Art and Resistance

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“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” – Cesar A. Cruz, Mexican poet.

The role of an artist in fighting imperialism is multifaceted, encompassing both creative expression and active engagement. This endeavour involves using creativity as a tool for resistance, education and the promotion of a more just and equitable world. It is said that art is the best way to share propaganda and to foment political agitation. Just as Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “cultural hegemony” emphasizes the importance of organic intellectuals in shaping and challenging dominant cultural narratives, artists as organic intellectuals can contribute to the struggle against imperialism by creating works that question existing power structures and inspire critical and radical thinking.

The ruling class has established and maintained its dominance through cultural means which include art, literature and education. It has used cultural institutions to control and shape the prevailing ideologies in society. With control and help of media outlets, publishing houses and communication channels, the ruling class can easily disseminate narratives that support their interests. This has been witnessed in our revolutionary peoples theatre, The Social Justice Center’s Traveling Theatre from Kenya. On multiple occasions some liberal organisations have provided support to the theatre with strings attached, keen on influencing the content of our performances to align with their interests. We have taken note of this. By promoting narratives that divert attention from systemic issues, it clearly shows that the liberal organisations are undermining the theatre’s goal of fostering unity and social justice. This influence extends to shaping public opinion, constructing social norms and framing debates. By promoting specific cultural values, performances and norms through various means, they seek to make their worldview appear natural, normal and unquestionable. This normalization reinforces the existing oppressive social order.

Antonio Gramsci argued that cultural hegemony, a concept he contrived, contributes to the reproduction of social hierarchies. It influences not only how people perceive themselves but also how they view others in society, often reinforcing divisions and inequalities. In short, cultural hegemony is a process by which the ruling class exert control over cultural institutions and practices in order for them to shape societal values and maintain their dominance. This influence extends to art, literature, education and other cultural expressions, collectively contributing to the reproduction of a social order that serves the interest of imperialism. Imperialism faces a threat from the artists because art is unpredictable and subversive, often challenging the established order. In many instances forces of imperialism have attempted to confine art within borders but artists are boundless creators, transcending the limits imposed by oppressive forces.

Imperialist powers may impose censorship to control artistic expressions that challenge their narratives or policies. Artists may face repression, threats or imprisonment for creating work that questions or opposes imperialist ideologies. Artists may also have to contend with economic exploitation, this has been seen on many occasions where imperial powers exploit artistic talents without fair compensation, perpetuating a cycle of economic inequality and limiting the ability of artists to sustain themselves through their work.

The role of artists is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves. Art is not freedom from discipline but disciplined freedom which requires mastery of self. Imperialism often suppresses freedom of expression, artists by their nature should resist such constraints through their work and through self-cultivation. Through their works that speak truth to power, the artists would encourage others to speak out against oppressive imperial forces. Artists, through their works, also have the power to bridge geographical and cultural barriers thereby fostering a sense of global solidarity. This global solidarity can be forged by collective collaborative efforts and cross-cultural exchanges. In doing so, the artists would be contributing to a united front against imperialism emphasizing that the struggle is interconnected and shared. The art produced could further  inspire empathy in others by depicting the destructive impact of imperialism on humanity thereby fostering a sense of shared humanity that transcends borders and fuels the desire for justice. It is important to note that art is not just a mirror for  reflecting reality but a hammer to shape reality.

Toni Cade Bambara, the African-American author, aptly averred, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” This means that the artist’s role is not only to beautify, but to illuminate our world – to remind us of what is important. Artists can contribute to broader societal conversations by shedding light on the multifaceted aspects of imperialism, fostering critical thinking and inspiring positive social change. They have the ability to offer alternative perspectives that challenge biased and simplistic mainstream narratives by providing a more nuanced understanding of the history of imperialism and its implications on current society.  Art has the power to make people think and reflect.  The artist can also be catalysts for change by actively engaging in activism and advocacy. Their work can help build and inspire movements, encourage dialogues and contribute to the dismantling of oppressive systems associated with imperialism.

As we navigate the complex landscape of our world, we should acknowledge and celebrate the transformative power of art. In the hands of an artist, the canvas becomes a battleground, the notes a call to arms and the words a testament to resilience. In the pursuit of a more just and equitable future, we should amplify the voices of these unsung heroes, for their art is not just a mirror to hold up to reality, but a profound instrument for change, carving a path towards a world where the echoes of freedom dare to draw out the footsteps of imperialism. By joining forces, artists can challenge oppressive systems, promote solidarity, and contribute to a more inclusive and just world through their creative expressions.

 

The journey of building a peoples theatre  in Kenya.

“The best way to do propaganda and agitation is through art and culture”

Formed organically in July 2018 during the Sabasaba March for Our Lives (7/7/2018), in the heart of Nairobi’s bustling streets against the backdrop of informal settlements, is a movement born from the fusion of art and activism, dedicated to the pursuit of liberation. This is the story of the Social Justice Centers’ Travelling Theatre, an organ of the social justice movement in Kenya and a beacon of hope for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the silenced. The travelling theatre emerged as a response to the injustices plaguing Nairobi’s informal settlements. With 30 members from different corners of the city’s marginalized communities, the theatre embodies the diversity and resilience of its people.

At our core, our mission is clear “liberation through art”. Through the powerful medium of theatre, we amplify the voices of the marginalized, shedding light on the painful realities of oppression. From stage productions to street performances, we bring our message directly to the masses, catalyzing social, economic, and political change one scene at a time.

Our artistic arsenal extends beyond theatre alone. We harness the emotive power of music and poetry to complement our performances, to enrich our storytelling and to resonate with audiences on a deeper level. Through soul-stirring melodies, we evoke emotions, provoke thoughts, and inspire action. Our methodologies are as diverse as our membership. Utilizing a blend of traditional and innovative strategies, we maximize our impact on the grassroots level. Street theatre, the cornerstone of our approach, allows us to reach audiences where they are, breaking down barriers to access and fostering community engagement. We have also embraced Participatory Educational Theatre, where the audience becomes part of the performance, sparking progressive dialogues and reflections. Legislative theatre is another tool we use; it empowers communities to envision and advocate for policy changes. Lastly, we have also used invincible theatre which disrupts public spaces with unexpected performances, challenging norms and sparking conversations in our communities.

Our methodologies have proven to be effective tools in challenging various aspects of capitalism. Through our performances, we shine a spotlight on the exploitative nature of capitalist systems, exposing how they perpetuate inequality, marginalization, and economic injustice. By depicting the struggles of the working class, who are the oppressed, we highlight the human cost of profit-driven agendas and corporate greed. Furthermore, our participatory educational theatre sessions serve as spaces for critical dialogue and analysis, fostering a deeper understanding of the systemic roots of capitalism and its detrimental impacts in our communities. By organizing campaigns and direct action that address issues such as economic inequality, workers’ rights, and access to resources, we actively resist and challenge the hegemony of capitalist structures. Through our art, activism, and political education initiatives, we contribute to the broader struggle against capitalism, advocating for alternative systems that prioritize social justice, equity, and human dignity.

In 2020, we reached a significant milestone when we expanded our reach across Kenya with a  project that was coordinated by the Social Justice movement Nairobi chapter called “Utetezi Mashinani.” Through this project, we took our message to the grassroots level, performing in over 8 counties. Through our performances we demonstrated that power lies in the hands of the people, underscoring the people’s ability to hold their leaders accountable.

Through the travelling theatre’s performances in different parts of Kenya , many have been inspired and empowered. This accomplishment is a reminder that change begins from the ground up, driven by the collective power of the people. With every performance, the theatre reaffirms its dedication to liberation through art, a commitment to building a future where justice, equality, and dignity prevail for all. Recruitment into our movement is an organic and inclusive process, reflecting our commitment to grassroots engagement and empowerment. We actively reach out to individuals within Nairobi’s informal settlements and surrounding communities, attending community gatherings, events, and local meetings to connect with potential members. Through word of mouth, social media and community networks, we spread awareness about our mission and invite those who share our passion for social justice and artistic expression to join us. We also conduct workshops and training sessions where interested individuals can learn more about our work, develop their skills in theatre, music, and poetry, and actively participate in our performances and campaigns. By fostering a sense of ownership and agency among our members, we ensure that everyone has a voice in shaping our movement and contributing to our collective struggle for liberation.

In addition to our artistic endeavors, our artistic movement organises and uses political education as a means of empowering members with knowledge and critical consciousness to understand and confront systemic injustices. We organize regular study circles and workshops where members delve into topics such as colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and other intersecting forms of oppression. Through participatory discussions and  readings, we explore the root causes of social inequalities and examine historical and contemporary struggles for liberation. We also engage in practical exercises such as role-playing, case studies, and scenario analysis to deepen our understanding of power dynamics and develop strategies for collective action. By equipping our members with the tools and insight needed to analyze and challenge oppressive systems, we ensure that our movement is not only artistically vibrant but also intellectually rigorous and politically clear.

Our theatre is inherently political, standing with all oppressed peoples in the fight for a better world. As members of the Social Justice Centers’ Traveling Theatre, we stand in solidarity with those who resist oppression and strive for justice. Our ultimate goal is the total liberation of the African people and the diaspora, and through our art and activism, we work tirelessly towards that vision. We recognize that our struggle is interconnected with the struggles of oppressed peoples globally, and we stand in solidarity with movements for justice and liberation around the world. Through international solidarity and collaboration, we believe we can create a world where all people are free from oppression and inequality.

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