In an era of social change, art can be its own kind of protest

In the early hours of March 13, Brett Hankinson, a white detective with the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky blindly shot 10 rounds into an apartment shared by Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker. Five of Hankinson’s bullets killed Taylor.

Neither Hankinson nor the two other police officers who were with him wore body cameras as they raided Taylor’s apartment that night. There is no video of the incident.

Later that day, when WAVE—a local television station in Louisville, Ky.—reported the news of Taylor’s death, the broadcasters called her a “suspect” and described the events that led to her death as a “deadly exchange of gunfire.”

In truth, she was unarmed, had no criminal history, and wasn’t committing a crime when she was shot. She was a Black emergency medical technician who aspired to become a nurse and was working on the frontlines of the ongoing pandemic. The broadcasters at WAVE did not mention these details.

In the age of social media, visuals can articulate and contextualize information faster than words. With the recent travel restrictions, lockdown orders, and physical distancing measures, screens are our window to the rest of the world. People are consuming more visual images now than ever before.

In the days and weeks that followed the shooting, more news outlets created narratives about Taylor and the timeline of her death. By the time these news reports began garnering mass attention on social media in May, public outrage over a video depicting the death of another Black American, Ahmaud Arbery, was intensifying.

Later that month, multiple videos were released by witnesses of yet another Black American’s death. This time, the videos showed George Floyd dying as a white police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Floyd’s death sparked protests and marches against systemic racism and police violence in the US, Canada, and several countries around the world. The attention that Taylor’s death received paled in comparison to the public outrage over videos of Arbery and Floyd’s deaths.

Without a video or visual context to shed more light on Taylor’s story, the news, and its often-misleading narratives, was the only source of information about her death.

In Canada, the majority of news outlets focused on the coverage of Floyd’s death and overlooked cases of such violence in our own communities. In 2020 alone, police violence in Canada has led to the deaths of several Indigenous people in Canada—Chantel Moore, Rodney Levi, Everett Patrick, and Stewart Kevin Andrews—and Black Canadians—Jamal Francique and Regis Korchinski-Paquet. These are just the deaths that made the news, too.

People might have heard these victims’ names, but many didn’t have the visual context to help understand their stories.

Their deaths remained on the fringe of the public discourse about racism, social justice, and police violence. At least, this was the case, until visual mediums were used to tell their stories.

On June 6—one day after Taylor’s 27th birthday—Pan Cooke, an Irish visual artist and illustrator, published a comic strip on his Instagram page that outlined the events that led to Taylor’s death. His illustration tells Taylor’s story and clarifies that the police had wrongfully identified her as someone who was connected to a drug-dealing ring. 

By consolidating various reports and narratives into one factual comic strip, Cooke gave the world a visual articulation of Taylor’s story. His illustration has since been liked by almost half a million Instagram users and shared by thousands.

In Canada, the number of Google search entries for Taylor’s name peaked on the day Cooke published his illustration. For the first time, when protesters had conversations about Taylor, on or off social media, they had coherent visual images to use as a reference to the timeline of her death.

Similarly, more public attention was given to the many Black and Indigenous lives that have been lost due to police violence in Canada over the summer when an infographic of Korchinski-Paquet began circulating on social media. Additionally, pictures of a Canadian mural of Floyd co-designed by Montreal-based graphic artist, Tasia Vallant, and muralist Jenna Schwartz, began making rounds on social media and in the news.

This successful use of visual art to inspire social action in our communities is evidence that visual art plays an important role in the fight for social justice.

Artist De La Sola creates a mural in Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood. Photo by: Maggie Gowland

Colin Giles, a seasoned Canadian animator and the head of the 3D Animation & Visual Effects department at the Vancouver Film School, regularly advises his students to use their visual art to tell stories that their audience need to hear—not stories they want to hear. 

“The voices of those that have been systematically silenced […] are the ones that need to be heard,” Giles told The Pigeon in an interview. “There is a place in the world for commercial art. That’s great. It’s candy. We all like a nice piece of candy but we don’t need candy. We need sustenance.”

“With storytelling [in visual art], we can give audiences something to chew on that will feed their soul.”

Historically, visual art has been a way of creating awareness about social issues and inspiring social action. Marginalized communities have turned to visual art to tell their stories. In the 1960s, Black American and Mexican-American artists did this with the Black Arts Movement and Chicano Arts Movement, respectively.

In Canada, Black Canadian artists like David Woods, Justin Augustine, and Buseje Bailey spent decades creating visual art that provided much-needed context about the history, stories, and struggles of Black Canadians.

More recently, in 2015, the Black Speculative Art Movement was formed with chapters in Canada and the US. The mandate of this movement of Black scholars, artists, and activists, is to use visual art to reclaim “the right to tell their own stories.” This echoes the sentiments of many Black graphic artists—such as Dani Coke, Jill Cartwright and Laci Jordan—and Canadian muralists—like Felix and Elicser—who, like Cooke, took to social media to share their visual artwork and engage the public in conversations about Taylor’s death and anti-racism.

In an interview with The Insider, Cartwright, an Instagram artist behind graphics for the digital #BirthdayForBreonna campaign, said she was “interested in being able to fill different gaps in the movement.”

The movement Cartwright was referring to is Black Lives Matter (BLM)—a social campaign that can rightly be described as art-led. The growth of BLM has been fuelled by the works of visual artists from all around the world. In July, more than 2,000 Canadian artists signed an open letter in support of BLM and over the summer, murals for BLM appeared in almost every major Canadian city.

BLM was founded by three artists—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—in 2013. These artists used their art and creativity to lead what may arguably be one of the greatest movements in North American history.

A timeline showing the use of #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter. Source: Pew Research Center

Giles wants more Canadian visual artists, including his animation students at the Vancouver Film School, to use their art to address social issues. He particularly wants to see more artists of colour in the animation industry so they can tell their stories.

“A lot of young artists are coming out of the [BLM] movement, especially within the Black community.” Giles said. “It has been exciting to see.”

“I think the [animation] community […] and commercial arts world is beginning to build around this idea that the younger generation has a lot to say and the older generation has a lot to learn.”

Representation in Canadian art is one of the ways to break down systemic barriers for artists of colour. This is one of Giles’ motivations for being involved in the Rise Up Animation movement—a network of professional animators who provide mentorship for people of colour. Such mentorship opportunities empower young visual artists to keep creating and voicing their stories.

With a career that spans more than three decades, Steve Nease—a critically acclaimed Canadian political cartoonist—has experienced first-hand the social and political impact of visual art. His political cartoons, which have earned him multiple awards, including ten Canadian Community Newspaper Association Cartoonist of the Year awards, are renowned for their comical take on important social issues.

Nease believes the relatability of his art engages his audience and gets them to think about the message behind the art. He looks forward to a world where visual artists will continue to address social issues and use their art to share stories of marginalized communities.

“When I started in this business, political cartoons were about politics, politicians and what happened in Ottawa and Washington,” Nease said. “I find that [social] issues are becoming more and more [the] topics of political cartoons now—which is a good thing. It is the norm now and I think it will continue to be [that way].”

The evolution of visual art—and the artists behind them—points towards a future stretching beyond entertainment and aesthetics. It’s laden with stories that people need to hear and Giles believes communities are primed to listen to. 

“What art does is that it unifies people’s ability to listen,” Giles said. “Not everyone is a good listener but we are all visual people and […] as the cliché goes, an image says a thousand words.”

History, and the events that followed the deaths of Taylor and several Black and Indigenous people due to police violence this year, teaches us that people listen when visual art speaks.

In an era of social movements led by a generation that consumes visual images more than ever before, it is important for visual artists to speak up and let their art be the conduit for social awareness.

Tobi Nifesi is is a journalist and copywriter in Vancouver, British Columbia. His work has appeared in Maclean’s Magazine, Douglas Magazine, the Interlake Spectator, the Manitoban, and the Uniter.

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