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Guerilla Girls

How to take a stand in the art world

With international Peace Day just aound the corner we're charting the best artists taking a stand in activism

This Sunday it's International Peace Day, a project set up in the hope that September 21 will become an institutionally recognised day around the world. Founded back in 1999 thanks to Peace One Day and the United Nations, the aim is simple, to create "an annual day of global unity, a day of intercultural cooperation on a scale that humanity has never known". All this week we'll be raising awareness in the hope that this Sunday will be the biggest Peace Day yet. Check back here for more throughout the week. 

Often the finest art comes as a reaction to times of bitter conflict – from Picasso's Guernica to street artist Banksy, visual art has the power to transmit a profound yet subtle message that other mediums can't quite hit. Activist art springs up in moments of strife in significant and lasting ways, touching on all manner of conflict – Vietnam, the Occupy movement, Apartheid and the feminist struggle. Just as the ongoing Disobedient Objects exhibition at London’s V&A argues, the most powerful creations are made in these times of difficulty. To mark 2014’s International Day of Peace on Sunday 21, we're looking back at 10 of the best artists in activism.


AKA Peace was a project curated by twin terrors The Chapman Brothers back in 2012, taking on an idea conceived by photographer Bran Symondson, following his experience as a soldier in Afghanistan. The idea was to see 23 artists – from Antony Gormley, to Jeremy Deller, and Sue Webster – reinterpret the AK-47 assault rifle as a "weapon of peace". In order to counteract this symbol of fear and destruction, the artists re-appropriated the object: one used plastic gems and butterflies, another made it into a cactus, whereas Sarah Lucas applied a pair of her classic tights.


South African artist Willie Bester is known for his use of junk objects. Born in 1956 during South Africa’s Apartheid era, Bester’s childhood experiences are marked by personal struggles that his family lived through. Working with found objects gathered from nearby townships: machine parts, sheep bones and items such as sacking and crushed tins, to emphasise the dark history of his country. It portrays both the intricate horror and beauty that can be expressed by scrap-art sculpture, such as Soldier II, which was part of his Apartheid Laboratory project.


A few years ago, a group of Detroit artists decided to tackle the housing problem that has ravaged the postindustrial city in a movement that came to be called Object Orange. In 2006, Detroit contained more than 7,000 abandoned buildings, but only 2,000 were set to be destroyed. These dilapidated buildings proved not only to be eye sores, but were being used as dumping grounds and drug dens. The artists of Object Orange conspired to paint these buildings a "Tiggerific Orange” – as named by the Disney paint catalogue – and gained international recognition. 


Leslie Thomas founded Art Works Projects, whose goal is to use design and the arts to raise awareness about significant human rights and environmental issues. An architect turned activist, her Afghanistan photography project Women Between Peace and War focuses on the flight of women caught in conflict, including varied subjects from a young female boxer to an 11-year-old bride. She has done work about sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo and on child labor and human trafficking.


Describing themselves as “feminist masked avengers in the tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Wonder Woman and Batman”, the Guerrilla Girls are an activist force to be reckoned with. They were formed by 7 women artists back in 1985, as a response to New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition "An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture” which featured only 13 females out of 169 artists. These days, you’ll find them exposing sexism, racism, and corruption, everywhere from installations at the Venice Biennale, billboard campaigns, to work with Amnesty International.


Bristol-based visual artist and photographer Alex Hartley, discovered an unmapped island in Svalbard in 2004, he towed the newly-named Nowhereisland down to the UK, established an embassy and started recruiting citizens. Along with the help of UK art group Situations, they invited people to become citizens and around 23,000 signed up, covering 135 countries. The work is a compelling comment on land occupation, citizenship, nation states, and most prominently, a symbol of a lost people, which chimes with many around the world today.


Berlin-based filmmaker Hito Steyerl likens her documentary strategy to the montage aspects of protest movements themselves: piecing together a platform, building a coalition. Approaching protest art from an oblique angle, her video Adorno's Grey (2012) tackles the theory-versus-praxis conundrum, focusing on an episode in the summer of 1969 in which the German philosopher Theodor Adorno fled a lecture hall when female student activists bared their breasts, after what turned out to be his last lecture (Adorno died in August 1969). Were these "protest breasts" a critique of theory? Steyerl absurdly asks.


Tenzing Rigdol is a contemporary Tibetan artist whose work ranges from painting, sculpture, drawing and collage, to digital, video-installation, performance art and site specific pieces. Influenced by age-old traditions, they often capture the ongoing issues of human conflicts; and have strong political undertones, amking him the focus of the young Tibetan diaspora. In one art installation, Rigdol gathered 20 tonnes of soil from Tibet powerfully striking a chord among the masses of Tibet’s exiles.


A constant thorn in the side of the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei is an artist-activist like no other. Once described by the Smithsonian as “China’s most dangerous man”, Weiwei has been arrested multiple times for his subversive activities: from expository documentaries, to his critiques on social media, to blockbusting political exhibitions. His Sunflower Seeds show at the Tate Modern in 2010 was a marker, but the Beijing artist’s repertoire is full of daring works: the time he destroyed a Han-dynasty urn, for example, or his upcoming exhibition at Blenheim Palace, one of the grandest houses in England, to be organised through a 3D computer model.


Syrian painter Youssef Abdelke is one artist that decided to stay on in his Damascus studio while scores of his contemporaries left to escape the renewed conflict that has flooded the region in recent years. Taking his cues from Spanish Romantic painter Goya, most of the works were produced from the start of Syria’s March 2011 uprising through 2013, when he was detained for a month for peaceful opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. The paintings are in trademark black-and-white, depicting harrowing scenes of death, thanks to a war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives

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