Shirien Damra didn’t expect to go viral when she started sharing her art on Instagram. “For years I’ve built so many relationships with folks in other social justice issues, and showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter felt like second nature to me,” she told Refinery29. Damra is a Palestinian artist and organizer based in Chicago who has organized around Palestinian liberation, immigrant rights, Indigenous rights, and Black liberation for several years.
Although she’s been posting her movement art on social media since at least 2019, it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that her work started going viral. Her illustrations of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd — distinctly drawn with floral wreaths around their faces — became practically synonymous with the movement to fight for Black lives.
And it’s not hard to see why people were so drawn to the images, which use soft colours like pastel blues, pinks, greens, and yellows in floral frames around her carefully drawn portraits. The words “Justice for George,” “Justice for Breonna,” and “Justice for Ahmaud'' are stenciled across the top. The subjects of her illustrations always with their eyes closed — a loving tribute to those who have lost their lives far too soon, and to the activism people participate in every day to keep their communities alive.
One year after Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, igniting a nationwide outcry for social justice, Damra’s illustrations have received millions of likes on Instagram. And in many ways, her works of art were some of the first instances where activism took an aesthetic form on social media — shared by hundreds of thousands of people, and starting conversations that many had never even thought to have before.
Damra said that when her art went viral she also tried to use her platform to uplift the work of Black artists and organizers. “I hope to continue to use my platform to uplift marginalized communities so people can listen to those impacted most, and come together to take action and challenge systems of oppression and racism, from Chicago to Palestine,” she said.
“I think part of the reason it became viral is because art unlocks things and takes us to a new level,” said Damra. “It's hard for us to imagine a society outside a [world of systemic injustice] and I think seeing art helps people imagine that.”
In the immediate wake of Floyd’s murder and throughout the summer months and into the fall, protestors in every state took to the streets against this country’s systemic racial inequities. Together, they marched, chanted, and held each other in grief and in rage. In more than 2,000 cities and towns across the United States, millions of people stood together and made demands for Black liberation and police abolition.
But as countless people staged direct actions in the streets, even more showed their solidarity and engagement with social movements online. As protests took hold across the country, Instagram became a home to thousands of informational slideshows, graphics, and art that made complex political issues like abolition, incarceration, immigration detention, homelessness, and climate change more digestible and accessible.
Over the course of several months last year, a pattern emerged: A tragedy would occur, protests would arise across the country, and people would bring attention to civil unrest and explain what led to it on Instagram in the form of graphic, easily shared posts. Some people used their platforms to grieve collectively and publicly during a time of unprecedented, pandemic-related social isolation and disconnectedness. And while some may have felt engaged in political activism for the first time, others were continuing their long-standing work.
But not everyone embraced this type of activism; sometimes it was dismissed as performative, and criticized for focusing on aesthetics as a replacement for substance. Part of the problem was also the lack of consistency in this new language of activism. While some people who had already been organizing with directly impacted communities used the tool to start substantive conversations, others simply posted black squares and used hashtags without thinking about it much further, which some people felt was a devaluation of the movement at large.
The question then became: is the aestheticization of activism pushing the movement forward, or holding it back?
Some organizers believe that sharing information this way, and helping people to get involved — often for the first time — is a necessary tool to reach and educate the masses.
“The general public is not going to pay attention to anything unless it is aesthetically pleasing,” Ría Thompson-Washington, a longtime D.C.-based activist and organizer told Refinery29. Thompson-Washington has been involved in movement work for the last 20 years and has seen the way information sharing has evolved over time. Gone are the days of “crude” flyers, she said. At this point, “people want their activism to be pretty.” And according to her, colourful posts online are an avenue to introduce new people to complex political concepts. “For those of us who are already gonna do this work, it’s like, ‘It’s cute, I’ll share it,’” says Thompson-Washington. “Somebody will see it and be able to have a conversation.”
One way those conversations start is via Instagram accounts like “so you want to talk about,” which shares graphic slideshows with explainers and context about radical or marginal ideas such as reparations, prison abolition, and the death penalty. That account’s posts are presented on light-coloured backgrounds with spaced-out fonts and include sourcing, resources, and action items so people can do more than simply share a post, and become further engaged in digital activism. Their power is in their accessibility — they present complex issues in a non-intimidating way.
“Nobody wants blood red or black messaging. People think of that as being more divisive,” said Thompson-Washington. “Pastels make people feel comfortable and bring in people who wouldn't otherwise be into activism. It’s not harsh.”
But, having a low barrier of entry can often mean that people don’t go beyond their comfort zone when it comes to participating in social justice movements. And that’s led to, if not tension, at least a desire for people to do more to push the movement further beyond just sharing an Instagram post.
“Social media is a great way to share information, and share visions,” said Damra. “At the end of the day, I think it's a starting point for many people. But the work happens when we come together. Likes and shares shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all.” She added, “The onus is on the person to educate themselves more on the issue.”
Portland artist and organizer cremebrulee told Refinery29 they began posting about social movements on their Instagram profile last summer when they started going to racial justice marches and events. Over the last year, their audience grew by 10,000 followers as they shared information about police violence and community organizing efforts. Their posts are a mix of screenshots of tweets and articles, photos from protests, and financial requests for direct community aid. When it comes to the poppy Instagram infographic, cremebrulee said they don’t see the necessity of using their own platform to make information more digestible.
“There’s a super fine line between, like, something that is truly trying to raise information, and something that kind of like, uses either the Black Lives Matter movement or just activism in general as an aesthetic,” they said. “It's a popular aesthetic right now.”
It can also feel like a fine line between appreciating the aesthetic of a movement and using it for personal branding. This is especially troubling when some people don’t fully understand what it is they’re advocating for.
But according to cremebrulee, this is all par for the course and isn’t just limited to people seeking to participate in activism. “I think, in a sense, it's just an adaptation of how we consume media in general,” they said. “It’s just becoming more Instagram-ified.”
That doesn’t make the platform any less valuable as a tool for organizers in our current political moment. “There’s always a mix of in-person and digital, which makes sense for the world we live in,” Palika Makam, a media activist and digital organizer told Refinery29. She added, “Narrative work, whether in-person organizing or in the digital space during COVID is really important.”
As with any online media, there’s a risk of well-intentioned people accidentally sharing misinformation — and bad actors intentionally doing the same, Makam added. She suggested following accounts like Chicago activist and writer Eva Maria, writer Adrienne Marie Brown, the immigrant rights organization RAICES, and the aforementioned “so you want to talk about,” among others, that share information in an ethical way and who include sources in their posts.
Moreover, Makam added that sharing posts on Instagram can become a really effective way to democratize information and move past the elitist concept of academic experts and legal jargon that is “in direct opposition to what we’re trying to achieve, which is liberation for Black communities.” According to Makam, wiping through an informative slide deck on Instagram can actually be more productive than just reading a headline — something many of us are guilty of.
Still, performative activism exists on Instagram, but that’s also true of all organizing, whether it happens on the internet or in the streets. Makam said that while educating outside communities about radical ideas is important, “at some point it’s like, do folks care or are they just posting and that's their work for the day? You can catch me on two different days and I might be like 'Fuck that, they just want to make their Instagram pretty,' and then other days where I’m feeling optimistic.”
Maybe, the answer is: “Both.”
There is a common thread between organizers who speak about the Instagramification of activism, and it’s that this is where people are coming together right now — and that’s a good thing. “People jump on to something when it's a hashtag or when it’s popular, but that isn’t channeled into long-term social justice organizing because people aren’t getting involved in the community. In-person building is key to this,” said Damra. “It really grounds you to recognize why you do this in the first place, because you care about people and want to protect one another.”