What is creative cultural resistance and why use it?

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What is creative cultural resistance and why use it?

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider the following questions:

  • What do we mean by “cultural resistance” (or "creative cultural resistance")?
  • Who are the people that perform cultural resistance?  Where is this done?
  • Why is cultural resistance such a powerful tool in human rights work?
  • What are the benefits of using this approach? What are the weaknesses?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

Resistance to cultural resistance?

Banksi’s murals have become icons of cultural resistance, as the featured photo on the homepage of this discussion can testify. In particular, his work on the Israeli wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories helped draw mass media attention to the realities of occupation that govern the lives of Palestinians as a result of Israel’s pervasive policies. On the face of it, this is a classic example of the power of cultural expression to visualize and critique the absurdity of oppression and offer an alternative vision to existing political reality.

Yet as Banksi case also shows, these acts often encounter a much more complex cultural and political landscape. A mural depicting an Israeli soldier checking a donkey's identity papers near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, drew sharp criticism from Palestinians who were insulted by the analogy.

For me, this raises some key questions: Who is the target of this sort of action- the oppressive power? International public opinion? Those whose rights are violated? All of the above? What gets lost in translation and what do such mishaps tell us about the boundaries and challenges of cultural resistance?

Cultural resistance


I believe that the artist has to know the background of the targeted individuals or communities otherwise he/she will miss the goal and may offend people.

Cultural resistance can be a very powerful tool if used properly, I mean with respect. Even though artists have the right to be creative in ther approach they should never forget that cultural resistance is a political work and many people's interests are at stake.

Balancing Resistance

Kadida is absolutely right. Cultural practitioners involved in critical action are constantly walking a tightrope between following a political strategy with (more or less) clear methods of action and objectives, while also remaining attentive to multiple target audience. Banksi certainly made a media splash with his murals, but managed to offend some Palestinians in the process. I have a sense that this is not only because Bethlehem residents lack a healthy sense of humor. It likely has more to do with the internationalisation of activism and increasing risk of conflicts of interests, priorities and sensitivities.

I wonder if anyone has some practical experience with such a challenge and perhaps some lessons learnt. I'm specifically curious about the challenges of working as part of an international network of practitioners and encounters with local communities opposing cultural resistance action.

Noam Leshem

Royal Holloway University of London

balancing resistance

Noam and Kadida, you both bring up very important points that I've spent much time struggling with in my own work with marginalized communities. I think the contraditions lies on the crux of urgency (in addressing pressing social-political events and issues) and balance (how we work with volatile communities, how we build trust and how we engage and preserve existing community structures and dynamics while finding ways to advance and support their causes) 

I'm very interested in how cultural practioners/ activists balance the interests, opinions and sensitivities of the communities they work with, directly or indirectly through, public art and interventions. I think this is of particular importance in situations where the nature and fundig of artistic/cultural exchange is built around existing West> East, North>South paradigms. Working as a mixed group of foreigners and Chinese, with ethnic minority communities in Southwest China for several years, these debates often became quited heated within our organization. On one side, as a fledgling community arts project we all felt the urgency both in terms of the rapidly deteriorating situation of the communities we aimed to serve, as well as in our own abilitiy to continue to function with limited resources. On the other hand, we understood that building trust, involving 'stakeholders' in all levels of planning and implementation of programs and respecting the existing cultural practices while introducing new complimentary forms was of the utmost importance to avoid our working being seen as charitable giving.

I think one solution we discovered was to invest considerable time in learning, researching and interacting with the community on multiple levels, on investing in and preserving their own culture on rebuilding community structures of cultural education and then finding the missing or open spaces for the introduction of more contemporary forms of strengthening a collective sense of cultural reslience.

Rhetorics of Resistance

Noam, Kadida, thank you for this interesting discussion on the tightrope that artists and cultural practitioners must walk when staging creative interventions into existing political realities and discourses, particularly vis-a-vis different target audiences.  While curating and leading outreach for the Yale hosting of an international exhibition called "Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World" in the fall of 2009, I began to think about the role not only of images -- like Banksi's, for instance, or, in the context of geopolitcal discourses surrounding Muslim women, this recent controversial image from Foreign Policy magazine -- but of words to enhance, diminish, or outright negate the intended impacts of creative acts of resistance.  The title of the show was problematic, to say the least; as an active tour leader for the duration of the semester-long exhibition, I encountered lots of visitors who arrived expecting to see a show about "liberating" Muslim women from behind and beyond their veils -- this when the express intent of the show's original curator (it was an internationally traveling exhibit originating in Jordan) was to chip away at the entrenched and distorted image of Muslim women as somehow uniquely in need of liberation in the first place!  The good news?  The dialogue the unintentionally controversial title generated among exhibition attendees allowed for moments of truly successful arts-based diplomacy to take place.  But if it had been up to me, I would have liked to draw greater conscious attention to the inherently slanted politics of "the Veil" as an accepted -- and often human rights-oriented -- international discourse.  Just how many times can "we" (usually equated with "the West") be made to see "behind" or "beyond" or "through" or "under" or "over" "the veil"?  The rhetorical gymnastics surrounding "the veil" in the American publishing, film, and political industries seems to me to be motivated by an instinct to cash in on the confirmation of stereotypes rather than cast new light on them (see "Not Without My Daughter", "Reading Lolita in Tehran").  This has been mirrored in the art-world trend to capitalize on sensational but entirely predictable and often counterproductive titles/themes for shows and artworks from the Middle East.  Speaking of loaded titles, I was moved to consider ending the semester with a symposium called, "Breaking the Habit of Breaking the Veils: Towards a New Metaphor in Middle Eastern Art and Gender Politics." 

What is creative cultural resistance?

For the next 7 days, we'll be exploring the power, the weaknesses, the examples and the functionality of creative cultural resistance.  A good place for us to start, might be by defining what we mean by cultural resistance...

We could start with this inclusive definition (found on the ICNC website): Creative cultural resistance is the broad use of arts, literature, and traditional practices in the service of protest and political and social actions.

Beyond this, it seems like there might be a wide spectrum of characteristics for cultural resistance.  For example, when it comes to direct confrontation, an activist could perform cultural resistance by posting stickers at night (less risk) whereas another activist could use puppets in front of a government building (more risky) and another activist might write children's books that "offer an alternative vision to existing political reality" (as put by Noam above).  So the length of time the action is used, the degree of confrontation, the kind of art being used - all of these spectrums are included. 

We also know that on some level, acts of creative cultural resistance is subversive in its nature - this is how it serves as protest.  It undermines the power and authority of your adversary.  I wonder - how subversive does an act need to be in order to be considered cultural resistance?  Do you think there is a threshold or is this also a spectrum?

How about you?  How do you define creative cultural resistance?

What is creative cultural resistance?

I agree with Kristin´s definition of cultural resitance and I would also include as cultural resistance those cutural practices that people keep cultivatinng and re-creating against the will of the elites who pretend to eliminate them, because they do not serve a commercial purpose.


I would define it as using language of the art and culture to convey a political message. The language of culture is more understandable by ordinary people than political language. Politics is usually business of the elite and political language is very hermetic and often very alien to ordinary people who happen to be apolitical, or better said apathetic. The success of civil resistance lays in awakening these people by destroying their apathy and increasing their participation. This is where the language of the art and culture comes handy because it uses the right wavelength and serves as a shortcut to these people.

Methods of Creative Cultural Resistance

I am very interested in the strategic functions that CuR serves within activist nonviolent campaigns and movements ( more about that in other threads on this dialogue) and so in addition to the broad definition of creative cultural resistance ( CuR) that Kristin mentions (the use of arts, literature, and traditional practices to challenge or fight unjust or oppressive systemsand/or power holders), we can further define what we mean by talking more specifically about how CuR manifests. 

Just for kicks, here's a list of the 12 buckets( categories) of Creative Cultural Resistance Methods I have found surveying CuR-- and this was developed as I did research on  identifying CuR globally, in concert with input from many practitionners and activists. It is a living list-- please do comment on things that are missing, or question why things were included where they were! And keep in mind that these are really permeable buckets ( they won't hold water!) because some examples could fall in multiple buckets, but having a list like this can be useful for exploring a broad range of potential methods, and help us expand what we might consider available.

  1. 2-D arts (graphics/images/words:murals, banners, posters, stickers, comics, caricature, logos)
  2. 3-D arts(puppets, props ,objects, costumes, mascots, sculpture)
  3. Sound/Music arts(drumming, noisemaking, spoken word)
  4. Theater arts(Guerrilla, invisible, traditional, Identity Correction)
  5. Movement arts (Dance, martial arts, walks, marches, circus arts)
  6. Media/Documentation arts(video, radio, film, archives, projection, whistle blowing)
  7. Literature (newspapers, leaflets, books, poetry)
  8. Delineation of Space (Physical spaces/structures which exclude or resist violence/militarization; peace parks/demilitarized zones, peace villages, peace abbies)
  9. Cultural Institution Building
  10. Crafts & Traditions ( Clothing, food)
  11. Rituals (national/spiritual/religious celebrations, funerals, fasts)
  12. Language preservation
Why is CuR such a powerful tool?

I advocate the use of arts and cultural work, creative nonviolent resistance, because it is at the core a way of reclaiming our humanity and human rights, of celebrating our worth as individuals and communities.  In this way it is the antithesis of the corporate domination of mainstream culture that sells homogenized consumption … all at the cost of loss of quality of life, human rights, individual potential, and true security.Encouraging cultural expression  inspires people to own their lives, invest in their communities, all the while building capacity for local leadership....as well as have fun while doing that hard work.

Moreover, Incorporating culture into our campaigns validates that each person brings something valuable to the table, and in the process undermines the domination of authorities over the individual. It also opens possibilities of "re-connection". As the corporate world thrives on separation-- of people, cultures, us from our innate abilties, our land, growing own food, making our own music, and more... when we put that back together and rebuild our connections it can be extremely fertile and powerful ground. Integration of art/culture back into one's life is a way to give people back their agency, their innate ability to do things, effect change.

As in the current field of sustainability, we see that diversity is key in successful HR work and campaignes...Planning and use of innovative tactics, of which CuR offers many methods, not only makes the community less vulnerable to disruption but also is one characteristic identified in many successful campaigns. ( along with adherence to nonviolence and unity of goals).

 Oh, and one more general thing i have found in my activist street based art work-- thinking of arts within the context of cultural work gives communities the ok to use what you have  without worrying its not good enuf-- If you are hung up on "High art"-- alot of the stuff you  might find in museums-- the idea of perfect can get in the way of the possible and the appropriate... culture/craft based on using what you have, and what is known to you. ( This is not to say one can't or shouldn't use high art but that you need to know your group!)

re. Why is CuR such a powerful tool?

One of the things that makes CuR such a powerful tool for me, and is very much inline with what you have written Nadine, is how accessable it is.

CUR it allows issues  that are often pretty inassessable or considered too political to become digestable, humourous, touching, relative to one's own life.

CuR is also assesable in that it provides a means for people that may normally never engage in activisim or resitance to do so, whether that be in the actual creative process itself, or by engaging once put out there.

Accessibility of cultural resistance


The accessibility of cultural resistance is as an invitation to participation rather than standing-by or passing-by. The puppetista ethic of participatory performance helps transform the space and the dynamics of protests. At the annual School of Americas vigil puppetistas create a participatory space for action during an event that otherwise might be unidirectional and passive, from leaders to followers, from stage to audience. For hours during the vigil the dumbeat of puppetista practice sessions sounds like a heartbeat for the protest. Participants are drawn to the drums and the bright colors of carboard props, masks and puppets. They practice an allegorical drama that captures the essence of the event.

This pageant frames symbolic action that is coordinated, nonviolent, yet emotionally expressive and embodied in movement too. Unlike the marches popular in many street protests, these coordinated actions are non-linear marches with a script; an opportunity to expend and extend energy, express emotion, and to do so in concert with others. Particpants who might have stood listening to speakers or repeating a protest chant are instead beating a 55-gallon drum with a wooden spoon while dancing among giant puppets hoisted by other participants, all of whom now consider themselves puppetistas. It is ritual action that forms and informs participant identity while communicating the essence of the event in a form that's hard to ignore.

What are other examples of CuR that invite engagement and deepen participation?

Humanity, community, agency, diversity, accessibility

Nadine, Annie, thank you for piecing together what seems to me are core tenets of any holistic philosophy of creative cultural resistance.  Indeed the following list of words, gleaned from your posts, provides insight into both the "what" and the "why" of cultural resistance:

Humanity, community, agency, diversity, accessibility.

In my experience, when communities are not only ideologically but physically dominated by an occupying force, and when those same communities' international dentities are overdetermined and over-politicized by mainstream corporate media, acts of CuR become further heightened and literalized as mediums of reclaimed agency and humanity.  This is certainly true of our work at Alhoush, a revolutionary new online and offline platform for the empowerment of Arab artists and designers, as we develop a niche in the representation of artists and designers from areas of regional conflict and instability, such as Gaza and Iraq.


considering the messenger and the message...

I'm an artist who makes political artwork yet I hestitate to call myself an activist. My reasonably long experience in activist circles has seen a lack of acknowledgement by people of how they are upholding dynamics of power and privilege. I feel this can often be seen in acts of cultural resistance, where focus is put on 'attacking the power holders' without enough reflection on who brings the message and how they put their message across. I feel that careful consideration and collaboration needs take place before people speak and create about experiences not related to their own lived experience, and even then, it's important to realise why certain people's voices are heard louder than others. A white activist making art about the oppression of people of colour gains cred and exposure, historically more than the expressions of the people whom they are representing. It often takes a white ambassador to bring 'world attention' to struggles that activists within community have been fighting for eons (KONY 2012, the most annoyingly obvious example), because of the system of white supremacy. Even as a (non-Indigenous) person of colour artist, making work in which I collaborate with Indigenous and non-Indigenous poeple of colour to creatively represent their experiences, I need be aware that the exposure my artwork has is in part related to my privileges (such as class, education, being a 'model minority'), and to try represent their vision as they would like it to be, more than imposing my ideals upon their identities.

The power of creative cultural resistance can be it's ability to appeal to empathy and other emotions as motivation to create social change. Yet to me, it seems dangerous to put the individual (comfortably?) outside of the systems of dominance that we alll have to challenge our individual roles in upholding. I'm not personally (/politically) interested in art that encourages ideas of (mostly white) benevolence. I try make art that represents individual's subjective expressions of politics of race, gender, sex and identity as experienced within those systems of dominance, primarily in the hope of empowerment for the models, myself, and those seeing the artwork who can relate to it in their own experiences.


Of course, I agree that it's critical to be aware of our own social location as we do this work, and that, generally speaking, it is good to clearly involve stakeholders, etc. Also, sometimes very positive accidents happen.  I use the One Million Bones project to get social work students involved in community work and arts activism.  Last spring, some of my students decided to organize a bone-making event under a lovely live oak tree downtown that's known locally as "the hanging tree," reputedly the site of four local lynchings between 1897 and 1937.  None of the 3 students involved was from this community, but they opened themselves up to this powerful project.  Many people came out that day: students, community, the NAACP, descendents of folks who'd been involved in the lynchings...and as a result, there's been dialogue in our community about this history.  There have been pieces in the paper, and soon, we expect a plaque on the tree, and clarified understanding of the history.  This is not revolution, but it is process and change, and it happened almost by accident.

different exposure

If I was a student considering a bone-making event at such a site, and I don't know how it was done there, I would be considering first what it would mean to any descendants of people who may have been lynched there, to have this history brought to attention, and by people outside of community (and possibly with white privilege?), and to try to obtain consent. It's probably good generally that dialogue in the community about the history was more visible, just saying it probably does make a difference towards exposure, legitimacy, acceptance etc when projects are visibly run by people with privilege (such as white privilege) over those whose lived experience connects more directly to what projects aim to uncover / help. Would an event at the same location where noone with visible white privilege was involved be received in the same way? Perhaps this means that allyship is all the more important, but I feel it's also important to acknowledge how our privileges affect the power of our voice.


I think your concerns are well-founded.  The group that organized the event was African-American, Haitian-American and European-American.  None of the students were from Tallahassee and little of the background work you suggest was done.  It was fortunate for the students and the project that their efforts at community reconciliation were were accepted.

From Duchamp to Trotsky

I just came back from Mexico where I had the opportunity to visit the home where Trotsky lived (and was assassinated).  That visit lead me to the 'Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art' that he authored with Andre Breton[1] which in turn made me think of another important text (on this topic), which is Marcel Duchamp's 'The Creative Act'[2].


[1] http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/lit_crit/works/rivera/manifesto.htm

[2] http://www.cathystone.com/Duchamp_Creative%20Act.pdf

community building as culture work/resistance

If you consider community building part of the cultural work of resistance, as i do, then running meetings, setting up art builds, planning events all become not only necessary but legitimate past times! I think nothing can kill a movement/campaign faster than a bad series of meetings, incompetent facilitation, disgruntled participants.... So, i think part of the cultural resistance work is to help build competent and highly functioning groups.

And integrating creative techniques for equalizing participation, moving groups to decisions, and energy builders is part of this... not just thinking about “ART” capital A ( what giant puppet can I build, what poster can I paint) but the small A art of community relationship and structure. This can include some Art-- graphic facilitation, Story Telling, theater exercises, of course-- and also includes training in participatory decision making, understanding learning styles and group- based leadership, and more.

This way, an entire organization could integrate creative work into is ordinary schedule, even the strategic planning process, opening up the door for more big A art, and helping the organization become more highly functioning, more fun, and potentially more culturally appropriate as well.

More resources on admin & organizing as CuR

nadine99 wrote:

If you consider community building part of the cultural work of resistance, as i do, then running meetings, setting up art builds, planning events all become not only necessary but legitimate past times! I think nothing can kill a movement/campaign faster than a bad series of meetings, incompetent facilitation, disgruntled participants.... So, i think part of the cultural resistance work is to help build competent and highly functioning groups.

Great point, Nadine!  And a great resource for activists interested in strengthening and sharpening their organizational and administrative skills is the New Organizing Institute - lots of great tools, articles and tips for organizers!

And in a separate comment, Todd shares his ideas on the opportunities for artists at the intersection of administration, art and non profit work:

Todd_Lester wrote:

Basically, my argument is that it can be interesting to think about administrative duties of artists as a part of their social practice and that by doing so we may be able to make stronger claims to available resources when those administrative duties are fulfilling vital social services. Looking at it from another direction, it could be argued that some artists tactically 'administer' in order to have broader social impact, or even that artists always administer and therefore critical social practices should not be wholly dependent on resources endogenous to the art world.

even more resources on organizing

there are some great resources on line about facilitation and empowerment, and i want to share a new contribution in this genre from a wonderful compatriot, Starhawk-- The Empowerment Manual.

also, this website from Lisa Fithian has great resources as well-- Organizing for Power, Organizing for Change, within a framework of nonviolent direct action strategy and tactics.

The Power of Cultural of Resistance

As peace activist who worker for many years and faced many direct actions in Palestine ,It was so clear for us the power of Pubuler Resistance , using these technique was very vital in many ways during demonstrations.

It was an easy way can be use and its available in our hands and not much expensive to use it, Just using better coordination and communication was the main source for any succsess ,

It an approch you can find many people who are ready to get invole in even if they are not trained in , Just give the people motivations and the spark and you will find them ready to continue the way , They will believe in this way of struggle soon they see any success and retreat from their opponent.

This power can be use as away the only way for the people who has no other choices in their struggle for Freedom and Justice .

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