Art tells stories. It always has. From fingerprints in a cave to lights in the sky, it helps us understand who we are - all in the universal language of lines and colour.
But art is also more than a medium for reflection. It can be a call to action, a voice for the silenced or the spark for a rebellion. Most importantly, art can be a tool for changing people’s lives.
Five years ago, UNESCO recognised the crucial role that art plays in sustainable development. The Hangzhou Declaration urged governments, civil society and the private sector to harness the power of creative industries to address the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges.
"Culture is precisely what enables sustainability – as a source of strength, of values and social cohesion, self-esteem and participation." Irina Bokova, Director General.
By placing art and culture at the heart of public policy, the Hangzhou Declaration recognised two things. Not only can artists mobilise people around important issues, they can have an active hand in the finding solutions.
Art doesn’t just tell us who we are; it shapes who we become.
The street art movement has always been associated with activism. The streets are where artists fight to reclaim the public space from the economic agenda of advertisers.
But while Banksy stencilling paradise posters on the Gaza Strip certainly makes a point, street art as a culture is doing much more for a community beyond drawing attention to the adversity of its people.
Interestingly, studies show that public areas with more street art have lower crime rates and create increased feelings of personal safety. The research studies, conducted in New York, USA and Ipoh, Malaysia show the positive effect that street art can have on our mood and behaviour. (Sakip, Bahaluddin and Hassan, 2016 and Snyder, 2009).
This kind of thinking has paved the way for programs like Wide Open Walls in Makasutu villages in Gambia. Here, a third of people live below the poverty line with an income of less than $1.25 a day. Every year, Wide Open Walls invites internationally acclaimed muralists to paint walls on homes and communal buildings in Makasutu.
The transformation is more than aesthetic.
Bringing professional artists into these communities lifts morale, evokes a sense of pride in homes and promotes unity within villages. It also creates a tourist attraction that sets the community apart, sparks interest and generates income from tourist visits. (Kostov, 2014) In a place with scarce resources, this kind of revenue is invaluable.
Similar projects like The Painters of Jalouzi in Haiti and the Las Parmitas Barrio in Mexico are proving the power of street art to actually change the social fabric of an area and effect positive change both outside and within community walls.
There is so much more to street art than paint on a wall. The emergence of projects that blend street art culture with community development proves its power to catalyse real change.
This kind of art not only helps create a more beautiful public space but one that is safer, more prosperous and more socially cohesive.
“The role of an artist is to make revolution irresistible.” - Toni Cade Bambara, 2011.
Indian artist Arundhali Roy emblazons these words across her zine “Let Delhi Breathe”. Roy’s zine is simple. Dehli is chocking under air pollution.
The zine uses drawings and annotations to break down the science behind smog, its causes, and its effect on health. Roy also suggests a series of creative ways for the reader to actively protest to their local government, providing a kind of creative guidebook for mobilising around the issue.
“Let Delhi Breathe” is a perfect example of how an artist can make a complicated issue not only easy to understand, but give us the tools to do something about it.
Artists like Roy aren’t just playing with symbols and colours and lines. They are harnessing scientific knowledge in order to point us in the direction of a real solution.
In the environmental crisis we face today, these artists play a vital role. They have the power to distil important scientific realities, and execute these ideas in a way that everyone can understand.
One such artist is Cecilia Gregory, who uses scientific technology to create underwater sculptures that transform into thriving fish and coral nurseries. Gregory does this by collaborating with a reef restoration company called BioRock. She manipulates calcium carbonate material (the chemical compound that forms reefs) into images of local gods and deities and places them in oceans in Belize, Indonesia and The Bahamas.
Her works are a call to action for greater environmental stewardship, while also presenting an innovative solution to the immediate issue of endangered reef ecosystems.
Multi-disciplinary artists like Gregory are flag bearers for the Science, Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics Movement (STEAM). STEAM champions the idea that innovation is achieved by integrating STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) subjects with art practices.
“The very process of ecological art is science in action, even scientific experiment in action.” STEAM activists believe that while creative scientists find solutions, it is scientific artists who can mobilise them.
Artist Stefan Shankland draws on STEM disciplines to show the broader public how to re-imagine waste. His “Marble of Here” project with TRANS305 was a recycling initiative on a massive scale.
Engineers, construction workers, architects and community members helped Shankland collect rubble from a demolished building site, grind it into a new material and execute a monumental public artwork in the original location.
The two-year long project is an impressive example of art-science collaboration, and shows how practical skills can be used creatively to really galvanise an environmental message. In this case, how to rethink waste.
In an increasingly interconnected civic space, where disciplines can cross-pollinate and ideas can instantly transcend borders, hierarchies and regimes, the artist can do so much more than capture an image of a polar bear on an iceberg.
The artist is not just a storyteller, but a public campaigner. Not just a creative but a scientist, an engineer, a social worker and a revolutionary too.
They are not propositioning a better future, but part of the movement of change to create one.