Activist art is a combination of strategic actions for social change and the ability of art to move our hearts, provoke deep thoughts, and start looking at the world differently. The trend of activist art began to take shape in the 1990s, but it does not have a single origin. One can look to Ricardo Dominguez, an American artist and professor at the University of California in San Diego, and the meetings between the Zapatistas and American artists of Mexican origin (Chicano) in 1997 in east Los Angeles, for early examples.
Although activist art has been discussed in art discourse since the 1990s, it still lacks a clear definition. It is a manifestation of global artistic initiatives that come from different backgrounds, theories, and social motives, and, consequently, it is defined by many different terms: Socially Engaged Art, Committed Art, Community Art, Dialogic Art, Intervention Art, Relational Art, Artivism, etc.
This trend is one of the key practices of contemporary art, as activist art projects aim to prove the inextricable relationship between art and everyday life. Artists involved in this practice do not have a common style like Surrealism, Cubism, or Pointillism, or a similar medium such as sculpture, film, music, or performance, but many of the artists describe their art as inter-human exchange. Following this idea, the only link that connects activist artists is that people are integral to the artworks.
One example of this practice is an activist organisation, Women on Waves, started by Rebecca Gomperts who wanted to call attention to women’s situations in countries that outlaw abortion. In her opinion, the inability for women to make the choice to end a pregnancy with medical support leads to unsafe operations that very often end with health problems or even death. The aim was to create a fully-equipped boat of medical supplies where every woman would be provided with the required sexual health-services, including a consultation with a specialist or even an early medical abortion pill.
Since 2005, the organisation also works online as Women on Web and provides information about safe abortions, pregnancy, birth, health and sex. Women are still able to receive legal abortion pills through contact with a specialist.
The grant that funded Women on Waves came from the Mondriaan Fund, a Dutch non-profit organisation for visual art that helps artists. Rebecca Gomperts earned a degree in art at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam before going on to attend medical school. Women on Waves used what is referred to as the “A-Portable”, a specially rigged boat designed by artist and sculptor Atelier van Lieshout, as a mobile gynaecological clinic, which also functions as an art installation and was exhibited in Portugal at the Ute Meta Bauer’s Women Building exhibition and in Amsterdam at the Mediamatic art space.
The purpose of creating this organisation as a part of the art world wasn’t just to draw attention to the matter of women’s rights, but to actually make changes and give people choices. Women on Waves was created as an art project in order to raise the money to start the campaign. “We’ve always been interested in the link between activism and art,” says Kinja Manders, project manager for Women on Waves, “and in finding creative and conceptual solutions that are on the edge.”
Artistic activism combines two very different concepts. Art is supposed to have an emotional impact on us, as well as a certain affect, while activism aims to change something and achieve a desired effect. The Women on Waves organisation shows how different artistic activism is compared to traditional ways of creating art. It shows that art can be everything, even a fight to have a legal and safe abortion, and that activism can be designed and exhibited.
Written by Zofia Nowakowska, Student Ambassador for The Art Story. I recently, graduated with a BA Fine Art from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. I’m passionate about conceptual and socially-engaged art, and my research focuses on the impact of digitalisation on the art world.