Art is an ever-flowing, ever-evolving form of creation with tremendous potential.
Art can hide secrets, thoughts, and desires while also shouting important messages an artist wants to get across. Art, in the context of social justice, has incredible power to create empathy, inspire change, and make viewers step away while taking important messages with them. Artists who create these pieces are important to pay attention to because they are major contributors toward inspiring the world to make changes for the better.
Kara Walker’s body of work is a major exploration of African American racial identity in history. She’s most famous for her work of black silhouettes against white backgrounds. Walker doesn’t censor the brutal and violent reality of pre-Civil War slavery. Her use of collage and light projectors harkens to puppet-show storytelling and immerses the viewer into the stories of slaves. “I didn’t want a completely passive viewer. Art means too much to me. To be able to articulate something visually is really an important thing,” Walker states. “I wanted to make work where the viewer wouldn’t walk away; he would giggle nervously, get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful.” Walker’s work is powerfully tragic, yet necessary because it’s one thing to read about the horrors of history and another to see it come to life.
Columbus, Georgia born artist Amy Sherald remembers her time at a private school where she was one of a handful of black students in a predominantly white population. This experience, she credits, is a major contributor to the subject manner of racial issues and African American identity she pursues in her portraits of black Americans.
In her portraits, she places her subject in a space of pure color. Contrasting to this color, her subjects’ skin tone is in grayscale. Sherald states, “[it’s] to exclude the idea of color as race.” Her subjects are often staring directly at the viewer with a gentle gaze and are clad in vibrant pieces of clothing. These motifs all serve a purpose. As Sherald states in an interview with Hyperallergic, “I think that’s really important that all images that we see of each other — because we see so many different things in the media — that it’s nice to come into a space and see yourself expressed gently and just being able to sit with that. I think a lot of things that we consider fantasy are really what the Black interior space is like, how we live inside of ourselves.” It’s this intimate expression of black identity that leaves viewers impacted with the subjects’ emotions, aspirations, and personal lives.
Howardena Pindell is an abstract expressionist and activist. One piece she’s known for is Free, White and 21 (1980), a video performance art piece. In it, she describes the racial discrimination she experienced as a black woman coming of age. After each story, she would appear on-screen in makeup, sunglasses, and a blonde wig which represents the white women from the time she grew up. Then, the character would say statements to discount the experiences Pindell went through like, “you won’t exist until we validate you.” Overall, this performance is incredibly powerful and plunges the viewer headfirst into the harrowing experiences Pindell went through.
These artists represent just a sampling of those who have and continue to create art that impacts society. Their art brings light to important social issues that inspires empathy and change within ourselves and society as a whole.