Creative Dissent: The Art of Protest
Kimberley McCoy

“Survival of the Fattest” by Jens Galschiot was installed in the Copenhagen harbor during the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Photo: Peter Dejong

At 3 am on 14 December 2009, the Danish police arrived and broke the locks of Ragnhildgad, the city-sanctioned convergence space that housed a thousand activists during the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen. They came to stifle the power of these protesters. But as a hundred riot police entered the building, awaking the sleeping activists, they did not arrest suspected leaders. Instead they confiscated the art materials.

The arts have the power to inspire, communicate and engage in ways that can challenge our perceptions of reality. Often with few words, art can break through our defenses and open us up to our emotions. Through art’s symbolism we are able to grasp “big picture” concepts and make sense of the world around us. To the great benefit of humanity and the earth, artists, more often than not, are fighting for a world of peace and justice.

Despite the harassment by the police, the arts were a strong force for change in Copenhagen. Artists from around the world organized public art in many forms such as sculpture, street theatre, poster campaigns, light displays and installations. Art played such a vital role that the London Telegraph published a 28-photo online photo essay  ( Featured in the essay is Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot’s piece “Survival of the Fattest,” a 9-foot bronze sculpture installed beside the internationally known “Little Mermaid” sculpture. Galshiot’s work depicts an obese Justitia, (the goddess of justice) holding the scales of justice, sitting on the back of an emaciated African man.  Written beside the sculpture is the message, “I’m sitting on the back of a man. He is sinking under the burden. I would do anything to help him. Except stepping down from his back.” The man is crippled under the weight of the woman, just as the global South is disproportionately affected by climate change due to the actions of the North.

In an equally haunting work, British sculptor Mark Coreth created a work in bronze and ice known as Ice Bear Project. To the viewer, the Ice Bear began as a life-size ice sculpture of the endangered animal. If viewed on the opening day of the conference, one might assume the work is a loving homage to the creature that has come to symbolize the movement for climate justice. But as time passes and its audience is invited to touch the ice, a darker truth is revealed. Touching the sculpture hastens the melting of the ice and the audience becomes sculptor, revealing a horrifyingly realistic bronze skeleton. The World Wildlife Fund, the project’s sponsor, says this is “symbolic of how we all have the power to affect our delicate environment.”

Political art and artists exist all over the globe and are linked to almost every movement for peace and justice. Here in Syracuse we are home to an art gallery whose sole purpose is to exhibit political art. ArtRage Gallery, one of just several like it in the country, uses art to inspire change, promote social awareness and to expand the traditional art viewing audience.

The current exhibition, “Breach of Peace: Eric Etheridge’s Photographs of the Freedom Riders,” is a look at the Civil Rights Movement in America through the eyes of the Mississippi Freedom Riders, those who traveled to the South in 1961 to purposely violate segregation laws. As a result many were arrested and jailed. Etheridge’s exhibition juxtaposes the activist’s mug shots with contemporary portrait photography that tell the story of lives lived with purpose.

Part of the exhibition is a photo installation of all 328 mug shots of the Freedom Riders. Once property of the state, these photographs are elevated to high art as Etheridge redefines the way in which we view them. As Etheridge writes in his book Breach of Peace,  “Once made, the mug shots were treated like documents, which is to say stapled, hole punched and filed. And as documents they are powerful symbols of the repressive surveillance state. But in the same way the Freedom Riders were using the power of the state’s criminal system against itself, they were hijacking the booking process, enabling the state to record its own strategic blunder, its own tragic actions. With assistance from the Sovereignty Commission’s inadvertent archivists, the mug shots now comprise a rich historic record. Here is the picture of the emergent civil rights movement plunging forward, adeptly taking its strategy of nonviolent direct action to the national stage.” Once symbols of oppression, the mug shots are now both the face of the Civil Rights movement and visual proof of the state sanctioned racism.

Just as Etheridge creates art out of oppression, art can allow us to reshape the environment in which we live. Art as activism is infinite in its expressions of resistance, which is its strength in the struggle for environmental and social justice. Despite the 3 am police raids, the energy of art can never be stolen.

Kimberley is currently pursuing her Masterís degree in Arts Administration from Boston University while interning at ArtRage Gallery. Her interest in the arts dates back to 1982 when she received her first box of crayons.