Painting the future

How art intersects social movements

Photo courtesy of News Week

“All Black Lives Matter” street art

Just like the maximalist aesthetic of antiquities and brushes seeping into the room, each vibrant stroke of warm tones envelops the canvas like a beacon of light. Each window is lined with delicate crystals chiming harmoniously, a fragrance of acrylic residue filling the air.

“My beautiful mess is what I like to call it.” 

Calabasas local Aiesha Renee, at only 17-years-old, is expanding her activism to a new level. With refined painting techniques beyond her years and a talent for digital art, Aiesha’s name became well known after her mural was recognized by a local Black Lives Matter chapter. 

“Honestly, it was the coolest thing ever and for a greater reason. My art was a memorial purpose, but also to advocate against the racial injustice that’s very present in our police system, the names don’t start and end at George Floyd,” Renee said. 

Renee’s work first gained traction on Twitter, followed by reposts on TikTok from several people seeking the artist. The number shortly exploded to hundreds, and soon the wall was a vibrant memorial sight for the late Ahmaud Arbery. Her inspiration to honor him occurred after his death, where he was pursued and fatally shot while jogging near Brunswick in Glynn County, Georgia.

“I didn’t realize the love and support I’d get from my own community given the time, but in times like this we are all here for each other and I hope that’s reflected in my art,” Renee said. 

An artist of over eight years, her creative process began with watching her father paint and utilize graffiti art — in the same studio. 

“He doesn’t work as much anymore, but the faces he would paint and detail he taught led me to pursue my own creative direction as an artist,” Renee said. 

“In dedication of George Floyd” mural (Photo courtesy of Aiesha Renee)

Creative direction can be illustrated through writing, painting or any other expressive form. However, when combined with a strategy of incorporated activism, “Art Activism” evokes emotions catalyzing enough to bring about social change. 

According to the Center for Artistic Activism, “Good art always contains a surplus of meaning: something we can’t quite describe or put our finger on, but moves us nonetheless.” Artistic Activism is defined by the center as a practice of combining the creative power of the arts to move us emotionally with the strategic planning of activism necessary to bring about social change.

After the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement grew. One way the movement gained momentum was through graffiti art. 

Artsy introduced this vision in an article outlining how “inherently political medium’s storytelling powers have become a way for communities to raise awareness, express themselves, and even educate the public.” 

Art serves as a doorway to advocating for change. Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and defines herself as an artist and activist. She believes in an intersection between art and activism. 

Cullors is known for her performance pieces in dedication to an individual. In an interview conducted by the LA Times, she expresses her desire for “people to feel a sense of purpose and healing” when taking away something from a socially motivated art show. 

Being surrounded by artists serves as an inspiration for pursuing a creative path. There are many with accolades, but what about the unnoticed differences connected to the community? 

The young and aspiring Oak Park High School freshman artist Jordan Seleman assisted in painting an art installation on Hollywood Boulevard in June. 

The words touched every corner in large print on the streets of Hollywood. “All Black Lives Matter” painted in striking lettering commemorated the previous marches denouncing racial injustice. 

“I wanted to be part of this project to make sure Black lives aren’t just a trend or statistic,”  Seleman said. 

Awake at the crack of dawn with backpack and supplies in hand, Seleman took off in preparation to make an artistic difference. The streets were empty, soon to be painted as if the walkway of the city was the people’s canvas. 

“There were a lot of other art groups there to collaborate, and independent artists like me who just really wanted to do something,” Seleman said. 

Perhaps the historic influence network of artists dedicated to activism is what contributed to the new form of “protest art.” This style is the result of creativity fueling social movements. 

The arts have been observed to operate as cultural forms of expression when observed through the perception of a social movement; the power lies within the movement to transform society. 

Melody K. Milbrandt articulated that the functions of these characteristics is to “set a new emotional tone; critique movement ideology” and “inform internally to express or reinforce values and ideas; inform externally as a more effective way to communicate movement ideals to people outside the movement.” 

According to the Seattle Journal for Social Science, there is a tangible framework for art activism. With the observer’s emotional pathways so easily accessible, art’s capacity must be examined to “certain behaviors or rationalities within humans and explore ways in which activists can emotionally access their constituency through the resurrection of these conditioned behaviors and rationalities.” 

Art activism is painting its way into our own cities, counties and world. The arts historically have enacted social change; who will the next visionary be? The single fibers in a paint brush are symbolic to individual passion, but when each fiber connects together upon reaching the canvas — that’s when the magic happens.