Artists Who Champion Human Rights in Their Work


By now, few haven’t heard of dissident artist Ai Weiwei and his 81-day disappearance and detention by the Chinese government. Long before this arrest shocked the world and catapulted him into a recognizable symbol of human rights abuse and censorship in China, Ai was campaigning for workers’ rights, especially those of the migrant workers. In honor of tomorrow’s International Human Rights Day, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite artists whose works deal with the civil rights and human dignity.

Ai Weiwei

Image credit: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

“Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses … They are Beijing’s slaves,” Ai has written. “They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts – and the restaurants and karaoke parlours and saunas are very rich as a result.” Labor itself is a strong theme in his work: Ai became a de-facto factory boss in 2010, when he commissioned 1,600 artisans in the town of Jingdezhen to create millions mock sunflower seeds to line the hall of London’s Tate Museum.


Image credit: My Modern Met

Anonymous street artist Blu has traveled the world creating clever, yet devastating murals that are anti-violence, anti-financial-corruption, and anti-war. From Brazil’s Corcovado Christ statue buried in a mountain of guns to this mural that takes military “brainwashing” quite literally, his pieces unfold like an ongoing, surreal series of political cartoons.

Richard Serra

Image credit: Richard Serra, Stop Bush Billboard via

American artist Richard Serra is well-known for his large-scale, ephemeral, sheet metal sculptures — weighty objects which are open to a wide academic discourse of interpretation. However, the message of this simple litho crayon drawing presented at the 2006 Whitney Biennial could not have been more clear, conjuring the unmistakable imagery of the abuses recorded at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Shirin Neshat

Image credit: Shirin Neshat, Passages via

New York-based Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat’s work weighs heavily on Islamic gender issues. It doesn’t simplify to indite social and religious practices that a “convert” Westerner like herself would deem unfeminist, but rather explores the complex motivations that shape the identity of the world’s Muslim woman: the compulsions, the traditions, the strive for independence and the reconciliation between posing forces. It’s worth noting that her art has been banned, and is usually problematic to exhibit in her home country.

Leon Golub and Nancy Spero

Image credit: Leon Golub, Interrogation 11, 1981. Acrylic on canvas. 305 x 427 cm. © Leon Golub/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

Married American artists Leon Golub and Nancy Spero nurtured each others’ pursuit of social justice. Golub’s imagery of killing fields and torture chambers, and Spero’s series on the horrors of war and the historical repression of women, are equally emblematic. Spero has been a member of several activists groups, and Golub was involved with the Monster Roster, an artist group that believed that it was essential that painters function as observers and re-tellers of the actual events. Their styles evolved, but their focus was unwavering.

Romare Bearden

Image credit: Romare Bearden, The Block (detail), 1971. Cut and pasted printed, colored and metallic papers, photostats, pencil, ink marker, gouache, watercolor, and pen and ink on Masonite. Overall: 48 x 216 in.; six panels, each: 48 x 36 in. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Shore, 1978. © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Born in North Carolina and raised in Harlem, American artist Romare Bearden began to work in collage during the 1960s and founded the 306 Group — a civil rights group for black artists living in Harlem. His style changed from abstract to more representational as he created some of his most renowned, more overtly socially conscious work.


Image credit: JR, Time Is Now, Yalla!

French street artist JR often works in conflict-torn countries, but his large paste-up series in the Middle East was particularly potent. To represent “a reshaping of the Arab world and of Israeli society urging for social justice,” he set up photo-booths and printing salons in Israel’s Tel Aviv and Haifa and Palestine’s Bethlehem and Ramallah cities, taking the residents’ photographs in exchange for personal statements of beliefs and pasting large, black and white portraits on opposing sides to bring them together in hopes of campaigning for UN-mandated human rights in the entire region.

David Wojnarowicz

Image credit: David Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly still. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.

In light of Secretary Clinton’s recent “Gay Rights are Human Rights” speech, it’s impossible not to mention the work of David Wojnarowicz, a prominent NYC artist and rights activist whose legacy has been highlighted by repeated and ongoing attempts to censor his work A Fire in My Belly. The driving point here is that the montage piece was not only an expression of his grief and outrage over leaders’ indifference to death and suffering during the AIDS epidemic, but also featured imagery shot in the Juarez, Mexico, inter-cut with scenes of human murder and violence, gruesome bull- and cockfighting and theatrical wrestling matches. It was a complex piece on the nature of human empathy itself.

Other Space Foundation art collective

Image credit: AFP

Proving that being a renowned artist is not a prerequisite for addressing human rights, this Warsaw artist collective in Poland painted a series of murals for the Dalai Lama’s 76th birthday to remind the citizens of the Chinese’s government’s ongoing violation of human rights. The murals went up near the location of a Tibet roundabout art show. Sadly, it was not titled “Free Tibet” as planned because the city of Warsaw would not allow it. Still, grassroots projects like these quite inspiring.