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The Hand and the Hammer: Art as a tool for social change

By Andrew Bell

Magazine - Social Justice

Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”.

Nowhere do these words, rendered so eloquently by German playwright Bertolt Brecht (though some give original credit to Leon Trotsky or Karl Marx), carry more meaning than in the economically depressed, historically exploited, marginalized communities across the globe.

A slum in Nairobi, a refugee camp in Jordan, a project development in Baltimore; they are all products of a system that has either forgotten them or actively sought to destroy them. They are products of a system that has also lionized White European creativity at the expense of anything Other. Buried them under dusty pages of Art History narratives that have reinforced a “West is Best” mantra for centuries.

In other words, they’ve been left hammerless, empty-handed, forgotten. This is not to say that these places lack art or artists. The graffiti/street art movement sprang from some of New York City’s most forgotten and marginalized neighborhoods in the 80s. The colorful, often political Congolese “popular painting” forms—which developed in the aftermath of Belgium’s colonial rule—were both powerful commentaries on oppression and a celebration of the fledgling nation’s culture.

Hell, just look the musical influence of the blues. Derived from the negro spirituals of slaves working on southern plantations is the U.S., it has since spread across the globe, birthing Rock-and-Roll, hip-hop, and Pop. Led Zeppelin, Kendrick Lamar, and Madonna all share this common ancestor.

Women are Heroes.Photo Credits – JR

What these places lack is the economic opportunity to expand and enrich their communities through the arts and art education. This will enable more people to conceive of themselves as artists and nurture a creative class will breed change makers which will bring positive social change within communities.

Though in many cases people don’t even have to conceive of themselves as artists. Felix Guattari, a French psychotherapist and author of Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm, argues that “art is not just the activities of the established artists, but of a whole subjective creativity which traverses the generations and oppressed peoples, ghettos, and minorities”.

Anyone can be an artist, then, and the simple, creative act can be enough to collectively uplift a community. Many of Guattari’s so-called “established artists” works to subvert the established paradigms of what art means and who can make it. JR is one artist doing this on a worldwide scale. Sometimes called the “French Banksy”, JR’s work has gained massive acclaim for the globetrotting ambition of some of his projects and their cutting commentary on oppression and inequality.

One of his projects “Women Are Heroes” back in 2008 and 2009, celebrated the dignity and energy of women in conflict zones, and involved massive coordination by his team as they pasted giant photographic collages of women’s portraits—sometimes fractured into just eyes or mouth or forehead, sometimes entirely whole and unavoidably candid—all around the world over the course of two years: on roofs, walls, trains, and busses in Kibera, Rio De Janeiro, Cambodia, Sierra Leon, Liberia, and Paris.

The result was a sort of global embrace. A powerful, hopeful defiance in the face of persecution. Expressed through the beaming smiles, glares, furrowed brows, steady eyes or worried frowns of the women photographed as they carried the weight of their socio-political burdens.

Inside out project on a gallery floor. Photo Credits -JR

But JR really cuts to the heart of Guattari’s message with his dual projects, “Inside Out” and “Can Art Change the World ? Inc.” . The former is “a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art”. According to, an interactive map allows the online public to explore the diverse array of over 260,000 individuals from 129 countries who have contributed their own unique perspectives on themes ranging from diversity to gender-based violence to climate change.

The latter, “Can Art Change the World ? Inc.”, is a non-profit organization that sets its sights on community-specific art education and outreach. One of its projects, Casa Amarela, works with the local community in Morro da Providecia, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, in order to provide a “culture of creativity and curiosity based on art and education…to enable the members of the community to take control over their own development and lives”.

In the vacuum of post-colonialism, there have been so many of these efforts to decolonize art and art history. Efforts to create community development through art, and in the process give artistic, cultural, and social agency back to communities—and whole cities and countries—that have been victims of history’s long, sharp, errant arrow.

Inside out project view from above. Photo Credits -JR

It can’t be stressed enough that the most valuable work being done by artists and organizations when it comes to fostering community development through art happens when agency is handed to these communities. When there are no other hands holding the hammer but those of the people from those streets or favelas or camps. There is a fine line between helping and patronizing, and it’s important to differentiate between the two, and not fall into some of the same savior complexes that were responsible for some of the mess in the first place

But sometimes all it takes is a spark to get an engine running, and the real empowerment, the real power of art as a driver of social change, comes when that spark dissipates and the engine begins to hum on its own.


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