The Role of Art in Activism

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

Mo Harper-Desir offers arts based services and education as well as racial equity workshops and facilitation to the community through her business, Mo HD Creates.

Creating social change and building a resilient environmental justice movement requires many different skills and forms of activism. While it can be easy to slip into the mindset that only direct action and community organizing have the power to make a difference, finding ways to incorporate other mediums such as art increases the ability of a movement to reach more people and utilize a wider array of experience and perspective. The realms of environmental and social justice extend beyond politics or science, with change needing to occur at every level and profession. Art has a significant role in activism, both as a tool for inspiring and healing. 

Stephen Nachtigall, an artist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at Cal Poly Humboldt, teaches graphic design and animation as well as a special topics course entitled “Radical Graphics: Activism and Climate”. He pointed out that at its most foundational level, art works to enhance movements by boosting their messages and making them more accessible, easier to understand, and more interesting to the broader public. Nachtigall also believes that art has the ability to foster growth and expansion by creating room in the middle between the way an artist chooses to convey a message and the way a viewer chooses to interpret it.

“The way that we communicate issues about climate justice and ecological issues is not one-sided and it’s not a clear journey,” said Nachtigall. “It’s a very complicated pathway of understanding and reconciliation a lot of the time. That really needs wiggle room. It can’t always be a one path deal where you understand it, you get it, and then you move on. There has to be back and forth. That gray area is really important to me.”

Leaving room for interpretation is especially important when dealing with complicated issues, as different cultures don’t always come to the same kinds of understanding or relate to things in the same way. Because of its format, art has the potential to spark a conversation right away and connect with people on an emotional level beyond language. This is very different from the sciences, in which information is rigorously peer reviewed over a long time period, often requiring technical expertise to understand. While both are necessary for creating change, art usually includes adding a level of emotional intelligence and creativity to information expression, allowing people to connect with abstract problems on a personal level. 

Using art to restore humanity to these issues is a goal of Mo Harper-Desir, a local visual artist and micro business owner of Mo HD Creates. In her art practice, Harper-Desir engages in digital visual arts, photography, painting, dance, and poetry, while also offering arts based services and education as well as racial equity workshops and facilitation to the community through her business. In her perspective, art is a vehicle for tough conversations and storytelling. “I  think it’s a great way to tie humanity and life to social justice causes or climate change conversations,” said Harper-Desir. “Because they can be kind of harsh and boring at times. But then if we are able to take those stories from a person’s point of view or a person’s experience and really tell it, that helps people form empathy around these issues when they see how it relates or how it affects someone’s life.”

For Harper-Desir, who describes herself as existing in a lot of marginalized identities, art can create more social consciousness and be a tool for healing both those affected and involved with activism. Sometimes what is needed for a group of activists is a movement workshop rather than more organizing, in order to help process trauma and create change. Increasing representation and creating a space for artists of color in Humboldt County has been especially important for Harper-Desir, in addition to empowering young people to harness their art skills in order to further social change. 

Incorporating art in activism has become especially prominent for younger generations through the spread of technology. As Nachtigall pointed out, it has never been easier to learn digital design programs and create content that can be distributed widely. While this has many potential upsides, captivating attention through instant visual stimulus can be misappropriated by corporations and political figures. 

When considering the role of the artist in social change, Nachtigall said, “A lot of the work of organization and activism has to do with bringing people along for the ride and doing the hard work of enacting change. But I think in order to really work towards the world that we all want, and we all deserve, we need to have imagination, and it’s the artist’s role to be that person that can dream of the future and figure out ways to go from here to there. We need people that can be imaginative and dream of better ways to do things because it’s very clear that the status quo is not working. So instead of being piecemeal, trying to fix what’s broken, we need people that can go way further and dream about where we want to end up and maybe find cool ways that we can take steps to get there.”

“I feel like a lot of social change is based on changing a structure that already exists,” said Harper-Desir. “And it tends to be creative thinkers that imagine new ways things can happen. So I guess it kind of makes sense that creative people and artists end up being the voices of revolutions.”

To learn more about Nachtigall’s art, check out his website at Harper-Desir’s work and arts based education and services can be found at her website at ​​