the topics were often taboo to the average person. Thus, as his popularity grew, so did the criticism.
“[People] said I was a terrible painter, I didn’t have any technical skills, my anatomy was wrong, they hated my use of color, etc,” Richmond said. “It broke my heart because I was insecure and wanted everyone to like everything I did.”
Being in the spotlight, at first, was challenging for Richmond. But he continued on his path, passionate about the art he created, and learned to see the positive impact his art could have.
“One of the biggest accomplishments of my life is hearing from so many young queer artists who tell me that my work was some of the first artwork they saw that they could connect with and that it inspired them to want to be artists too,” Richmond said.
Richmond has learned a lot from being in the spotlight. He has implemented different methods and worked to create unique pieces under his name, while never conforming to the style of his critics or losing his passion for art.
Sticks and Stones
Artists around the world are constantly channeling their opinions through their art, just like Chabane and Richmond. But utilizing artistic expression to incite social change is not a recent development and can be seen dating as far back as the Antebellum years.
From the time of their enslavement, African Americans have been using music as a cathartic release of pain from the injustices they have endured throughout history. William Anderson, a contributor to Pitchfork, an online music magazine, explains how protest music in the African American population originated from the times of slavery. “Someone could argue that singing field songs during slavery was a form of protest because it was one way that Black people maintained [their culture] despite deplorable, unfathomable conditions,” Anderson said.
Paly alumnus Ellis Obrien, who studied African American Studies at Bates College, considers slave hymns to be one of the original forms of protest music. “Slave hymns were a way of building unity within a community or congregation, but the hymns also were a way of testifying before God and witnessing to others the atrocities most enslaved people experienced,” Obrien said.
Following hymns, the development of country, blues, jazz, soul and rock genres all incorporated the critique of systematic injustices in the world, through the lyrics and tone of the music. Since then, African Americans’ protest music has grown into a tool that not only highlights social ills but demands social and political reform.
One modern civil rights movement that has prompted musical artists to call for social change is the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2013, the Black Lives Matter project was created as an immediate response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot the unarmed African American teenager, Trayvon Martin. The movement has since expanded their efforts to combat a wider range of anti-Black issues.
In conjunction with the movement, Black musicians have created albums about Black empowerment and self-love during a time when systemic racism is prominent in society. “Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout are some musical examples of a rejuvenated Black movement in music,” Andersen said. “[Music calling for social change] happens across the board. It’s not one genre or group or artist. It’s everywhere.”
Looking more closely at the song “Alright” from Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, publicly acclaimed as the modern Black national anthem after its release in 2015—arose during a time where police brutality against Black people in the United States was at the forefront of the country’s focus.
The lyrics of the song incorporate religious imagery and historical allusions which is why it is hailed as such an influential artistic piece. “The song embodies the pain, struggle and injustice African Americans face while simultaneously being an upbeat and hopeful track that casts a positive light on the future for Black Americans,” Obrien said.
Another song centered around protest is Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” which has an accompanying gruesome music video that targets white supremacy. Through the use of symbolism, viewers are directed towards, “the pattern in America of people caring for their guns more than those who are innocently killed at the hands of gun violence and racism,” Obrien said.
The graphic shock factor of the video reminds Americans that their culture has not yet fundamentally changed to combat racism in an effective manner, which songs and music videos can bring awareness to.
While embedded frustration can often erupt in violent matters, often the most powerful tool to fight injustices is music and its ability to capture our attention, changing our perspective, feelings and inciting action.
For centuries, Black people in America simply used music as a refuge from the inner turmoil of their frustrations with society. Or, if they were verbalizing their pains with the status quo, artists had no intention of sparking a revolution.
Regardless of whether the music was created to address the struggles in the Black community, Anderson says that all African American produced music is protest music. “The very fact that Black people made [any] music in the midst of anti-Black state violence is truly a protest itself,” Anderson said.
Sadly, it appears as if full social equality is a far off ideal, with unbashful hate groups still actively fighting against the inauguration of Black people fully into American culture. But what establishes itself as an insurmountable obstacle to most Americans, Black people see as a chance to utilize songs to shake a public of listeners to fight for equality.
Furthermore, Anderson doesn’t believe that rallying cries of protest music will fade in influence or go away any time soon. “Black people have used our culture to overcome white supremacy for a very long time,” Anderson said. “We have used every piece and every cultural resource we have at our disposal to be effective in our resistance.”
Music has become a combative tool to highlight the oppressive nature of American society against nonwhite groups. “Music and art were especially important for Black Americans since many of their other avenues for protest were violently suppressed,” Obrien said.
From the banning of large gatherings to other preventative measures, art created in the spirit of protest has become a necessary outlet for the African American community and has been used across different genres and historical eras.
“The journey for Black Americans has had a potent musical score: from the African beats enslaved peoples carried with them from their homelands in the hulls of slave ships to … the rap and hip hop that speaks to their agency and their fight for freedom from brutality and injustice,” Obrien said.
Whether we admit it or not, the current racially divided climate exists and won’t be going away while Americans remain indifferent and apathetic to the scarily normalized atrocities committed against African Americans.
What should not remain forgotten in a time where entire cultures appear to be holding onto the last straw of emotional tolerance is, “Art touches the human heart and opens minds—music, perhaps, more than any other form of expression. Combining music with powerful, poetic lyrics creates community and solidarity, and the hope and inspiration for the future that deep bonds of community and solidarity bring,” Obrien said. Let the battle for equality continue, but let’s not fight with sticks and stones, but instead with songs. With these tools, people are able to advocate for their rights and speak to those who cannot relate to their words.
Members of different movements have struggled to find their voice, but with art and music, they can build their unique path of campaigning. Art and music give people the chance to be completely transparent with their feelings, beliefs and understanding of any types of movements. In recent years, artistic expression has been at the forefront in advocating for any type of movement because art and music have the ability to put words in places where actual words are not found.
For more recent coverage that highlights student initiatives for the Black Lives Matter movement, check out our story extension, “Behind the Signs.“