4 Controversial Artists Who Challenge Their Governments
“To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom.” — Joseph Beuys
Art has played a major part in stirring up and supporting revolutions. As governments scramble to retract freedom of speech and suppress criticism, artists react with a fearless intensity.
Often their artworks cause governments to arrest and imprison them for years at a time…
And yet, rebellion remains.
Ai WeiWei, China
“It’s powerful only because someone thinks it’s powerful and invests value in the object.” — Ai Weiwei
Ai WeiWei is a Beijing-born artist who’s spent his entire life creating controversial art pieces that speak out about human rights and government policy in China. After studying abroad in the 90’s, he returned to China and started blogging on a popular platform called Weibo from 2005 to 2009 with a mix of “scathing social commentary, criticism of government policy, thoughts on art and architecture, and autobiographical writings.” Later, he switched to Twitter, claiming to spend 8 hours online every day.
His 1995 artwork “Dropping a Han Dynasty Vase” (pictured above) caused particular outrage among Chinese officials to which he replied, “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.”
Ai was arrested in 2011 on allegations of tax fraud (he was released 3 months later) and forbidden to leave China until 2015. He now lives in Berlin with his family and creates art internationally. Multiple documentaries have been released about Ai and his ordeals with the film “Ai Weiwei’s Appeal ¥15,220,910.50” detailing his arrest.
Banksy, The World
Banksy is an England-based street artist whose identity remains a mystery. His work first started appearing on walls in the 90’s and often gets sold for millions of dollars (to the artist’s apparent disgust). Banksy is famous for harsh commentary on political matters globally. Capitalism, war, and the political tendency to ignore problems are common themes.
In 2015 he constructed “Dismaland” — a parody of Disneyland that was infused with political meaning. The deconstructed infrastructure of the installation is now used as emergency housing for immigrants. Then in 2017, he offered a free print to Bristolians if the voted against the Tory candidate (an offer retracted on the grounds of illegality).
Banksy continues to challenge governments with recent works focusing on the UK’s exit from the EU.
Zehra Dogan, Turkey
Zehra Dogan is a Kursdish artist and journalist who was arrested and imprisoned in 2017 for her art. She was released in early 2019 after 2 years and 10 months saying “I will continue the struggle.”
The artwork she was arrested for was of a Kurdish district that Turkish security forces set ablaze. According to Amnesty International, around 500,000 people were forced to leave their homes due to the violent crackdown.
In the artwork below, Bansky calls for the release of Turkish artist Zehra Dogan.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Pussy Riot), Russia
Nadezhda is the co-founder of the infamous Russian feminist punk rock protest group, Pussy Riot. The group staged politically charged art performances that were directed against the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. In 2012, they held a performance inside Moscow’s “Cathedral of Christ the Savior” where they danced provocatively in brightly colored tights and ski-masks.
For the group’s antics, they were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years imprisonment (just over one year and a half were actually served by Tolokonnikova thanks to a change in law). Petr Pavlensky, another famous Russian artist literally sewed his mouth shut in protest to their arrest.
Now the group is performing internationally with a mixed reception. They’ve been at the center of a suspected poisoning scandal and have recently canceled a show in Hong Kong due to threats from the mainland Chinese government. Their continued message? Stand up to suppression and keep fighting.
Are You a Revolutionary Artist?
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