Social Justice, Art, and the International Community post-George Floyd

By Alexandria J. Maloney, Britney Paddy, and Giggs Kgole

Art is an outlet for communication, expression, imagination and technical skill. Artists across cultures and eras evoke emotions, examine history, explore experiences, and can ultimately advance civil and social movements using different artistic means.

Art is indefinitely interwoven into Black existence, dating back to thousands of years before common era, when ancient African art influenced the global art world. Art scholars maintain that ancient African art holds immense significance, as it preserves a rich history rooted in innovation and imagination that transcends physical and spiritual worlds. To put it boldy: Black art is reminiscent of storytelling and has the powerful capacity to speak volumes. Currently, the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted an expansion of art-focused initiatives to support Black people, document and share Black history, and explore Black experiences. As an illustration, street art, a form of artwork that is displayed on publicly viewed surfaces to aid in community visibility, has increased in both urban and rural areas in an effort to amplify social justice messages to broader audiences. Additionally, art galleries across the world are constructing exhibits to highlight social justice messages. To understand today’s global civil rights movement, one can reflect upon past and present Black art that tells our story.

In March 2021, members of the African diaspora diplomatic and arts community including UNESCO, UN Global Communications Office, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Create2030 and others joined a historical program commemorating the United Nations International Decade of People of African Descent entitled, “The Struggle, The Beauty, The Hope,” featuring a special presentation of the Say My Name art exhibition. To date, there has been no formal convening of the United Nations global diaspora community; this powerful art-centered program may serve as a catalyst for future coordination and policy agenda setting at the international level.

Curated by London-based Signature African Arts gallery director, Khalil Akar, and presented by American filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, the exhibition will take place in both London and Los Angeles. Each show features thirteen African artists who have used their talents to create portrait paintings and sculptures to articulate the many layers of Black history and racial struggles on a global scale while paying tribute to prominent figures both past and present, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose brutal killings by police inspirited the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide.

South African-born visual artist, Giggs Kgole, has been inspired by the movement. Kgole’s larger than life interactive masterpiece, titled Boshielo, uses his signature anaglyph technique to explore the never-ending beauty of Black resilience. Boshielo is both poetic and poignant as it captures the true essence of black stories through past and current day adversity. Kgole’s mixed media masterpiece pays tribute to #SayHerName, a social movement that raises awareness of how the Black female form has been subject to victimisation by police brutality and anti- Black violence globally. The theme draws a similar thread, within the same masterpiece, where he ominously alludes to gender based violence taking place in South Africa. In his artwork and life, Kgole acknowledges the crucial responsibility that young Black men have to themselves and their peers to protect Black women and end systemic gender violence, as well as preserve Black history for future learning opportunities. Kgole notes that Boshielo is a historical archive and a reminder for future generations, “Do not let history repeat itself! Do not repeat mistakes! Please, stop killing out mothers.” Furthermore, Kgole states, “I feel it is my responsibility and duty, as a young Black man, to remind my peers and the world, that we cannot exist without our mothers.” -- Kgole, nicknamed the Mighty Ancestor of Limpopo.

Art has the ability to inspire solidarity, motivate conversation and discourse, and advance civil and social justice movements. The international community is presented with an opportunity to amplify voices through artistic means in a way that is respectful and transparent, therefore allowing Black artists to have the creative freedom to showcase their art --or in other words tell their story --without constraints. Supporting Black artists and showcasing Black art is an impactful way of standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and cultivating change. To strengthen your own commitment to the movement and activate your senses to the cause, seek out Black art and allow yourself to read its story.