For a very long time, art has been used as a medium of expression. But in the twenty-first century, art has had a much greater purpose – and that is to bring about a change in the society we live in, to break free from the shackles of centuries-old repressions, and to deliver thought-provoking messages. Protest-art or “Art Activism, are pieces of art that are already created based on the theme of the protests. There are also contemporary and historical works and currents of thought that can be characterised in this way. Social movements produce artworks as the signs, banners, posters, and other printed materials to convey a particular cause, but in the recent times, even performing arts have taken the centre stage. Often, such art is used as part of demonstrations.
It is not clear when this trend began. Many cases of ‘protest-art’ can be found during the early 1900s, like Picasso’s Guernica in 1937. However, the last couple of years have experienced a large number of artists adopting protest-art as a style to convey a message to the public.
Safdar Hashmi (1954–1989) was a political activist, playwright, poet, and founding member of the street theater group Janam (birth). He was a strong believer of secularism and egalitarianism and created Janam for theater aimed at political change.
On 1st January 1989, Hashmi was violently attacked while performing the play Halla Bol (Raise Your Voice!) during municipal elections in Delhi. He died of his injuries the next day. His death aroused a nationwide wave of angst for political violence and led to the founding of Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Theatre).
Sahmat’s art was against the threat of sectarianism and communalism; most notable was its response to the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya. Its plays have broken barriers of class, caste, and religion and have received artists, performers, and scholars, from different castes. Sahmat’s plays have also tried to counter political distortions of India’s history, like the exile of Jinnah and the Bengal Sepoy Mutiny being India’s first civil disobedience movement.
Unfortunately, Sehmat’s art hasn’t been taken seriously in India and what was once a huge art movement, has now receded to the backstage of political art.
The cartoons of Suhail Naqshbandi, who works for the Kashmir daily – Greater Kashmir, are popular on social media for their scornful and melancholic reflection of the unrest in Kashmir. One of the wall paintings shows a Kashmiri man holding up an IV syringe, attached to the arm of his dying son. This part of the sketch is titled Fact. Adjoining it is an art titled Fiction, a TV grab shows the same Kashmiri man with his arm raised. The IV drip is cut off from the screen, and the words ‘Stone pelter’ and terrorist appear at the bottom of the image.
Suhail Mir, another political cartoonist from Kashmir faces the same predicament as Naqshbandi. His cartoon of Afzal Guru’s roots still prevailing in Kashmir was removed from Facebook for instigating communal unrest. Another sketch is that of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti escorting a group of children, who have been blinded by pellets, towards a ‘dark future’. The cartoon is titled Un’pellet’able truth.
Today, Mir’s art can be found on multiple walls in the streets of Kashmir. But the irony is still the same. Children are pelted with stones in front of the painting of blind kids. Streets lush with AFSPA murals experience men being picked up from houses on suspicion of terrorism and dragged around at gunpoint.
In 2015, around 30 middle-aged women walked naked through Imphal to the Assam Rifles headquarters, shouting, “The Indian Army rapes us too… We are all Manorama’s mothers.” They held up posters showing the Indian Army bleeding red just the way the women did.
The Manorama Art Movement started after the death of Thangjam Manorama, whose body was mutilated and abandoned by the Assam Rifles in 2004. Since then widespread protests have been staged across Manipur. This is why and when Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike against AFSPA, sparking serious art inspirations across the state. In the past 14 years, several forms of art like murals, plays, and posters have been used to revolt against rape by the army.
JNU Wall Art
The paintings on the walls of JNU are in the truest sense, transient because every year there is a fresh set of graffiti on the walls. These paintings depict social and political issues in the most artistic and paradoxical ways. For example, one of the murals on the walls of the central library at JNU shows capitalism in the form of Satan, using his spear to bore a pit in the earth, where the labourers shall reside. The painting is a dig at capitalism in a democratic country, where the rift rises between rich and poor. Inequitable distribution has sent those at the bottom of the economic cycle in an abyss from which there shall be no respite unless we changed the system.
Another wall of the library, in 2015, showed two feeble woman-like figures hugging and merging in each other’s colours. The graffiti spoke against the Supreme Court’s verdict in favour of Section 377 that criminalises homosexuality. Activists at JNU explained that the art was meant to initiate progressive thinking in society.
Despite the constant fear of being thwarted and persecuted, artists continue to create motifs of rebellion against the state. Painting on walls can provide a sense of anonymity along with visibility. But simultaneously, such a practice is often illegal and artists are jailed or worse, violently attacked for allegedly “disrupting communal harmony”. But the movement never stops. With little to no guarantee for fruitful results of art activism, artists continue to paint their stories and travails. They continue to fight the system using surreal, melancholic, yet hopeful art of reformation.