The digital era brought us the democratization of information and the possibility that anyone might be heard. Even though the internet’s dominant algorithms tend to promote non-disruptive, white, straight voices, in the past decade, activist groups have gained in strength and the voices of black and indigenous people, and people of colour have gained unprecedented reach.
Our contemporary online realities mimic the power dynamics and unequal structures we experience in the offline world. Companies like Facebook persist in constraining the internet as a white, heteronormative, centralized space. In other words, maintaining and extending the colonialist power structures that repress societies to this day.¹
However, this very same company also made it possible for people of colour to reach bigger audiences than ever before. This curious contradiction² at the heart of these digital colonial spaces is one of the reasons we believe they might also hold the key for collapsing colonialism on- and offline. Moreover, safer spaces that have their own online platforms are appearing. In Germany alone you can find ichbinkeinvirus, BiPoC netzwerk, Oyoun and Neue Deutsche among others.
As intersectional and multidisciplinary creators we ask ourselves: how can we disrupt this version of the internet without further adding to the polarization of opinions? We fight for a decolonized, decentralized, diverse online society where people can live as themselves, free from the fear of aggression, and consequently, directly impact the offline world.
Just as with the written word, we’ve found that an image can be interpreted in completely different ways by people from different cultures. In one of our monthly workshops, Drawsome with OUSA, we chose emojis from different countries and asked people from our communities to tell us what they meant for them. The variety in their answers showed us how we must consider different interpretations when producing illustrations, especially around issues to do with migration. It also stands as a reminder of how important it is for us to continue to try to diversify our team and events as much as we can.
On the other hand, for our exhibition MOSAIC with aequa.cc, we invited several illustrators with histories of migration to reflect on the topics of Memory, Ritual, and Future. They kindly produced very personal pieces that reflected their own cultures, life stories, fears and dreams. Despite the illustrations being so formally different, the feelings that enliven them are clearly related.
We learned that even though two people can interpret the same image differently, more often than not, images are able to transcend most barriers, including language. Using strong images to get a point across can sometimes be more powerful than words.
Illustration is also a very effective way of disrupting social media because most of these platforms were designed to share images. Simply replacing the usual lifestyle photograph with a colourful drawing hopefully catches your eye and opens your mind.
However, a distinction must be made between our illustrations and propaganda. Our goal is to produce thought-provoking illustrations that demand critical thinking. Unlike propaganda, which rams home messages, our illustrations are intended to start dialogues by sharing perspectives that are distorted by the media, or simply erased.
This form of activism through art is called artivism and we would like to share some of our favourite examples of how it can be used for positive disruption.
Guerrilla Girls first invaded the internet in 1996 with their poster, “The Internet Was 84.5% Male And 82.3% White”. This intersectional group of feminist artists, founded in the 80’s, is, for obvious reasons, one of our favourites examples of artivism. They use striking facts and figures, presented with bold and humorous visuals, to simultaneously draw attention to power imbalances and encourage people to reflect on how they might be complicit in perpetuating inequality. They do this in a way that captures people’s attention and is easy to digest. It is hard to dismiss such evident proof of discrimination.
Even though Guerrilla Girls formed before social media existed, their methods can be directly applied in the digital sphere. The posters they spread around a few cities are now seen by millions of people around the world. Even though there is much still to be done, the misguided idea that art by white men can more easily be found in museums because they have more talent and work harder than women, BiPoC and LGBTQA+ people is now definitively punctured. What the Guerrilla Girls’ work shows us is that systemic change takes a long time and lots of persistence, but well thought-out images can make it a reality.
We try to implement some of the Guerrilla Girls’ strategies in our own work by sharing quotes and hard facts alongside our illustrations, on social media, and in the offline world. There is no denying the impact of a poster in a street or a bold sign at a demonstration. When they go viral in photographs, they are again brought into the digital space. To harness this power, we are currently developing safer workshop environments to pass on useful tools for participants to come up with the kind of strong visuals that bring awareness to their social causes. Raising your activist voice creatively can be profoundly empowering.
The say their names movements has roots in the USA. In 2014, the #SayHerName hashtag was used to draw attention to violence against black women by racist American police. It later become #SayHisName and then #SayTheirNames. After George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in May 2020, millions of people across the world marched in solidarity and as a way of breaking the silence about what was happening in their own nations.
Germany was no exception. On 19th February, 2020, nine young people with migrant backgrounds were killed by a white German who attacked a shisha bar. At first, it was written off as murder committed by a mentally unstable citizen. Had it not been for a wave of artivism on social media, the most important detail of the story would have remained buried: the premeditated attack was carried out by an extreme-right German nationalist. The victims were:
Said Nesar Hashemi
Vili Viorel Păun
The posts that were shared by hundreds, both on the street and on social media, were portraits of the victims and their names. The power of these illustrations is in showing how vibrant and full of life those young people were, and for making it obvious that they were targeted merely because of their race and religion. Because of the volume of posts about what happened, neither the media nor the government could ignore the racism, xenophobia, and extreme-right ideology that fuelled the attack. This kind of validation is the first step to real change and is what we, at OUSA, are aiming for.
These examples demonstrate to us the power of simply and boldly presenting the truth. If systemic change only becomes real through policy, and policy only becomes feasible when people understand these changes as being vital for their society’s future, then it’s our duty to shine a light on all the stories which are only half-told or remain completely hidden. By inviting illustrators from migrant backgrounds to share their stories on our platforms, this is what we aim to do.
There are countless other projects that, like OUSA, use illustration to bring complex social issues to mainstream conversations. Afghan Punk Rock and Radicale Töchter are just two examples of how contemporary artivism is succeeding in this and thriving. We stand with the illustrator Edel Rodriguez, who believes that images can leap languages to share messages around the world. “Images can ‘give a voice’ to protesters,” he writes. Even in different languages, we are stronger when we speak together.