Art has been a tool for social justice as long as humans have expressed their creativity. Whether it’s drawing, painting, songwriting, or some other craft, art moves people from every culture. Art speaks to our emotions and motivations in a unique way. It educates, inspires, unites, and confronts. Here are ten examples of art for social justice:
First produced in 1787, these medallions are printed with an image of a chained Black man on one knee. The coin’s inscription reads: “Am I not a man and a brother?” Potter and artist Josiah Wedgewood made the medallions the year that the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in London. Upon joining, Wedgewood gave each member one of these medallions.
This 1830 painting depicts the French Revolution and that era’s dramatic spirit. In Liberty Leading the People, “Liberty” is presented as a woman carrying the French flag. She leads a group of people fighting against the monarchy, who were corrupt and oppressive. Unfortunately, the victory of the French Revolution was tainted as it ushered in the Reign of Terror. Like many pieces of social justice art, Liberty presents a symbolic version of history.
In 1937, Germany bombed Guernica, a small Spanish town. Over 1,600 people – mostly children and women – died. When artist Pablo Picasso read an account of the bombing, he dropped his current project and began to paint the horrific event. He wasn’t known to be an especially political person, but something about the story caught his attention. It took him five weeks to complete Guernica, a large and visceral rendering of the bombing. The painting eventually became one of the most famous anti-war images in the world.
The Holocaust remains one of history’s most horrific violations of human rights and social justice. In 1945, British soldiers discovered 60,000 dying prisoners at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Doris Zinkeisen, an artist with the Red Cross, painted German nurses and doctors caring for the skeletal camp prisoners. Striking images like Human Laundry are difficult to look at, but provide a record for the atrocities humanity is capable of.
There should be at least one song in this list of art examples. Based on an old hymn sung by striking union members at a tobacco company, “We Shall Overcome” became the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights era. Many people covered the song, including Joan Baez at the March on Washington. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was killed, over 50,000 people sang it at his funeral. It’s since been performed and played at protests all over the world.
Created in 2015, this porcelain and wood veneer piece depicts a boat with faceless figures traveling on it. Despite their lack of distinct features, their emotions sing through the work. They kneel, cover their faces in grief, hunch over, cradle infants, and comfort one another. Artist Maru Hoeber’s concern for refugees inspired the piece. The use of a boat is especially powerful considering how many refugees die attempting to cross dangerous waters.
This mural was created in 2016 for the Rio Olympic Games. At the time, the 623-foot mural was the world’s largest mural created by one artist. It depicts five Indigenous people from five continents – a Tajopo boy from Brazil, a Mursi woman from Ethiopia, a Supi man from Northern Europe, a Huli man from Papua New Guinea, and a Kayin woman from Thailand. The artist’s goal was to represent cultural diversity and human unity, two things that social justice must acknowledge.
In 1945, the United States dropped two bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hiroshima, 80,000 people died instantly. In Nagasaki, 40,000 were killed. Hundreds of thousands more would later die of radiation poisoning. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum collects thousands of drawings from survivors, including one from Hiraharu Kono. Three days after the bombing, Kono dug up the bones of her family. This drawing of a hunched figure in front of a burning heap, the sky filled with smoke, depicts the discovery. Artwork from survivors is especially powerful and shows the devastation of nuclear war.
Within weeks of the 2015 Charleston church shooting where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine Black church members, artist Leo Franklin Twiggs began processing his pain through art. He completed a nine-part series that honors the victims, moving through emotions like terror, pain, grace, and unity. Twiggs later created another piece called Conversation inspired by comments that visitors left. These pieces are an excellent example of how art inspires discussions and reflection on social justice.
This four-part canvas shows a group wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods looking over a city at night. Painted in black and white, the piece resembles old photographs, but this painting is set in the present day. The Klan members engage in disturbingly normal activities, like holding a child (who also wears a hood) and scrolling on an iPhone. Valdez’s message is that white supremacy still thrives in America. Without awareness of oppression, social justice doesn’t stand a chance. Art plays an essential role in raising that awareness, tugging at our heartstrings, and inspiring action.