Art as Activism: Change Beyond School Borders
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2023 Issue
By Nikita Griffioen
I’ve always found that visual arts classes hold immense power within the school community. Although often written off as “just an elective,” the truth is that the practice of art within schools is of the utmost importance. Not only does it make space in a student’s day for creativity and provide a break from academics, it can also serve as art therapy or offer a chance to focus on something even bigger.
For the last few years, I have run an Art Activism class at the secondary school where I teach in British Columbia. This class is based on one big idea: art is a powerful tool for educating the public and for encouraging social change. Over the course of the semester, students learn about a social justice topic in-depth (such as homelessness or Black Lives Matter), including the history of the issue and its current events.
They also learn how to break down personal bias. I emphasize at the beginning of the course that we all come into the classroom with bias; it is a part of life, but one that must be addressed with critical thought.
I also acknowledge—in the classroom, and for the purpose of writing this—that my position within the classroom and as a writer is one of privilege (I am a white female teacher of Eurocentric heritage). My aim is to elevate the voices of minorities and advocate for their causes, and I make mistakes.
As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” I am constantly learning and trying to do better as I go, and this course is a summation of me trying to “do better” (and I am still learning).
Breaking Down Bias
How we think about what we think, and how open we are to changing our minds and perspectives are two imperative topics that I address with the students. To illustrate these points, I have each student take on a subtopic within our larger one. They then must become an expert on it and present to the class their learning, along with an activity for the other students to do.
There are discussions and questioning and safe sharing of everyone’s perspectives. The deepest and most beautiful learning is done in those moments—students debating and sharing their thoughts and experiences, shifting others’ minds into new spaces while also challenging norms.
Subtopics that students have explored in the past have included: taking a look at the housing market disparities that BIPOC people face; a history of music through the lens of how BIPOC individuals inspired different genres; comparing prison institutions around the world; following generational trauma through Indigenous people of different ages, and more.
Visual Representations of Learning
After this in-depth look at bias and how to practice critical thinking, students then delve into art making. They’re each given a large-scale canvas with the assignment of creating a work that explicates a facet of the social justice issue we’ve discussed. The theme of their piece may derive from their chosen subtopic project, or sometimes even from the personal stories of people who’ve been affected by these different causes.
One year, a student did not hesitate to paint a close-up portrait of what they thought George Floyd may have looked like on the ground right before his death, surrounded by clouds of happy memories—in juxtaposition with the final moments of his life.
After each student creates a visual representation of their learning that resonated with them, their works are displayed publicly in order to educate and generate discussion among the community. The paintings are shown in my city’s local art gallery for two weeks and, during this time, the public is invited in to take a look at the artwork—often at the behest of the students, who generate a lot of excitement and publicity for this.
Though often intimidated by this task at first, the students come to wrestle with and ultimately love their paintings. Months of hard work go into these art pieces to have them ready for display. Many times, after visiting the gallery and seeing their work on the wall, I’ve heard students say: “I didn’t think I could do this, but I’m so proud of myself now.”
Recently the University of British Columbia’s Art Justice class asked to partner with my course, as the core of what they do is very similar to Art Activism. For this partnership, we took on the topic of the over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples.
Art Justice works together with Corrections Canada to provide Indigenous inmates with materials and supplies for art therapy, and advocates for the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in Canadian prisons. My students took an honest look at Canada’s history, including residential schools and generational trauma. They got to see art therapy pieces made by the inmates, then reflect on them and make their own artworks in response.
For this year’s project, the Indigenous incarcerated individuals each painted one-half of a large-scale canvas that the students later received and finished, a unique piece co-created by inmate and student. Art Justice facilitated the transport of the canvases from the inmates to the students, so that both groups were kept involved and safe. These works—started by someone in prison, finished by a student in high school—encompass learning, reflection, bias scrutiny, and advocating for a greater cause.
These canvases were also displayed at our local art gallery and the public was invited to gain insight into the justice system and how it often fails Indigenous peoples. And this time, the students’ works won’t end there; they will go on to be shown at other schools and universities as well.
For this project, I noticed that the students did not so much dwell on their success as they did on the cause itself. When they invited people in to see their works, they recognized that they were also inviting gallery-goers into discussions about the topic. Many students found immense meaning in this and stated that it helped them understand how art can truly make a difference.
Beyond the Art Room
Over these years of teaching and building the course, I have found that even when students aren’t painting, the conversations around activism and social change continue.
An example of this is a discussion that we had once in class about Indigenous healing villages—low-security prisons where the inmates participate in Indigenous-centered ways of healing, knowing, and being. Non-Indigenous inmates wanted to join these healing villages, and thus the question was posed: Should non-Indigenous people be allowed into healing villages to undergo Indigenous practices of rehabilitation into society?
Given the history of how Indigenous peoples were treated, it would make sense for my students (many of whom are Indigenous) to say that non-Indigenous people should not be given that privilege. However, the response from the whole class was unanimous: everyone should be welcomed into the ways of Indigenous peoples, because their approaches to healing are holistic, addressing the whole life and being of the person who needs healing. That could truly lead to rehabilitation and reintegration into society without reoffending.
Student after student reiterated the importance of exposing non-Indigenous people to an Indigenous way of being and healing, to promote the health and goodness of Indigenous approaches to wrongdoing. This welcoming and inclusive attitude was brought on by students having previously done the hard work of addressing their own biases.
In a world where people are increasingly divided and polarized against each other, it takes intensive inner work to address bias and be willing to change perspective and think in a truly inclusive way. In teaching and engaging in these discussions with students, I, too, have to constantly address my own ways of thinking and being. I learn from them constantly.
At the end of the day, Art Activism allows students to tangibly see how their creativity, thought, and hard work not only gets their artworks in a gallery, but also inspires discussion about important topics. It’s my hope that this sense of purpose is only the beginning: if students feel as though they are making a difference beyond classroom walls just from taking one course, then they will feel empowered to continue to advocate for others and for change—whether that be via art or otherwise.
Nikita Griffioen currently teaches in Abbotsford, BC. When she’s not in class, you can find her traveling, snowboarding, surfing, reading, or making art.
Read more about Nikita’s work with Art Activism here: