As I type, artists are positively changing our shared world. They are out there contributing toward peace, making work in conflict zones, growing understanding and awareness, facing misrepresentation, and organizing for social change.
Last summer I wrote about the international project Global Water Dances as an example of collective impact by artists; now I present individuals who are also human rights activists or social justice warriors in the arts. The following creatives may be labeled troublemakers, do-gooders or badasses. I see them as global spitfires — artists making a difference — and I offer them here to produce hope. They were chosen because they are making work that is highly relevant to today’s particular turbulences. Please note that these are artists who working primarily outside the US, and are lesser known — you won’t find Ai Waiwai here. They are presented in no particular order.
1. Christi Belcourt’s website describes her as “a Michif (Métis) visual artist with a deep respect for Mother Earth, the traditions and the knowledge of her people. In addition to her paintings she is also known as a community based artist, environmentalist and advocate for the lands, waters and Indigenous peoples.”
2. Fatih Akin is a German film director, screenwriter and producer of Turkish descent. His Golden Globe-winning film Aus dem Nichts (In The Fade) is about a woman’s quest for justice after her son and immigrant husband are killed in a neo-Nazi bomb attack.
3. Jasmila Žbanić is a Bosnian film director and screenwriter whose films have won numerous awards, including the Golden Bear and Sarajevo Film Festival Human Rights Award. Regarding her latest work on the 1995 Srebenica massacre, she says, “We all have experience of being forced to do things, which we regret for the rest of our lives. Why we didn’t do something differently.”
4, 5, 6. Three Saudi women who exemplify the power of female, socially-conscious contemporary artists in the Gulf today include Manal Al Dowayan, whose work includes black and white photography, sculpture, video, sound, neon and large-scale participatory installations; Dana Awartani, a contemporary Islamic Artist; and Sarah Al Abdali, a Saudi street artist.
7. Australian modern dance owes much of its strength to Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, founder of the Australian Dance Theatre in 1965. Dalman fought the system and was fired. Now in her 80s, she is back and continues to choreograph, perform and teach. She proclaims, “Art is always very closely associated with social and political developments. The more we become globalized and multicultural, the more that is reflected in the dance and choreography.”
8. Saara Särmä is a Finnish feminist, activist, researcher, artist, president and co-founder of the feminist think tank Hattu and creator of “Congrats, you have an all male panel!”, “Congrats, you have an all white panel!”, and “Congrats, your citational politics suck!”
9. UK/German musician-poet-social commentator Musa Okwonga has a new project launching this year which he describes in this way: “BBXO is many things — the spring wind that sings through your scarf and against your skin — the angry rattle of the late night tram — the desperate man — that phone call where the loneliness began — the first mouthful of weekend alcohol — the cap tucked under the hoodie, the full-fat milk and the cookie — BBXO is self-honesty’s sting — the distant friend who suddenly rings — the morning mist, the first hand across the family rift — the message unread, the common thread — the smack of caffeine — the proud stain — the playful dark — BBXO is thought — the claws of a hawk — the cobble of the stone, the stumble home — the graveside tear, the fear clutched near — the midnight haze, the work then the wait — the villain, the villain, the victim, the bullish, foolish, brutish, British, Berlin, Hamburg-lurking bass, beast, and burden: BBXO is the severed cord, the sword gently withdrawn, the child’s first yawn, autumn dawn. The welcoming laugh, the calming star, the walk to the lands beyond charts.”
10. As the first deaf South African woman actress on mainstream TV, Simphiwe Mkhize is also currently serving as a coordinator at eDeaf, where she is teaching South Africa sign language and “deaf culture” to hearing people.”
11. According to journalist Nadia Spock, Algerian musician Sadek Bouzinou, “knows change, and especially crisis, have the potential to turn out beautiful music.” Bouzinou’s latest work fights racism, addressing the viral nastiness known as the #لا_للافارقه_في_ الجزاير (#NoAfricansinAlgeria) movement.
12. Hitomi Kamanaka is a Japanese filmmaker whose latest work is a must-see for anyone concerned with nuclear power, radioactivity, the environment and humanity.
13. Janice Parker is a Scottish choreographer and artist whose work is described on her website as “responsive to context, situation, place and, most importantly, the person.” It goes on to explain, “She is committed to bringing the work of disabled artists to more prominence and has created a rich body of collaborative work. Her choreography might easily involve a hundred or more performers in large scale works, or be an intimate solo portraits focusing on the voice of a single performer.”
14-19. Six artists whose visual works speak for themselves:
Angélica Dass, Brazilian photographer;
Christiana Daneo, Italian marionettista (puppeteer);
JR, French street artist;
Leila Ghandi, Moroccan journalist and photographer;
Eduardo Kobra, Brazilian graffiti artist;
Sonia E Barrett, German visual artist;
20. d’bi.young anitafrika self-defines as “a queer Black feminist artist, an internationally celebrated African-Jamaican dubpoet, writer, arts-educator and theatre practitioner, whose trans-disciplinary work explores themes of identity, gender, sexuality, divinity, the erotic, race, class and the human experience.” She is the originator of an intersectional creative leadership praxis that has been implemented by institutions around the world. Currently, she’s also leading an artist residency in Costa Rica.
21. El Jones, is a spoken word activist and teacher in Nova Scotia, Canada. She was Halifax’s Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015. If you aren’t able to see her in person, be sure to click play on many of the videos on her site.
22. Finnish actress Anna Paavilainen is driving for change in the field of theater, especially for women. One of her recent projects addresses the impact of onstage rape scenes.
25. Sandra Valenzuela is a Mexican visual artist who claims an “intentional practice of displacement, reinterpretation and recombination brings sexual, gravitational, historical and cultural inversions to my work.” Her latest project is an innovative anti-gentrification collaboration with sculptor Jorge Baca within Mexico City, where neighbors rally around a figure of Santa Mari la Juaricua.
26. Daniel Arzola is a Venezuelan artist whose internationally popular campaign “No Soy Tu Chiste (I Am Not Your Joke)” aims to spread awareness and support for the LGBTI community, and is its named after Madonna’s Tweet about his work. His prints are worth checking out.
27. Mamela Nyamza is a South African choreographer and dance activist who confronts political, sexual and societal tensions both onstage and off.
29. Dries Verhoeven is a Dutch theater maker and visual artist who defines his work as on the “boundary between performance and installation art, critically evaluating the relationships between the spectators, performers, everyday reality and art.” His bio further explains: “With gestures, which radically affect the public order of everyday life, he hopes to sow the seeds of doubt about the systems that inconspicuously influence our thoughts and actions.” His recent project, Songs for Thomas Piketty, addresses poverty and refugees, and it was created in direct response to the Netherlands implementing a ban on panhandling.
30. Koko Hubara — from Finland, Israel and Yemen — is the founder and editor-in-chief of the first and only media for people of color by people of color in Finland, “Ruskeat Tytöt (Brown Girls).” She speaks about entering the white industry of literature and publishing in Finland and social media as a literary space for Finnish people of color.
Olga Sommerová, Czech documentary filmmaker, university professor and politician.
Amina Doherty, Nigerian artist and activist who describes herself as, “a transnational (African) feminist whose homes include Jamaica, Antigua, the U.K. and Nigeria.”
Janais, Slovak singer-songwriter.
Selim Tlili, Tunisian visual artist.
Michael Kliën, Austrian social choreographer and one of the founders of the Institute of Social Choreography / Institut für Soziale Choreographie.
I would also like to mention three socially active, international artists the world lost in 2016 and 2017: Iraqi dancer Adel Faraj who was killed in a truck bomb attack, Pakistani musician Amjad Sabri who was murdered by the Taliban, and British visual artist Khadija Saye who died in the Grenfell Tower fire. May they rest in peace and may their legacies flourish.
For this list, I selected artist activists and humanitarians working mostly outside the US; next month, I will focus on American change-making artists and I welcome your suggestions.