Art has been historically used as a tool of activism, especially in consideration of the public demonstration and art used as tools of civil disobedience in Atlanta throughout its civil rights struggles. The need for the intersection of art and activism has never been greater for young people victimized by gun violence, racial injustice, police brutality, discrimination, and suppression of human and civil rights.
Looking at this year of societal evolution, young people have kindled the sparks of change that have swept over this country in an inferno, from leading the March for Our Lives protests against gun violence and delivering letters to their representatives, to protesting police brutality and racial injustice, and then to showing up in droves for LGBTQIA+ solidarity in the Atlanta Pride festival this October.
Atlanta’s High Museum of Art serves as a perfect backdrop for these conversations of art and social change, holding the politically charged Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith exhibit “With Drawn Arms,” a commentary not only on historic social justice but its juxtaposition to contemporary activism. In a time when it is more necessary than ever to amplify the voices of social justice-oriented young people, teens explore what art and activism mean to them, and how it can be used as a progressive tool for change.
Shamayam Sullivan, 17, Grady High School
I believe [activism and art] is absolutely interwoven. You need art to do activism. Many people don’t want to hear the same words being repeated, so you need something more shocking, more visual to actually resonate with them.
Francis Flannery, 15, Druid Hills High School
Art is very important to expressing people’s self and releasing themselves. Sometimes art can be used to captivate others and to show things that might not be easily discussed or conveyed in a conversation. And so art can be used to either represent or show something; the art itself can be chosen to be something that people can strive toward.
Anna Samson, 16, Stars Middle High School
Art can be interpreted in many different ways. Someone could put a very in-depth message in an art form and people could interpret it in various ways based on their beliefs and differences. I feel that it is a peaceful way to send a strong message.
Walker O’Brien 14, DeKalb School of the Arts (DSA)
Art, in general, is very much about expression and the world. I feel that activism can be interrupted through that art. I’m an acting major at DSA, and the plays you do, the characters you present, the monologues you perform — I think that all of that can very much be based on activism.
Leonardo Hinnant, 14, DeKalb School of the Arts
Art can definitely influence activism a lot. People might not know how to use their words, and instead they can portray activism using art in this way and help inspire other people.
Brittany Brantley, 13, DeKalb School of the Arts
I think that activism can be inspired by art. When you look at art, especially back in the day when there were different types social activism going on, you can discover what was happening from looking at it, and you can put what’s happening now into it.
Skyli Alvarez, 16, Alpharetta High School
I think art really relies on what’s on an artist’s mind. Artists use art to express their words without directly saying it. I think that art has always been very important in activism, such as zine-making in the 90s with Riot Grrrl and their drawings and depictions of women. They address issues in a more symbolic way because sometimes it’s hard to describe what your feeling, so they put that into art.
Sudesh Nade, 17, Druid Hills High School
I think art really has the power of influencing basically anyone, no matter what position they’re in, whether it’s of high power or if they’re just a kid looking at a piece of artwork in an art museum like the High; it can be very influential.
Ellie Kurlander, 16, Mount Vernon Presbyterian
I’m actually the president of the Ethics and Arts Club at my school, so this [art and activism] is exactly what we talk about. I definitely think that art and activism go hand in hand, because art is an amazing platform to really express injustices in the world through a larger platform that more people can really understand and have access to. Art can really be a jumping off point and can be analyzed and interpreted in ways that can create change. I think that it’s so important, and we should have these kinds of conversations and emphasize the significance art and activism have.
Kacey Scallion, 17, Westlake High School
I think art gives image to words. It’s easier to interpret something if you can see it, because words can have different meanings and so can art, but when you see it and you hear it, it gives a solid depiction of what it’s supposed to be. When you say words, people are like “yeah, sure,” but when they actually see something, they feel something, they touch something, it makes it a lot more like “oh wow this is real, because I can actually touch it.” I can understand words, I can hear words, but I can touch art, I can see art, and art makes me feel a certain kind of way that not necessarily words can.
Leah Greer, 16, Woodward Academy
I think that art is tied into social activism because there are so many different platforms to express your views and the way you feel about what’s happening in our country today. I’ve seen so many artists who have done activist paintings and drawings and illustrations that have impacted how I’ve seen things. I think that it is very important to reach a wide audience, especially at our age because as teens, we need to know what’s going on in our country.
Lead by this generation of change-makers, artists and activists, Afropunk brings its 2018 Carnival of Consciousness to the streets of Atlanta’s Mechanicsville neighborhood for its 3rd year.
A festival celebrating the avant-garde, Afropunk reflects a thriving subculture of individuals that have not only made a space and platform for themselves but also spurred a movement for alternative blackness. These influencers, creatives, artists, and muses work outside the conventions of what blackness and art are “supposed to be,” and not only define what it means to be “Afropunk,” but embody the concept itself.
Afropunk musical culture is wide spanning and ever-evolving, describing lo-fi bedroom pop melodies as much as R&B influenced screamo. The lineup of the 2018 festival particularly stands out for its diversity, featuring headliners such as The Internet, N.E.R.D. and Pusha-T.
While the lineup contains a myriad of distinct artists, sounds, and genres, performances by Txlips, SATE, Benjamin Booker, and the Internet particularly blew away crowds.
However, Afropunk acts as more than a music festival, also servings as a creative platform and art showcase for a range of works such as film, installation, painting, and multimedia. The art exhibited, illuminated in neon hues, exists in a spectrum of color and form. Art pieces splatter and hang from the walls, from abstraction and conceptual work to portraits and pop culture pieces; installation climbing to ceiling heights and ephemera like found-object art perplex and intrigue festival-goers.
The fashion and aesthetic choices of Afropunk’s attendees reflect the offbeat and eccentric philosophy the festival promotes and the culture that it fosters. Afropunkers unbound their locs, braids, coils and curls adorned with crowns of glitter and flower petals. These creatives and influencers display their individualism outward, and don fashions made of vinyl and plastic, corduroy and velvet, silk kimonos floating in the breeze, and the thin gauze of long maxi skirts accentuate the golden melanin of the skin underneath.
In a society in which blackness is criminalized and defined by stereotypes, Afropunk reminds the world that black people are more than FOX News headlines and mugshots, and black culture is as beautiful as it is nuanced. Afropunk fuels its unprecedented creative expression from a DIY-aesthetic and culture, existing at the intersection of punkness and blackness. Experimental and experiential, the festival showcases multifaceted blackness and outlier creative expression. The philosophy and nature of the festival expands as its community does. But the bottom line of it is this: To be black is to be punk, and to be Afropunk is to be radical.
Erin Davis is a journalist and photographer dedicated to documenting the avant-garde and unconventional and strives to uplift the creative expression of marginalized communities and subcultures.