International Artists Day: Putting Creativity at the Service of Social Change


On the occasion of International Artists Day, thelocal artist, author and anthropologist, Ashling McCarthy explores the centuries-old relationship between creatives and social change.

“Throughout history, as social inequality, injustice and oppression have become more prevalent, artists have been actively involved in raising awareness of these issues,” McCarthy explains.

At 19e century, the unintended consequences of the Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented levels of poverty, hunger and disease. Victorian artists began thinking about how their creative works could draw attention to the plight of those affected, with the intention of inviting comment and encouraging participation in the search for solutions.

Fast forward to the apartheid years in South Africa, where many artists sought to use their work as a weapon against the regime.

From painters to photographers, singers to actors, the truth about what was happening behind closed doors has been revealed.

While some chose to use their work to openly support political parties, others produced works that expressed concern, seeking to engage the viewer in the reality of the current situation.

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“When I started my creative career, I was coming out of a decade of research on social development. From HIV/AIDS to the care of orphans, from homelessness to the poor quality of education in rural schools. The scale of social injustice was overwhelming, and I realized that academic research had limited reach. A select few read the report and conversations about social change stayed between me and the client. I wanted my work to invite comment and encourage participation from the general public. Each of us can draw attention to areas of social change that we are passionate about,” McCarthy explained.

The majority of McCarthy’s work tackles several social injustices ranging from socio-economic inequalities and poor quality of education in underfunded schools to the exploitation of artisans and wildlife crime.

The sale of prints of some of Ashling McCarthy’s paintings is used to fund a robotics and coding program at a social capital development and education nonprofit that Ashling founded, called I Learn to Live- Ngifundela Ukuphila. The organization provides educational opportunities for schoolchildren and young people in rural Zululand.

“Providing opportunities for children and young people in rural areas to create meaningful lives, in which they contribute to their community and to society as a whole, is one of the main objectives of the organization,” added McCarthy.

She also offers talks to high school students (intended for students in grades 10 to 12) where she discusses the power of using creativity to explore social challenges and also provides tips and advice for budding writers. To book a one hour conference, send an e-mail [email protected]

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