‘Everything Is Politics’; Street Art as Activism

How street art changed the face of politics.

Graffiti, in its simplest form, dates back to Ancient Rome. To this day, it can be seen scrawled over former taverns and houses in Rome, faded and spidery in its presence, but there nonetheless. It reveals themes of sex, politics, wine, and money, illustrating the ways in which desire for pleasure and power has consumed our race all throughout history. In more recent years, urban graffiti began to claim popular acknowledgement in 1960s New York, where a messenger by the pseudonym of Taki 183 marked his name all over the subway system using a simple ink pen. From this, the art of ‘tagging’ was born, which quickly evolved into a trend predicated on individual stylistic alterations by the artists.

In the 1970s, the social phenomena of graffiti continued to grow, as larger groups of people began to gather in order to make their mark on the concrete jungle. Rivalries emerged; gangs used graffiti to mark territory, but violence was rare among such exchanges. It became clear that this was about more than simply writing one’s name or the signalling of territory boundaries- it was about defiance, it was a declaration of the right to exist. It was about passion, love, and community, from people of lower socio-economic classes, who were denied the right to be creative in a capitalist society heavily patrolled by a white hegemonic, patriarchal, classist minority.

It was revolution.

As the Ancient Romans did, so too would individuals all over the world begin to uncover parts of their souls on public property. However, the ways in which graffiti was understood began to shift, as it took its place within artistic contexts. It also became increasingly important within political and social activism.

After learning that an American army tank had been destroyed using an ‘anti-tank gun’, an Indonesian street artist living in Yogyakarta (affectionately called Jogja) adopted the name ‘Anti-Tank’ for all his art projects, zines, and T-shirts. He puts up posters primarily on the southern side of Jogja, where many other artists also reside. Though his art isn’t inherently political, much of what Anti-Tank produces concerns human rights issues, and is often viewed through an activist lens, particularly given his choice of name. He stresses; ‘For me, everything is politics’.

Jogja has a long history of political resistance, and while street art began to emerge more rapidly in the 2000s, other art forms have been used to explore social issues. As an Australian with Indonesian heritage, I have grown up understanding the cultural importance of art in Indonesian society. When I last visited Jogja in 2014, I wandered around the streets in awe, struck by the politically motivated art that covered bare walls, fences, and buildings. Jogja is a city characterised by loud colours and smiling locals, and it’s no surprise that many artists found home there.

Taring Padi is a community of underground artists, living in Jogja, who produce posters, sculptures, music, and street performances. They emerged as a group following the fall of Suharto in 1998, in an era known as Reformasi (English: Reform) which was characterised by liberal politics, a stronger push for democracy, greater emphasis on freedom of speech, and a growing Islamism in politics and society. During this time, Taring Padi occupied an abandoned art school, which they used to as a place to live, create art, and run workshops. They helped to rekindle hope and build up a feeling of solidarity and resistance among a group of marginalised people, using art as their weapon of choice.

Taring Padi condemn corruption, social inequality, violence, and exploitation of natural resources, and criticise the government bodies of Indonesia very strongly in doing so. For me, their art is so important because of its ability to raise awareness about social issues, and to create conversations to change the nation for the better. In particular, Taring Padi is significant in its accessibility to a wide range of people. It was built as a group to deliver art and a space for the creation of art to the everyday individual, without pretension or prior education required. Taring Padi made note of this; ‘Good art is art that serves the people. And that is easily understood by them.’

For both Australians and Indonesians, street art is so significant. It is art created for the public, art created for the masses, without the constraints of traditional art practices. It’s a reflection of youth culture in city spaces, used to decorate, make a statement, or perhaps add a dash of chaos to an otherwise quiet street corner. I will always be fascinated by the bright colours splattered across grey walls, the echoes of the voice of young people wanting to be heard. Fundamentally, street art creates a dialogue, and links individuals to one another to share ideas, communicate, and mobilize.

‘With Flowers’; human rights, cultural politics, and the quest for intimacy.

NGV’s exhibition featuring Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei creates the opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue.

On December 11th 2015, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) opened one of its most ambitious exhibitions; an international showcase of works created by revolutionary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, and American pop artist, Andy Warhol. Developed by the NGV and the Andy Warhol Museum, with participation of Ai Weiwei, the exhibition seeks to explore the parallels and contrasts between the works created by two of the most influential artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. On offer is over 300 works, ranging from sculpture, to photography, paintings, film, and immersive installations. Walking through the exhibition, a narrative about politics, culture, humanity, and freedom in the modern world unfolds, revealing the ways in which art can be used as an incredible tool for social change.

As someone trying to navigate their way through the changing contemporary landscape, I was struck by the universality of the work on display. From a Chinese context to that of the American, themes such as heightened celebrity culture, subversion of power, and a quest for intimacy in an increasingly globalised world came forth from the work of Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol. As an Australian, I felt these sentiments resonate deeply within me; art has no language and knows no borders. In particular, Ai Weiwei’s commitment to human rights advocacy can be seen through his work ‘With Flowers’. In this series of photographs, Ai Weiwei depicts the everyday, public street, on which he has placed flowers, in a play on government surveillance. Similarly, Andy Warhol’s portrait of Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, following the death of John F. Kennedy, illustrates how the personal can be political. This portrait brings to light both the solitary mourning of the widow, and the collective suffering of a nation.

Importantly, this exhibition highlights the significance of global cultural exchange. At a time when technology essentially allows us to connect with most parts of the world instantly, we have much to learn from people existing in places different to ours, not only in terms of economics, politics, education, and science, but also in relation to arts and cultural movements. In Melbourne, we are incredibly fortunate to have an institution as amazing as the NGV to bring art from other parts of the world to us. Arguably, as a multicultural community, we should encourage greater cross-cultural dialogue through the arts, in order to heighten our understanding of each other and of ourselves.

Much like how Ai Weiwei responds with gentleness to political perversion, and uses art pop to uncover a deeper, violent aesthetic struggle in Maoist China, Andy Warhol addresses cultural politics in twentieth century ‘American’ modernity and questions a society fixated on fame and consumption. The curation of the work of the two artists by the NGV and the Andy Warhol museum, with involvement by Ai Weiwei, tells a story of universal themes, and opens space for dialogue across cultures in the arts sector. Not only does the exhibition show the strength of art and creation in human rights and political advocacy, it also shows us how similar we all are, and how much stronger we are together.