Art as a Form of Resistance
Most societies in the world are characterized by some form of oppression including racial discrimination, women seclusion, male domination, and religious oppression of women, sexual harassment, gender roles and other forms of discrimination such as sexual orientations of gay. Most often than not, people have found a way or have used various approaches to voice their concern for these oppressions. The use of violence such as rebellious movements, riots, and other violent demonstrations have been used in the past and even today, as seen in the current Arab uprising. Art has also been used extensively to oppose oppression of various forms. This essay seeks to explore how art has been used in resisting oppression.
What is art?
Art can be understood as an application or expression of human creative imagination and skills in form of visual, oral or written literature meant to depict emotional power or as a form of entertainment. Art can thus be in form of music, dance, a painting, literature, acting, poetry or other visual works. Oppression on the other hand is the unjust treatment of a certain group of people, usually the minority and the less privileged such as women. The connection between art and social action is evident. Hooey explains that the connection between art therapy and social action is through the adaptability of the image (7).
Role of Art in Civil Rights Movement
One of the most popular resistance movements in the history of the United States is the civil rights movement. The oppression of the Negros through racial prejudice was in the rise in the affluent American society. To liberate from this oppression, various efforts were made including rebelliousness and violence. But one thing that persistently been present in this movement is the work of art. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the biggest players in the civil rights movement. When in Birmingham jail, he wrote to his fellow clergymen in response to their criticism of his writing on the oppression of the African Americans in the whole of the United States. He clearly demonstrates how the work of art and its non-violent nature have effectively helped achieve. He says: “My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure” (Luther N.P). His writing is clear on his stand and his view about the ongoing oppressive laws in the United States.
In another context in his letter, martin Luther Jr. is evidently making reference to other significant biblical contexts. He refers to St. Thomas Aquinas`s view of unjust law and just law. According to St. Aquinas, a law that is just conforms to the moral law or Devine law while unjust law is a code that is out of touch with the moral law. He elucidates that, a law that upholds humanity is just and the one that tries to degrade humanity is obviously unjust. Luther`s letter carries very much weight in showing rebellious to the oppressive law.
Through his literature, Du Bois have expresses his concern for the oppression Negroes. He has expressed the way forward for liberation of Negroes from the hands of the oppressor (11). Du Bois argues that if African Americans have to participate fully in the process. His work is evidently cognizant of the challenges that the work of art faces in an attempt to resist discrimination.
Women Oppression and the Role of Art
In African culture, women oppression is dominant even in the wake of globalization. Women have been oppressed in the social, cultural, political, religious and economic dimensions. The use of art in voicing women`s concern has been significant. In West Africa Hogan cites that women of all ages continue to challenge local social issues and global political differences through performative acts of rebellion, despite their relatively absence of their voices in modern histories and political dialogue (1). Women confront the challenges of social mobilization and unification through acts of verbal arts that enhance social solidarity and political action (Hogan 1).
Considering that women have for a long time been sidelined in the social, political and economic activities, majority of women in West Africa are uneducated. This has really limited women`s efforts to confront oppression in other ways such as policy formulation. Art offers a great platform particularly oral poems, songs and dance. In their local language, women have shown their resistance to oppressive cultures and religious and social frameworks. Through songs sung by women in the West Africa region, one can clearly see how women have manipulated and reinterpreted social systems for their own empowerment (Hogan 1).
In Guinea, women of various ethnic origins engage the nation through their selectively politically charged songs performed in resistance to colonial and post-colonial formations (Hogan 2).singing songs chanting anti government slogans on specific issues is such a powerful tool to show resistance to the powerful governments where the constitution is barely observed. Women have suffered in most developing countries of Africa and Asia. Women have been openly discriminated for leadership positions and their work has for long been household chores. In the male dominated African societies, women are left with little or no option to show resistance to oppressive rule. In Uganda for example, women are forbidden from seeking public attention. Nevertheless, art has helped women to break the chains from their confinement. In a street theatre workshop organized by the Bayima Cultural Foundation in Uganda, women are seen breaking away from the cultural cage. They freely showed what they wanted, their space in the society. Two women Moreen Duudu Hazel and Rehema Nanfuka who pioneered the workshop revealed that they encountered sexual harassment right in the middle of the streets while performing (Alal N.P). This show the extent women continue to be oppressed in the modern society. However, through art women have relentlessly opened to the world in resisting oppression. Sarah Tshila, a Ugandan female artiste who juggles between poetry, traditional music and hip-hop was ranked among 20 best unsigned artists in 2007 by the BBC Talent Search program. This is an indication of the world`s acceptance of women`s efforts to become free in their own countries, societies, cultures as well as religion.
Religion is also a significant part of people`s lives. In one way or the other, religion facilitates oppression of women, especially Islam. In most West African cultures such as in Nigeria, Guinea and Niger, it is difficult to understand women`s expressions of dissatisfaction with some practices in the society without considering the Islamic practice aspect (Hogan 2). Islamic practice is intertwined with the prevailing structures of inequality and prejudices that women in these societies try to oppose. In expressing their discontent through art, women are such settings find it difficult to separate pertinent issues with religious aspects. This makes it difficult for art to portray their concerns more directly. For instance, women may be in a dilemma when trying to resist oppression where the aspects are interwoven with religious practices. Hogan argues that, in an attempt to comprehend the extent at which women are rebelling and responding to culture, society and Islam, it is critical to understand these aspects as immensely interrelated and overlapping (3).
Nevertheless, art in form of songs, poetry and dance have been successfully used to stand against oppression in the Islamic countries of West Africa. Amid cultural differences, art has managed to push its agenda to the larger society. In Nigeria for instance, differences existing between the northern and southern minorities cultures are known to be the cause of the socio-political tension. Regardless of these circumstances of tension, Hausa culture is dominantly conservative and focused on the family unit. Looking at Hausa women songs in Nigeria, it is interesting to see the representation of conservative aspect through a form of representation that also contravenes gender norms (Hogan 3). Thus, art has been a significant tool for people in West Africa to express their discontent with the cultural practices and government policies.
Wife seclusion popularly known as Kulbe is one of the many Islamic practices that have caught global attention through the work of art by women rights activists. This is just a practice representing women disempowerment in Islamic dominated countries such as Guinea, Nigeria and Niger. Women`s songs in these countries have given wife seclusion a toned treatment. These songs usually address prevention of seclusion, while highlighting the dangers of living in the streets and offering guidance on how to live a fulfilling life as a Muslim.
Advantages of Art in Resisting Oppression
Art has been used for centuries. It stands out as the only approach that the marginalized people and the powerless population can confront the oppressor. The use of violence means to question authorities or laws of the land come with a price. At times people are sent to jail, some lose lives in quest for recognition. In the civil rights movement, in the quest for equality people made a lot of sacrifices. Martin Luther went to jail several people were killed in riots against authorizes. Art provides a nonviolent platform where people can through artistic expression express their discontent.
However, the use of art may be less effective in achieving gains in a short term. However, it is the only way that long term gains can be achieved. Take for example the Arab uprisings of that are dominating the news today. They have led to deaths of thousands of people in Egypt and Syria. However, the violence has not resolved peace and democracy in these countries. In Egypt, after the removal of Hosin Mubarak, through violence people expected things to change, today the same country is in flames after Mohammed Morsi took over. Violent means may offer short term solutions but not long term solution. Art creates a lasting impact on the minds of the people. Both the oppressor and the oppressed can track down the journey of resistance and the spirit of the people in quest for equality or freedom. In the article by Alal, women in Uganda have had a long history of oppression by the male dominated society. Through works of art, literature, music and poetry, they have liberated themselves and the world has recognized them for what they are and what they stand for.
In addition, the use of art is effective especially when literacy levels are low. In the 1800, the use of poetry by women in social mobilization in West Africa was evident. Most of the women during the times were not educated although illiteracy levels among women have decreased significantly.
One of the major challenge that art presents is that, it derives from a particular set of cultural assumptions, constructions and values, just like any institution and it contains within it the partiality of the society of which it is a product (Hooey 7).
The role of art or art therapy in social action is undeniably important. Tracing back to the history of art and its role in major transformation in the world, including the civil rights movement headed by Martin Luther Jr., to women seclusion in at the heart of West African countries, art is an important way to show resistance. It is more effective than violent ways of resistance. It is more convenient in context where literacy levels are low. Unlike violent approaches, art has a long term effect on and stands a chance to offer permanent change.
Alal Sophie. Ugandan Women Find New Possibilities in Art World. April 2, 2012. Womensenews.org. October 30, 2013.
Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. The Conservation of Races and the Negro. The American Negro Academy Occasional Papers, No. 2. 2007. Web.
Hooey Dan. Art Therapy and Social Action: Transpersonal Framework. Art Therapy Journal of American Art Therapy Association, Vol. 22, No.1 (2005): 7-16.
Hogan Brian. Gendered Modes of Resistance: Power and Women`s Songs in West Africa. Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 13 (2008): Web.
Luther Martin Jr.”Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]” 1963. African Studies Center – University Of Pennsylvania. Web. 29 October 30, 2013.
Art as a Form of Resistance