The art of resistance

27 January 2017

The concept of ‘power’ bears with it the concept ‘powerless’. The powerless will resist those who, being powerful, oppress them. What constitutes such ‘resistance’? In the brilliant words of Rajat Singh “But resistance is the shape of rebellion each of us maintains in our own bodies.”

I am interested in the art of resistance, art in all its form, in the shapes of rebellion that challenge the way the powerful manifest their power. Hence resistance means that in some manner, however small or however revolutionary, the way a culture or society works must change. Until that happens, endurance too is resistance. Here are a very few examples I have particularly noted.

Poets have always resisted. Palestinian-Canadian Rafeef Ziadah has joined that great company with heart-searing effect.

Watch her reciting, with passion, her poem: “We teach life, Sir”  This was written during the winter of 2008-9, amid the Israeli attacks on Gaza, when she was a spokesperson for an activist coalition doing media work. A journalist asked her, “don’t you think it would all be fine if you Palestinians just stopped teaching your children to hate?”

Who is doing the teaching of so vastly important a subject as life? The Gazans, the Palestinians. With this creative concept Gaza is transformed from being that bombed-out, soon to be unfit for human habitation sliver of the earth, to become a life-enhancing entity for all.

We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life, sir

In Arabic the word often used for the long-standing deep resistance of Palestinians is ‘sumud’ which roughly equates to ‘steadfastness’. Memory is part of sumud. Even the memory of a presence brings its own actuality when it is expressed in a work of art.
Palestinians’ desire and need is to be recognised as Palestinians, a nation, with a land—Palestine. So Palestine still lives in every steadfast stitch of this embroidered map of the lost land.

Sumud is shown by Tibetans, too. Their land has been subsumed into China, which is also trying to extinguish Tibetan culture, so tightly aligned with the traditional Tibetan Buddhist religion.

Instead of using blackboards they carve their religion and culture into everlasting rock and stone, as seen in these painted Buddhist images, which could well lead to severe Chinese reprisals if displayed in a town or village. Hence rock painting is a notable means of affirming Tibet’s religion and culture, and is difficult for the Chinese to get rid of.

Traditional Buddhist images painted on rocks in Tibet


The Occupy movement has faded from public notoriety. Yet it too has endured in a number of ways. The capitalist, globalised system that the rich have imposed on the world has, if anything, grown worse of late.

Occupy has encapsulated the point that economists, journalists and political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain. But it is simple. There’s the system, for enriching a few, and there’s the oppressed many, us.

Occupy has named us and them, in a brilliantly simple description which has entered mainstream, indeed into academic language.


As with the Palestinians, the small tents of Occupy take on the world: a long-term project indeed, but is not ‘change’ the mantra now? Occupy, in its variants, has formed the starting point for new discourses and actions. One movement of resistance that may stem from it is Black Lives Matter.

That bold icon needs nothing else to bolster its impact. Think about what lies behind that deceptively simple statement. Centuries of oppression, racism, slaughter at worst, casual denigration at best. A simple statement of fact. Of values. Already the concept is being applied by other oppressed groups, whose lives also matter.

Resistance is always about life, a better life. A joyful life. Black is beautiful. Black is life and joy.


The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is still, as I write, an ongoing protest by the Lakota Sioux against an oil pipeline which will destroy their sacred sites and likely pollute their drinking water. This protest bears the seeds of resistance. As in the case of the Palestinians and Tibetans, there is an unresolved issue of colonial dispossession and violence underlying the Native American protest.

One simple statement of resistance, as opposed to protest, is shown here. Despite everything the USA has thrown at them, Native Americans are enduring, they have life and a culture they value. Yes, happily they are still with us.


The tragedy of Yemen has lasted already for some years and is ongoing. Under the bombs, the starvation, the corruption, artist Murad Subay has nevertheless produced an amazing set of images and artwork that constitute quiet yet defiant and positive resistance.

I present here just one from the many ‘interventions’ he has made on the streets of Yemen. He involves passers-by, local people. His first intervention encouraged Yemenis to ‘Colour the walls of your streets’ and they did. The tree is bearing fruit, it lives. Yemen will will endure.

Photo credit Murad Subay

Given the long agony of Syria, the massive destruction, this image stirred my heart.

Photo credit UNHCR
Syrian artist Mahmoud Hariri is one a group of artists who had to flee the bombardment of their home of Daryaa, Aleppo, to take shelter in a refugee camp in Jordan. Here we see him using clay and wooden kebab skewers to build a model of the ancient Roman ruins of Palmyra, Syria. “Hariri hopes that by seeing the pieces, residents at Za’atari will remain connected with the country and culture they have left behind.”

Daesh (ISIS) finally destroyed the Arch with explosives.

A Syrian artist has kept it alive.

That’s the art of resistance.