The Impacts and Importance of Artist Activism

Written by Mollie-Rose Chislett

Artist Activism has become more prevalent over the last thirty years. A fluid concept, Art Activism can be applied to many social, cultural, political, and environmental issues, and seeks to raise awareness and bring change. The activist artist focusses on steering society towards the greater good, or what is perceived as morally good. German art critic, media theorist and philosopher Boris Groys states:

[a]rt activists do not want to criticize the art system or the general political and social conditions under which the system functions. Rather, they want to change these conditions by means of art (2014, p.1).

It can be ascertained that activism has an important place in the art world, in the way it amplifies the voices of marginalised communities. However, within this, there are chief principles to be explored, such as the dangers that activist artists face, the impact of public art and how activist art has the capacity to heal both community and artist. To explore these issues, this discussion piece will consider two Asian activist artists: Badiucao and Eugenia Lim. Badiucao was once referred to as the ‘Chinese Banksy’ (Chinese-Australian political Artist Badiucao 2020), and has previously worked under the guise of anonymity while creating provocative political art pieces in response to the authoritarian activities of the Chinese government. Badiucao works with street art, cartoons, performance art, installation, public art, and traditional art mediums. Badiucao lives and practices in Australia as he was forced to leave China to avoid persecution. The Asian diaspora of Australia heralds many artists, some working in art activism such as Eugenia Lim, an artist based in Australia and of Chinese and Singaporean descent. Lim works with both performance and public art, with subject matter ranging from the personal to the political. Her artworks lead viewers to think about their place in the Australian and international context.
Potash (2020, p.111) notes that art activism has an important place in the art world as it ‘can be a driving force in social change by…raising awareness of social issues’, also revealing how art can exist as a tool in activism within a wider movement. It has been shown how art activism can impact and change the ideals and opinions of individuals, on social, political, and environmental issues. It is also true that through the power of activism, the world is being recreated based in social justice (Potash 2020). Activist artwork has the ability to communicate feeling and meaning, and is a core structure of any work, whether it is intentional or not. This core structure aids in the potent power of Activist Art. Metaphor and symbols are commonly used in Activist Art and makes artworks direct and relatable to the viewer, challenging their ideas, or sympathising to their experience (Potash 2020).

For example, Figure 1 displays an artwork by Badiucao titled ‘Cancelled’ (2016). The artwork features many of Badiucao’s personal objects from his life in China, some of cultural significance. These objects are broken or cut in some form, in the same fashion as Badiucao’s Chinese passport, the corner of the page was cut, rendering it useless (Badiucao 2017). Badiucao uses the symbolism of the cut to display how his life in China is now detached from him, he has been excommunicated and explores this feeling through the work. This work can be understood through use of metaphor and symbolism as it openly displays what citizens who lose their passports from their country of origin feel. It also criticises the Chinese Government for conducting themselves in this manner. ‘Cancelled’ allows the viewer to sympathise with his cause and form their own opinion about the Chinese government. Despite the subjective effectiveness of art activism, its importance is scrutinised by art critics and activists alike. As Groys (2014, p. 01) reiterates ‘critics say that morally good intentions of art activism substitute for artistic quality’ and on the opposite side activists argue that activist artwork cannot work for it aestheticizes the issues presented. Both of these opinions are invalidated when considering how art activism affects individuals and society itself.

Art activism amplifies the voice of marginalised communities and people who are targeted purely based on their social group or culture. These people face discrimination and the society that faces them often prevents the opportunity to speak out or challenge the opinions that others have of them. Activist Art has the power to humanise social issues, and this allows for the wider community to understand the message of those who are not able or allowed to speak. Potash (2020, p. 111) reveals that ‘abusive government structures, racist politics and broken health care systems have real impacts on clients that no number of coping skills can heal’. This statement contends that activist art can alleviate stressors, through conveying strong emotions and opinions with artistic expression. As Groys (2014, p. 01) describes ‘Art activists try to change living conditions in economically underdeveloped areas, … Offer access to culture and education for the populations of poor countries and regions, attract attention to the plight of illegal immigrants’. This provides platforms for diverse voices, particularly from those who do not have the opportunities to reach a larger audience, the intentions of these art activists are not for self-gain but rather to use their abilities to help others. Figures 2 and 3 display Eugenia Lim’s artwork ‘Yellow Peril’ (2015) as an example is a direct commentary on racist politics in Australia that left a lasting effect on the country. The title of the work ‘Yellow Peril’ refers to the sculpture ‘Vault’ by renowned Australian sculptor Ron-Robertson Swann, at its first instalment ‘Vault’ received much criticism from the Melbourne City council and the public. The sculpture received backlash at its design, which was seen to be an intruder to the Melbourne city aesthetic. It was out of place between historical buildings and critics described it as being big, yellow, and ugly, resulting in the tabloids calling it ‘Yellow Peril’ (MacNeill 2012). This jest was derogatory. Australian based Arts Writer Soo-Min Shim explains, ‘the name echoed xenophobic attitudes towards east Asian immigrants’ (2019, p.56). Lim’s artwork of the same name was created as a response to this example of historical racial prejudice, still prominent in the world today.

Figure 2 depicts a screenshot from Lim’s video work as part of ‘Yellow Peril’. In this video Lim records herself as a Maoist character clad in a gold suit, juxtaposed within the setting of Ballarat’s living museum, Sovereign Hill. This section of the work displays how Lim is aiming to challenge both the art world and the general ideals of society in order to educate people about Australia’s multicultural history which is commonly whitewashed.
Sovereign Hill does have sections dedicated to the multicultural history of the gold rush, however as Waterton (2018, p.220) revealed ‘for some visitors, reminders of immigration and multiculturalism felt like intrusions and uncomfortable presences’. This displays that Lim’s artwork pushes forward the truth and does not allow it to go ignored, providing a platform for the voices of the immigrants that history has tried to ignore in order to push the white colonial narrative.

Figure 3 displays another aspect to the ‘Yellow Peril’, Lim’s parents are photographed standing in front of the ‘Vault’ artwork (Shim 2019). This photograph connects Lim as the artist back to the historical context of the artwork, displaying her personal connection to ‘Vault’ and why it was important for her to create an activist work in response to both historical and current prejudice. Lim is quoted as saying that the ‘colonial reality seemed really different to my own’ (NAVA 2020) regarding the Australian art world. Lim wants to see further diversity in the Australian art scene and by creating ‘Yellow Peril’ has provided a pathway in which people from marginalised communities or different cultures can share their own experience.

Artists who explore Art Activism in their practice can be faced with backlash or danger, from the public or institutions. For those working with public art, critics loyal to art institutions will employ harsh criticisms. As Groys (2014, p. 01) states ‘In our society, art is traditionally seen as useless...this Quasi-ontological uselessness infects art activism’. This would be true if it were not for some artists having their art lead them into strife with Governments. Such was the case with artist Badiucao. ‘Cancelled’ was created in response to the persecution that Badiucao faced, in direct result from speaking out against the injustices committed by the Chinese Government (Badiucao 2017). Badiucao had a recent exhibition in Hong Kong shut down, the exhibition contained artwork that spoke out against the Chinese government for keeping the Covid 19 outbreak a secret, Badiucao then struggled to find a venue in Australia that would take his work. His relatives in China were taken for interrogation over the incident (Chinese-Australian political Artist Badiucao has just launched his controversial Exhibition in Melbourne, 2020). This displays that Governments do not consider activist art to be a useless function of society, they fear it. Further evidence to support Badiucao’s treatment is the persecution of artist Ai WeiWei.

Similar to Badiucao, Ai faced many risks by being vocal against the Chinese government’s treatment of its citizens (Callahan 2014). This reaction suggests that art has the innate ability to function as an arena for political protest and social activism, and it is not a useless vessel (Groys 2014). Australia is a country that allows criticism and free speech, so Eugenia Lim as an artist working with pushing social boundaries has not faced persecution, however, if Lim were to display her artwork in another country that does not openly allow criticism, she would face contravention. Lim disclosed that she wants to take her art ‘where people are…rather than just catering to an art audience’ (NAVA Artist File: Eugenia Lim 2020). This reveals that Lim works within a driven public art practice, as Hawkins and Catlow (2017) uncovered, participatory and public arts enable transformation of politics and political ideas. If Lim’s artwork were to be displayed in a context suppressant of free speech and criticism, danger would ensue. Badiucao recognises how ‘it is important for artists to show their work without fear of retribution’ and that ‘Censorship is really harmful, it actually kills people’ (Chinese-Australian political Artist Badiucao has just launched his controversial Exhibition in Melbourne, 2020). Proving that the work of an activist artist is essential, despite the jeopardy they face.

Activist Art has the capacity to heal both community and artist. Potash (2020, p. 112) suggests that ‘Activist art answers…the invitation to gain new skills and perspectives to travel the path, even when the destination seems unclear’. Figure 4 features Badiucao’s installation Meng (Dream) (2017). The artwork features a bed frame that Badiucao would spend many sleepless nights on during his stay in Australia. 1,000 hand sharpened pencils fill up the space of the frame, creating a metaphor of an activist artist’s tortured sleep (Badiucao 2015).
This work has been created out of Badiucao’s vented frustrations; his activist art has provided a way for him to heal. Eugenia Lim’s artwork Woman’s Work (2017) displayed in Figure 5 functions in a similar way. The photographed women each shared a story about their experiences, providing them the capacity to heal while also describing how women are treated in society and respective working fields. This artwork leads the viewer to consult their own stance, it is still an activist work while also aiming to heal the artist and subject. This point of healing holds up the statement that activist art is important within society, ‘governments around the world have folded arts practices into wider programs for social well-being and urban renewal’ (Hawkins & Catlow 2017, p. 91). This displays that activist artwork’s capacity for healing does not only aid artists but also the wider population, whether that be for marginalised communities or those impacted by tragic incidents.

To draw this discussion to a close, Activist Art is an important device in the art world, as it could amplify the voices of marginalised communities. poses risks and harsh criticism to the artists that practice it, it also has the capacity to be a device for great healing for both community and artist. Badiucao and Eugenia Lim are two artists that have portrayed their abilities by practicing artist activism as both artists have work that caters to the topics discussed within the practice of Art Activism.

Figure 1:Cancelled by Badiucao, 2016, found objects. 

Figure 2: 
Yellow Peril
by Eugenia Lim, 2015, video, installation, and sculpture. 

Figure 3:
Yellow Peril
 by Eugenia Lim, 2015, digital prints. 

Figure 4: Meng (Dream) by Badiucao, 2017, Single Bed 4000 pencils 

Figure 5: 
Woman's Work
 by Eugenia Lim, 2017, five paired digital prints on giclee photo rag. 

Badiucao, 2015, Badiucao, Viewed 7th of April 2021, <>.

Badiucao, 2016, Cancelled, found objects, Badiucao, Viewed 7th of April 2021,  <>.

Badiucao, 2017, Meng (Dream), Single Bed 4000 pencils, Badiucao, Viewed 7th of April 2021, <>.

Callahan, WA 2014, ‘Citizen Ai: Warrior, Jester, And Middleman’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 73, pp. 899-920.

Chinese-Australian political Artist Badiucao has just launched his controversial Exhibition in Melbourne 2020, TV Segment, World News Australia, SBS, Melbourne-Victoria, 20 February. 

Eugenia Lim, 2015, Viewed 7th of April 2021, <>.
Groys, B, 2014, ‘On Art Activism’, e-flux journal, vol.56, pp. 1-14.

Hawkins, H & Catlow, R, 2017, ‘Shaping subjects, connecting communities, imagining futures? Critically investigating Play Your Place’, in Zebracki, M & Palmer, JM (eds.), Public Art Encounters: Art, Space and Identity, 1st edn, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, New York, pp. 91-107.

Lim E, 2015, Yellow Peril, Video Installation Sculpture and Digital Prints, Eugenia Lim, Viewed 7th of April 2021, <>.

Lim E, 2017, Woman’s Work, five paired digital prints on giclee photo rag, Eugenia Lim, Viewed 7th of April 2021, <>.

MacNeill, K 2012, ‘Narratives of public art: Yellow Peril, vault and Large Yellow Object’, Public Art Dialog, Volume 2, pp. 15-33.

NAVA Visual arts 2020, NAVA Artist File: Eugenia Lim, YouTube, 29th of June, NAVA, NSW, Viewed 7th of April 2021, <>.

Potash, JS 2020, ‘Situating activist art in art therapy’, Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Volume 37, pp. 111-112.

Shim, SM 2019, ‘Envoy of the unspoken: Eugenia Lim’ Art and AsiaPacific, vol. 116, pp. 56-57.

Waterton, E 2018, ‘Curating affect: exploring the historical geography-heritage studies nexus at Sovereign Hill’, Australian Geographer, Vol. 49, pp. 219-235.