Updated: Jun 27, 2018
Hello artful parents, social justice crusaders, sustainability seekers, world travelers and eye-candy escapists! I've been wanting to share this post with you for sometime now. It's about defining the term artivism, why I use it, as well as finding it and making it around the world. Are you ready for the journey?
It is a personal mission of mine to notice art and activism in public places. I'm curious about all of the things large and small that weave texture and breathe life into public places such that they stay in my mind, make me want to linger there, give me a tiny window into the culture of a place, make me laugh, cry or want to take action. There are lots of reasons why I've become mindful of street art and activism, one of them being my young Finn who is a wee bit too lacking in years to appreciate the traditional museum. Here's a picture of a somewhat disastrous attempt to visit the Reina Sophia museum with a toddler last year in Madrid. My innocent boy in front of the depiction of the worst of humanity in Picasso's Guernica brings tears to my eyes. But that's not the point. The point is that none of us much enjoyed the experience due to a squirmy, loud and determined-to-exit-the-place toddler. So we don't go to those kind of museums any more when we travel with Finn.
Now, we intentionally set out to experience the magic of the streetscape and the unexpected things that you can find there.
So what is artivism and why do I keep talking about it? A working definition might be helpful here. Artivism is a portmantu word made up of Art + Activism. According to Wikipedia, the term grew from "a 1997 gathering between Chicano artists from East Los Angeles and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico." No wonder it's such a powerful expression, right?!
My first experience with the term was in the lead up to the 2014 People's Climate March when there was an emphasis on using culture and art to share messages about climate equality and human rights. If you need some environment-specific street art eye-candy, check out this fun site. And here are some TED talks about artivism if you need some inspiration. My entrance point into artivism may have been climate issues but as I have spent the last few years intentionally seeking out creative expressions of activist sentiment, I see that artivism can be about, and embodied within, so many things.
From creating murals to the act of laying a heart shaped stone alongside a trail, I believe artivism is a democratic means of self expression using any means of creativity at one's disposal.
I see artivism as an inclusive way to to widen a discussion. It is a vehicle to tell stories that connect our myriad life experiences and compel us to act, not just to save polar bears, but to change the circumstances of kids in communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution or to show the graceful struggle of young immigrants, like Sophie Cruz who is depicted in this mural "Sophie Holding the World Together" by EL MAC.
In other words, I don't think you have to be an "artist" or to operate in a traditional art space in order to be an artivist, you just have to have something to say.
Artivist Examples From Our Adventures Abroad
As I explored in my Art of Belgium post, Brussels was the first stop on our adventure where the art made the street come alive and prodded us to feel more than the cobblestones beneath us and the Flemish architecture stepping up around us toward the sky. The color of the comic book murals literally lightened the late winter days, even in the freezing rain. I dare someone not to smile at the sight of a giant smurf of a tiny sculpture of a pissing boy dressed up in firefighter gear.
The street art in Belgium signaled to me that the people who live there have a sense of humor and beyond that they (like most of us) are grappling with many issues in their country. Look, they put this guy in their main train station. Was someone trying to make me laugh? Or were they subtly reminding me of the real polar bear in the Arctic frantically looking for her next meal as her home melts around her? I don't know the intent behind this big furry bear, but I had both reactions and feel that this was an effective artivist action.
The street art scene in Sicily also highlighted the humor and the humanity of its people. Finding an arm jutting out of the wall in a narrow alleyway made us giggle while this heart painted so carefully in front of boarded up ancient buildings, alongside Roman ruins felt poignant.
One evening as we emerged from a flu-induced hibernation in our Siracusa, Sicily apartment, we came across this incredible woman.
She was sitting on the edge of a narrow street that emptied into the plaza of the Duomo, the central gathering point of the town of Siracusa. She was silent, and held up her basket of folded paper. We exchanged a smile (and probably a little bit of magic) when I took a paper and Finn dropped a coin into her bowl. This is what our fortune told us:
"What we call life is a train with many cars. Sometimes we find ourselves in one, sometimes in another. On some occasions we pass from one to another. It happens when we dream or when we let ourselves transport from the ordinary." Paulo Coelho
Why was she there? What was she trying to tell us? Why was she dressed in silver and why did she choose this Coelho quote? We will never know and we will also never forget her. And Finn really likes trains, so he was particularly happy about this fortune.
Then there was the #spreadtheleaf treasure that we came across taped to the end of a bridge in Ghent, Belgium. We were admiring how the city has beautifully blended the old with the new, and my Auntie Lala made the discovery of this beautifully embroidered leaf.
Now if we are getting technical, this might be considered more "craftivist" than artivist because of the embroidered heart. Silly distinction? Maybe.
What is the difference between craftivism and artivism? I can't say that I've found a definitive answer except that there is an implied "gentler" form of activism embedded within the term craftivism. Betsy Greer has collected essays on the subject of craftivism in her book "Craftivism. The Art of Craft and Activism." Her website www.craftivism.com defines craftivism as:
"The practice of engaged creativity, especially regarding political or social causes. By using their creative energy to help make the world a better place, craftivists help bring about positive change via personalized activism. Craftivism allows practitioners to customize their particular skills to address particular causes."
Regardless of what type of activism it is, this little leaf has connected me, via images on Instagram #spreadtheleaf with many people around the world making delightful discoveries that put smiles on our faces. Apparently that's what @kzienie intended when she created the project to "spread the love."
American Artivists Abroad- The Art Drop
We couldn't end our adventures without making an artivist contribution of our own, especially since we would be celebrating Earth Day in Amsterdam and missing the marches and celebrations at home. So I planned two different Art Drops. One for the city of Siracusa to thank them for their hospitality and one in Amsterdam to celebrate the big E-day.
Using our traveling artivist kit, I painted two sheets of paper. Then I wrote messages on the backside and cut them into pieces. For the Sicilian Art Drop I translated the messages into Italian. The messages ranged from "Thank you" to "What do you love?" in Siracusa and "Happy Earth Day. Love your mother" in Amsterdam.
My co-artivist Finn and I then walked around the cities and found interesting places to leave the messages. Note the karate pose in front of the natural juice shop. Good job Finn!
On our last day in Siracusa, a few hours after we did our Art Drop, two men sitting at an ocean front cafe stopped me. "You are the lady" they said. "We found your message." I felt myself holding my breath. I had been caught, found out, discovered. Were they upset? Was I littering in their eyes? "Thank you!" they said. Whew, deep breath.
"Your message was exactly what we had been talking about before we found it. We loved it." Melting heart, sighs of relief, gratitude, hope, love- all of it came crashing over me like a tsunami. We had made a connection and teeny tiny difference in someone's day. It felt magical.
There is so much more to be said and done about the topic of artivism. This is what the Climate Love Project is all about- connecting us to each other and to our natural world using love and creativity. Now, I notice artivism everywhere and my life is fuller for it. I encourage you to look up, look down, notice the diverse forms of creative expression all around, consider the intent, watch the reaction, and enjoy the boundless beauty that surrounds us.
"The artivist knows that to make an observation is to have an obligation." M.K. Asante