We Rise As One: The History of Art As Political Protest - Thee Sim Ling

Over centuries of human civilisation, there have been many revolutions, protests and overthrowing of oppressive regimes around the world. Perhaps one element that all these events share is the presence of creatives who rebel against dictatorship and terror with their art. Even though the world may be filled with greed and evil, the one thing that cannot be censored and suppressed is the artistic self-expression of ordinary citizens.

The power of art in changing the world has been confirmed by many, including the World Economic Forum. Art, essentially, moves people. It uses beautiful elements to express messages of truth, justice, peace and love. Art imbues the creator’s deepest feelings, values and memories. Art may seem like a solitary pursuit, but it draws people together and unite them to fight for a common cause. People may not agree on the experience itself, but universal emotions are validated and provokes much-needed discussions. Imagination and inspiration in art also leads to brainstorming creative solutions and tackling inequality and injustice.

Art challenges the status quo, causing people to question existing social norms that perpetuate stereotypes and systemic discrimination. Nothing is taboo in art, only the idea of what is “taboo” itself.

In modern times, art is a constant feature of protests, rallies and marches for civil rights causes such as Black Lives Matter, feminism, climate change, and more. They appear in the form of wall murals, stunts, spoken word and many other forms. Striking enough to travel around social media, art can quickly enrapture the attention of many.

For example, activist poetry makes use of rhyme and imagery to conjure strong images in readers’ minds that compels them to act for those who are marginalised and oppressed. It can be read out loud (such as Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 US presidential inauguration) or put on paper. Activist songs also start out as poetry, incorporating literary devices to allow others to step into the shoes of people affected by civil rights issues and calling on them to support these causes.

Art is a way of battling against oppression and restriction in uprisings and protests. Currently, Myanmar’s military has staged a coup and is harshly cracking down on any dissent in the country, but that has not stopped poets, journalists and other artists from creating meaningful pieces of art that push back against tyranny. Myanmar’s history of poetry is deeply intertwined with politics and resistance of imposed rule. Poets wrote verse to fight back against British colonial rule, as well as the previous military regime, gathering in tea shops and using codes to communicate with each other.

Unfortunately, speaking out comes with a price. Artists have been censored, banned, arrested, and even tortured because of view they hold, whether in the public forum or in the hands of oppressors. Controversy often comes hand in hand with pushing the envelope, as strict laws on speech around the world have showed. At least 32 writers and poets in Myanmar are in some form of arrest or detention, according to PEN International as reported by The Guardian. Others have lost their lives in the crossfire or been punished for creating their art. A poet has been killed with his organs removed, and another doused in petrol and set on fire.

Even if there is no military conflict, there are very real consequences for artists in various countries who touch on social issues, ranging from backlash to loss of opportunities. For example, Singapore has many OB (Out-of-Bound) markers and artists are expected to toe the line in the public space. A cartoonist had his funding withdrawn over controversial political content in his work and a poet’s work has been raised by a politician in relation to a opposition figure and loyalty to the nation.

Society needs artists willing to question ingrained assumptions and make a difference. One key way to support artists is simply to appreciate their art and spread the message they want to convey.

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