This New Web Platform Treads Line Between Art and Activism

Posted by Joanna Demkiewicz

In three minutes, you can meet global activists: women fighting their way through the consequences of our contemporary "isms"(think racism, classism, sexism, etc.) with—and through—art.

The place to encounter these artists? ofnotemagazine.org, a platform—pedestal, maybe—in the online world where underground artists speak on their creative work.

Grace Aneiza Ali, OF NOTE’s founder, calls this activism. “At the core of any art is storytelling,” she says. “Sometimes these issues are so big that we don’t want to talk about politics or laws—we want to hear stories. You don’t want to hear all the stats about human trafficking, right? But you will watch a documentary, read a poem, or listen to a song. Then it’s transformative. Arts and activism work together because of the stories.”

With this storytelling mission on her mind, Ali wants to challenge the standard notion of activism. Activism, she says, is not always picketing or showing up to be in the front row of the protest. Activism as we know it—the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change—is often a misunderstood or misguided form of communication, sometimes successful, sometimes unproductive. Activism as we know it is a two-dimensional pastime; we think about politics, but forget about art. While covering stories that matter, OF NOTE also collaborates with global organizations already fighting discrimination and oppression in order to show that they can use art to combat policy.

Ali uses Billie Holiday's “Strange Fruit” as an example of the overlap between art and activism. The song was written by a Jewish teacher from the Bronx, Abel Meerpol, as an anti-lynching protest. It is now synonymous with Holiday’s gravely, iconic voice, a work of beauty and art. Another example of this overlap is a women’s cooperative of genocide survivors in Rwanda who paint traditional African shapes onto wooden boards to reconnect with those they lost in 1994. Their cooperative sends the message to the country: We must talk about our pain.

Another one who treads the line between art and activism is Stephen Bennett, who is featured in the current “Girls” issue, on the site through August. Bennett is a muralist who heads Faces of the World, a nonprofit that teaches portrait workshops to indigenous communities. He has traveled to Malaysia, New Guinea, Polynesia, and Seychelles to paint the faces of indigenous girls, who often live in poverty and don’t have access to education.



“He takes a community that is largely invisible and adds so much color and grandiosity,” Ali says. “He uses that to counter their invisibility. The whole point is to pay attention to a group of people who nobody sees.”

Ali, who grew up in Guyana, a South American country with 36.6 percent living in moderate poverty, understands the complexity of reporting stories from afar to an American audience. “Talking about girls and what girls confront is close to me because I’ve lived it,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell cookie-cutter stories—I wanted to be realistic. Like, ‘There’s still a major, major problem, but these are the ways these women are overcoming, whether it’s through a big documentary or a mural on the wall.’ These artists make you recognize that your experience is vastly different.”

That is the art of activism.

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Images courtesy of Stephen Bennett