Art has massive power to move people to social change.
By using their art as an innovative medium for awareness, artists become advocates, challenging the biggest issues of our time. Public art, then, capitalizes on the power of socially-aware works, reaching people in their everyday environments and confronting them with social injustice that is otherwise easily ignored.
From sculptures addressing systemic racism to murals celebrating Indigenous communities, public art is making a real-world social impact that deserves to be celebrated.
Though certainly not an exhaustive list, here are 15 recent, ongoing or upcoming public art projects working to advocate for human rights and improve communities.
Created for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, this mural depicts five Indigenous people from five continents a concept based on the five Olympic rings. The bold, geometric mural created by Brazilian graffiti artist Eduardo Kobra is meant to show how “we are all connected,” according to the artist. It currently holds the Guinness World Record for largest mural created by one artist.
Kobra conceptualized the 623-foot mural, called Ethnicities, or Etnias in Portuguese. More than 493 gallons of paint and about 3,500 cans of spray paint were used to complete the mural, which took more than two months to create.
2. AIDS Memorial Quilt
A traveling public art project, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was created in June 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. The ongoing project memorializes those who have died from HIV and AIDS through quilted panels, embellished with their names and symbolic imagery representing the person memorialized. Currently, the quilt is made up of more than 48,000 panels, with more added every year as more AIDS casualties are submitted to The NAMES Project Foundation.
The massive quilt is rarely displayed in its entirety, as it’s become too large to display in many public spaces. Upcoming displays of the quilt can be found here. You can also view the quilt virtually here.
3. Field of Vision: A Garden for Others
In December 2015, artist and environmental activist Jenny Kendler was commissioned to create a butterfly garden in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. In creating Field of Vision: A Garden for Others, Kendler used reclaimed wood, ultraviolet LED lights and milkweed to create a garden in Louisville that would draw people back to an often-overlooked river, while also supporting vulnerable butterfly populations.
Kendler first designed the garden for pollinators, creating the art to primarily attracted monarch butterflies to a space where they could feed and lay eggs. All the elements are meticulously intentional the milkweed attracts butterflies, for example, while blacklight replicates the far-superior sight butterflies have compared to humans.
4. Invisible Homeless
Homeless populations are often ignored on the street. A British artist wanted to challenge this, creating a glass sculpture of a sleeping body resting on a bed of cardboard, to represent how homeless people struggle to be seen on city streets.
The glass figure, which was on display in Bristol, England, in late December 2015, was created in collaboration between artist Luke Jerram and UK-based youth homelessness charity 1625 Independent People.
5. Stop Telling Women To Smile
These simple posters, created by New York City artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, carry a big message about a type of gender injustice women face regularly: street harassment. The series, called Stop Telling Women To Smile in reference to a common catcall, started in the fall of 2012 and is ongoing by the artist.
The publicly displayed posters feature the portraits of women, along with a quote relaying their experiences with street harassment. Fazlalizadeh hopes the captions speak directly to offenders by placing the posters outside in public spaces where harassment happens.
6. Untitled refugee life jacket installation
This art installation by noted Chinese artist Ai Weiwei showcased 14,000 used life jackets previously worn by refugees traveling from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. The artist, hoping to highlight the severity of the ongoing refugee crisis, tied the striking orange vests to pillars of the Konzerthaus Berlin to command the attention of the general public.
The installation was debuted in Berlin in February 2016 outside of the concert hall in Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt square.
7. Breathing Lights
Concentrated in areas with high levels of vacancy in Upstate New York, Breathing Lights is meant to show society and communities that there is life still lurking in vacant properties. Artist Adam Frelin and architect Barbara Nelson conceived the temporary installation, which will illuminate windows of empty buildings with warm light that gently fades on and off to mimic breathing.
The art piece is meant to shed light on the ongoing divestment from low-income communities in the upstate region using bold imagery. Breathing Lights will premiere in Albany, Schenectady and Troy in October and November. The project received funding and support from Bloomberg Philanthropies in early 2016.
8. The Za’atari Project
The Za’atari Project is an ongoing series of public art murals that engages Syrian refugees, especially children, in art to make refugee camps less sterile and more welcoming.
Through a partnership with several nonprofits, artist Joel Artista has traveled to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan for the past four years to help bring life to the camp. Many of the murals hinge on social issues, like access to water and hygiene. Artista says the activity is one of few structured activities for refugee children, many of which are out of school since being displaced.
9. Bodypainting at the Library
In June 2015, photographer Substantia Jones and artist Andy Golub collaborated to confront tourists and locals with radical body positivity on the front steps of the New York Public Library. Gloub painted three self-identified fat women with green body paint and fluid black lines. Jones, a noted activist for the fat positive movement, photographed the women, also talking to passersby about body positivity, fat visibility and sizeism.
From navigating police officers questioning the legality of the project to men sexualizing participants, the two were up against a lot of hate.
But Jones said there was no doubt: “We made some people think.”
10. All Hands On Deck
This project tackling racial justice, dubbed All Hands On Deck, was created by artist Damon Davis and activist Michael Skolnik in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown. The pair decided to tackle the issue of police violence through art, uplifting those on the frontlines of activism and calling impacted communities to action.
Davis took photos of activists involved in Ferguson protests, representing those “holding up” the current racial justice movement. Their hands were photographed in a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture, a symbol that became iconic after the death of Michael Brown. The posters were pasted on boarded buildings around Ferguson during the protests following the acquittal of Darren Wilson in the death of Brown.
11. Stand Tall, Stand Loud
The sculpture, created by artist Aaron Bell, ties the history of current racial discrimination to historical roots of black oppression. The bold work features a noose-like head on a muscular body with a captivating windmill-like part in the heart of the piece. The base of the work reads, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,” quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
Bell went through a lengthy fight to have the work publicly displayed in Riverside Park in New York City, as city officials were quoted to say the work was set to be “adjacent to an area regularly programmed with passive recreational activities such as yoga, Pilates and senior movement.” The piece, however, is currently on display.
12. Inflatable Refugee
The title of this work says it all. This art project is a 20-foot inflatable refugee, hoping to focus the general public’s attention on the refugee crisis. Dubbed a nomadic art project, the inflatable refugee has set out around the world to spread awareness in places like Venice, Melbourne and Copenhagen.
The work, created by Belgian visual artist collective Schellekens & Peleman, is made from the same material used to make the inflatable boats many refugees use to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
This knotted gun, simply titled Non-Violence, was first created by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswrd after the murder of John Lennon in 1980. Originally placed across the street from Lennon’s home in New York City, the sculpture was moved to the U.N. Headquarters, calling for peace and non-violence.
Since then, however, it has become a symbol of the ongoing struggle for non-violence and gun control worldwide, serving as the symbol of the The Non-Violence Project, a nonprofit advocating for social change through violence-prevention programming.
There are currently 16 copies of the statue on display around the world, most of which are in Sweden.
14. Songs for Thomas Piketty
This may look like a regular boombox and, truly, it is. But Dutch visual artist Dries Verhoeven took an innovative approach to throwback device, using it to advocate for homeless populations in the Netherlands.
The art project, Songs for Thomas Piketty, was created in response to the Netherlands implementing a ban on panhandling. The “begging boomboxes” play a song about unity and ask passersby for spare change, collecting money for those who can’t. The temporary installation was in the Netherlands in March 2016, with all money collected donated to charities for the homeless.
15. Untitled wall around Donald Trump’s Walk of Fame star
This wall, conceptualized and constructed by the artist known as Plastic Jesus, was placed around the Hollywood Walk of Fame Star of Donald Trump on July 20, 2016 the same day Trump was officially nominated as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
Complete with barbed wired and tiny “Keep Out” signs, the work played of Trump’s controversial statements about building a wall on the southern border of the U.S. as part of a plan for immigration reform. The artist, known for progressive messages on social inequality, used the work to oppose Trump’s comments.
“Personally, Ive got nothing against Donald Trump, Plastic Jesus told The Huffington Post. I have everything against his policies and the culture he’s trying to create in America.