Opinion: Art and the power to create change

by Chudy Jude

“Art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed… because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events… by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.”Leonard Bernstein

Art is not just the application of our creative imagination to express technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or intangible ideas, It provides an avenue for us to express our individuality, and satisfy the basic human instinct for harmony, balance, and rhythm. Art is Leonardo DaVinci painting The MonaLisa, Asa composing “Jailer” or a child drawing two adult stick figures holding a baby stick figure to communicate the ideas of love, security, happiness and home.

One of the most amazing things about art and something I think we don’t talk enough about is its ability to alter our mental states as we interact with it. Art can affect the way we think, feel and consequently, act. This amazing quality of art is responsible for its role in shaping culture and energising revolutions.

Travelling through history, we discover that art has played a very important role in the way our traditional and cultural practices are shaped and have evolved. The truth is we can’t attempt to separate art and culture. As far back as the Stone Age, art, in the form of rock carvings, cave paintings, and pictographs served as the predominant means of communicating and preserving cultural practices and beliefs. 

The role that art plays in human society has evolved and gained prominence over time. Art has fuelled various movements such as the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Sudanese revolution and the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. The powerful imagery and music produced by socially conscious artists in these regions dominated the subconscious minds of millions and rallied them to action against the various forms of injustice and oppression present in their societies. 

Take, for instance, The Vulture and The Little Girl, which is a famous photograph by Kevin Carter. It captures a frail famine-stricken boy, initially believed to be a girl, who had collapsed in the foreground with a hooded vulture eyeing him from nearby. The child was reported to be attempting to reach a United Nations feeding centre about a kilometre away in Ayod, Sudan (now South Sudan), in March 1993. The picture won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography award in 1994. The picture powerfully showed the world the despicable hunger and poverty in Sudan at that time and generated mass action as millions of dollars were raised in support of aid organisations working in Sudan.

The vulture and the little girl
By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35234690

In my personal work as a social impact artist, I have seen first hand the incredible power of photography to change people’s minds.  During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I worked on a mental health awareness project tagged The Peace Exhibit, which featured over 100 photographers and writers from different African countries who used images and literature to portray the daily experiences of people struggling with depression and anxiety with the goal of battling against depression.

From a few hours after the project launched, I was flooded with messages from people across the continent who could relate personally with the emotions depicted in the exhibition and as a result no longer felt alone in their struggles with depression and anxiety. I also received feedback from many people who, prior to interacting with the exhibition, believed depression was a “white man’s problem”. Their exposure to the powerful images and literature on display at the exhibition compelled them to learn empathy. 

Another social impact project that I worked on was #Imperfect, a compilation of raw, unedited portraits of over 40 men and women. The project challenged the unrealistic standards of beauty in our society and highlighted the difficulties people face in conforming to these standards while passing the message across that we are beautiful in our “imperfections” and that there is absolutely no need to feel pressured to conform with the unrealistic standards of society. 

I ran this project for a month on social media and was amazed by how it liberated people to embrace their natural selves – “flaws” and all. I remember getting a message from a participant. She uploaded some of the photos of her I took on her social media. A photographer downloaded them and took the liberty to “fix” her flaws in photoshop and send her the edited photos. She told me how outraged she was because seeing herself in this project helped her realize that she didn’t require “fixing”. Her spots and seeming imperfections are a part of her that she now embraces and loves. She is perfect and perfect things don’t need to be “fixed in post (production)”.

Art is powerful and artists bear the responsibility of wielding that power: an ability to change hearts and minds. The artist as a social commentator may simply make us more aware of the human condition in ways that we’ve never seen it before and by doing so, inspire us to change ourselves. I am committed to using my work as a photographer and the power my art holds to do good and create change in my society and I hope that if you are an artist reading this, you choose to do so too!

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