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THE ESSAY: Art & Human Rights Activism, one of the same

Marius Janusauskus is a masters student at the prestigious Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He studies fashion and considers himself both an artist and an activist. He says in an endearing Belgian accent: ‘…fashion for me is research, it’s research about the human…about who they are and how they think’. He perfectly embodies this concept in his obscure collection above where models walk the catwalk with cone-like fixtures attached to their heads, symbolising an inherent ‘tunnel vision’ complex and blatant disregard for the possibilities that surround them. 

Janusauskus’ work would suggest that gone are the days where activists were only hippies sporting patterned flare pants and bandanas. Perhaps it doesn’t matter who you are, what you do or what you wear. Perhaps what matters is the kind of mindset that you choose for yourself and your willingness to shout about it. 

If we’re able to think about one’s mindset defining human right activism rather than one’s clothes, profession or ego - perhaps you could say that human rights activists are artists in their own right. Now, before you write me off as dazed and confused - think about it. 

The role of an artist (fashion designers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers) is to imagine and create an alternate version of their subject. Van Gogh famously painted an alternate version of a fruit bowl. Henri Matisse created quite striking and provocative alternate versions of discerning women. Monet, impressionist interpretations of his secret garden. Picasso’s pioneering of the avant-garde Cubist movement in the early 20th Century saw him take ordinary subjects, like women and transform that subject into something completely new until it hardly resembled its original form. In Cubist artworks, objects are analysed, broken up and reassembled in an abstract form - instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. This same process of ‘unpacking’ in this case, social justice issues, assessing a multitude of viewpoints and finding solutions in alternate policies, programs and frameworks is all but too familiar to human rights activists like the Child Rights Taskforce

In Picasso’s case, society called him outrageous but in time, decided he was a genius. In the same way, society had had the audacity to deem women’s rights outrageous, the concept of unity between ourselves and our first people was ridiculed. In time, although these groups still face prejudice, the idea of equality itself has become widely accepted.

Artists, and if I may, human rights activists choose to play and work with possibilities rather than What Is. They dare to dream up alternate versions of society rather than accepting the way things are often under the pretext of being a realist. If you’re a fan of Abed from American smart-comedy show Community you’ll know what I mean (reference Abed’s obsession with alternate timelines). 

I feel that regular people live their life based on what they’ve been given and what they have - rarely stopping to not only consider other options or alternatives but considering that those alternatives could become a reality. I find this frightening. A world without imagination and critical thinking is dangerous because it places boundaries upon ourselves and on each other.

One way these boundaries are placed is in how we label ourselves and each other: right, wrong, undeserving, outcast. These labels are so powerful because honestly, we care about what people think of us and it effects even the strongest of people, we see examples in how regularly celebrities complain about how they are portrayed in the media and in the dangerous plague of cyber-bullying of 'outcasts' which have taken over our schools nationwide.

It doesn’t stop there. The problem also lies in how we limit ourselves. I’m talking about  (insert name) who is a talented interior designer yet has spent the last 10 years in a job that she hates, but is nevertheless secure. The lawyer who is in it for the money but wants desperately to run a cafe. Once we’ve killed our own dreams, we give ourselves permission to kill those of others. I’m talking about those that argue that the sufferings of indigenous children in Australia are the consequences of abuses our generation didn’t commit, and are therefore not our problem. Activists instead take What Is and imagine, draw, visualise and campaign for an Australia where indigenous children have the same opportunities and same access to basic services and have the same life expectancy as their non-aboriginal peers. It takes an artist to be able to see past what is and conjure up the infinite possibilities that could and should make up our future as a nation. 

The message here is simple: when we place limitations on ourselves in those around us, especially victims of human rights abuses, we’re limiting our future as a community and a nation. 

We must dispel this idea that human rights activism is a niche focus group - it is something that every single person has a connection to and should take on board in their daily lives. After all, there’s an artist in us all. Get your Picasso on and get painting, help us conjure up and materialise a better, stronger future for Australia.