(by Anouk Pardon and illustrated by Vaneeza Jawad)
Art has always served as a medium to express human emotions. It has a way of shaking people up and opening their eyes to previously unseen realities. This expressive nature of art has made the lines between being an artist and an activist hazy and fluid. Frequently both professions go hand in hand. Frida Kahlo was a feminist icon questioning Mexican society and drawing attention to indigenous culture. Picasso openly condemned fascism and unnecessary bloodshed with his famous anti-war painting “Guernica”. Ai Weiwei, a contemporary Chinese artist, has consistently used his art pieces to criticise China’s human rights abuses. When art and activism merge, art becomes political. It presents a form of resistance, protest, and opposition. This type of art is called protest art or art activism.
The famous Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko, who had to step down due to her close ties to Putin, wrote that it wasn’t fair that she had to express her political opinions in public. Her argument parallels one of many others stating that art should be separated from political orientation. When art is, however, practised in environments that systematically try to suffocate the freedom of expression, then art is inherently political. It means taking a stand and actively disobeying authority. In such cases, the idea that art is untouched by politics proves to be an illusion. Protest art epitomises this.
Nowadays, most protest art happens in the streets and on social media, rather than being displayed in museums. In Russia, art collectives have a history of being involved in resistance movements. Pussy riot, the feminist punk-rock group, is widely known for organising scandalous appearances to oppose Putin’s regime and shock the population. Artyom Loskutiv called the “monstrations” into life, which are essentially protests that involve people holding up banners with pictures and words making no sense. This minimises the danger of being persecuted for polarised statements but it still provokes the government. People flooded the streets when Navalny was on trial, and pro-Navalny murals and graffiti appeared on houses. Authorities were quick to cover them up, but the photographs taken of them spread on social media like wildfire.
The opposition of artists and ordinary people to the regime continues during the Ukraine War. Artists worldwide are painting murals on walls for everyone to see, which are shared on social media and highlight Putin ́s violence. While Ukrainian artists pick up arms to defend their home country, Russian artists are trying to inspire solidarity among their fellow citizens for Ukraine. In Russia, in the current political climate, these acts of defiance have become incredibly dangerous. Still, thousands of artists sign anti-war petitions, support cultural boycotts and join demonstrations in the streets. Cultural workers who are subsequently detained and fired from their jobs have become daily occurrences.
Protest art has become a carefully balanced act; it has turned into art in itself. One step could be one step too far, but not doing anything is simply not an option. An art collective in St Petersburg responds to this situation by staging and sharing bizarre art projects that are not directly opposing Putin, but are still somehow puzzling. One artist made her way to the river in the middle of the night, dumping red paint into it. The thought of Russians waking up to a symbolic ‘river of blood’ made her hope that more and more Russians would start questioning Putin’s actions in Ukraine.