The paintbrush is mightier than the sword – art as a tool for social change



Q. What do you do when a military regime builds 10ft walls of concrete to keep protesters away from government buildings?

A. Paint them.

This is exactly what Egyptian activists and artists have consistently done over the past three years. Art has become a very powerful tool, and a times of deep repression sometimes one of the few tools still available, in subverting the state narrative and disseminating alternate frames.

In the above example, the artist’s work has a number of effects. Firstly, it gives the activists agency. Building a large wall as the authorities have done is a move that represents power. It looms over civilians, it literally divides the government from its people, the immovable concrete blocks are a sign of the immovable strength and permanence of the regime. But the people can still have their say. In painting it they own it. They transform a symbol of state power into an artwork, a symbol of resistance.

“Movement actors are … signifying agents actively engaged in the production and maintenance of meaning for constituents, antagonists, and bystanders or observers” (Snow & Benford 1988).

The activists not only transform a symbol of power into a symbol of counter power, they actively create a new frame which is seen by passers by and also those who view these images on social media. This particular artwork paints an image of the other side of the wall. Standing in a certain position, it seems as though the wall is not there. The project was actually called “no walls“. This was a clever tactic as the walls disrupted traffic and affected local businesses. Frustrated local citizens were reminded, by looking at the artwork, that the wall could so easily not be there. Other wall art took a different approach.


These artworks also plays into the greater narrative frame that is spread in social movements across the world – them and us. The ‘them’ is the authorities. They are dark, repressive, uniform, brutal, as inhuman as the wall and as drab and lifeless as the concrete blocks that make them. The ‘us’ is the people. Vibrant, colourful, individual, free spirited and human.

The above video is a great example. It’s a poem, adapted into a song, about a poor man who urinates on a wall. That in itself is of course a small act of defiance, but the symbolism in the video is hugely significant. There is a huge contrast between the people – with art, graffiti, singing, dancing, laughing – and the police, dark, uniform, armed. The tone of the song is also significant, it’s playful, joking, mocking. ‘Them and us’. The reiteration of a story the audience already knows.

With almost 400,000 views this song must also be considered in terms of the effect of media. Gamson and Wolsfield (1993) talked about the impact of traditional media in mobilisation, validation and scope enlargement. Placing art, in this case music, on YouTube and reaching hundreds of thousands has a similar effect. The wall, which ordinarily might only have affected the residents in the immediate vicinity is amplified into a symbol of state power and activist counter power. The portrayal of the artists as ‘the people’ and the state as ‘the other’ validates the overall struggle. And it may not mobilise demonstrators to the streets, but it will certainly mobilise and inspire other artists to resist through art.

Nowadays in Egypt such outwardly political street art is harder to carry out, with authorities clamping down on dissent. But in continues in other forms. This project to paint satellite dishes in Cairo in bright colours may not seem political, but under a repressive regime simple acts of alternative expression and social or community behaviour inevitably have a subversive feel.  This must also be considered in relation to Theories of Change. Looking at the political climate in Egypt, you would realise that perhaps when all the traditional forms of change are impossible, you must get creative. If all it does it make you think ‘things can be different’, then it has succeeded. When the state tries to enforce uniformity, individual expression becomes an act of resistance.

“If a majority of people think in ways that are contradictory to the values and norms institutionalised in the state … ultimately the system will change” (Castells 2007)

Q. What do you do when a military regime bans protests, imprisons activists, censors the media, detains people for talking about protest in public, shuts down NGOs and tries to forcefully impose uniformity of thought and action on the general public?

A. Paint satellite dishes


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2 Responses to The paintbrush is mightier than the sword – art as a tool for social change

  1. That’s really interesting and plus it makes the city beautiful, covering all the rubbish and dirt, with the main motto of protest, leaving a mark, registering discontent, i will try this in India in future, on a large scale. much needed everywhere, makes people creative, helps artists,and the main thing of getting the message or protest across and can be used for generating awareness.


  2. susjertel says:

    Politics and social change is about storytelling, and who tells stories better than artists? One initial step of campaigning is to decide which theory of change to use and in turn the very first step of that is picturing not what the problem is, but what the future should be. So it is all about imagining and speaking of what could be. Without the word and the imagery, politics is just bureaucracy. The beautiful painting on the wall really captures that. Politics should stop using so much PR-people and look to the culture sector for advice instead, they understand society better than anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

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