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An Illustrated essay which critiques how practitioners, including myself, have addressed the issue of identity through socially engaged visual communication practice

Identity seems to be determined by aspects including our gender, race, nationality, income, sexual orientation and religion. These factors are are used to define us, by ourselves and by others. This has led to a great amount of discrimination throughout history through racism, sexism, homophobia and religious hatred, based on the biological belief that certain people were genetically inferior to others. This notion of identity stems from pre-modern society, which held that people are born into an identity which cannot be changed.

This rigid concept of identity directly conflicts with post-modern explanations which claim that identity is fluid. We have the ability to create, and shape our own identity by our choices and actions, and so we have the power to change how others see us. This is explained by Zygmunt Bauman in his text ‘Identity’:

‘…’identity’ is revealed to us only as something to be invented rather than discovered; as a target of an effort, ‘an objective’; as something one still needs to build from scratch or to choose from alternative offers…’ (Bauman, 2006, p15 ).

Despite this, unchangeable characteristics, continue to define us, through negative stereotypes and prejudice. Many visual artists have responded to this through their practice, in order to challenge the way we look at identity and to address these aspects that confine us. Artists who do so include Gillian Wearing, Chris Ofili, Aitor Throup, Yinka Shonibare, JR, and Nicolay Larem.

In this essay, I set out to explore how three artists have dealt with the conflict between notions of identity, to challenge how we define ourselves and others, with focus on race and religion. For the purpose of this essay, my understanding of socially engagement is the interaction or participation with society when producing a piece of work. This interaction may be direct, through communication or collaboration when creating an piece, or indirect – through the way the artwork impacts society.

Pablo Helguera examines the levels of participation involved in socially engaged art, which is a useful tool to use when assessing the social engagement of artists within this essay. These levels range from the viewer reflecting on the work (nominal participation), completing a simple task to contribute to the creation of the work (directed participation), creative participation where the visiter provides content, or even collaborative:

“Some of the most sophisticated SEA offers rich layers of participation, manifested in accordance with the level of engagement a viewer displays.” (Helguera, 2011, p14).

Race and nationality have been used to define identity over history but have led to racism, stereotyping and Xenophobia (the fear of outsiders). This has inspired artists to question racial identity in their work, in order to change the way we view people based on their race.

Argentinian designer Aitor Throup (1980) explores ethical fashion, engaging with social issues surrounding ethnic stereotyping. Throup has devoted many of his designs to exploring the stigma that surrounds black rucksacks after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 and onwards. He explains that the backpack has become a culturally loaded symbol of terrorism:

Due to the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, subsequent attacks and attempts, and the contemporary fear figure of the suicide bomber, one particular accessory has developed a charged culturally symbolic status. The black rucksack is perhaps the most politically charged wearable object of current times, especially when worn by a person with brown skin. For Aitor Throup, the black rucksack only represents terror when looked at the wrong way. When detached from reality, the notion that such an item of luggage implies a threat becomes subverted.’ (Throup biography, no date).

The issue was especially relevant to Throup as he had been a victim of ethnic stereotyping; people fearing his choice of bag in relation to his skin colour. In response he decided to create a piece titled ‘On the effects of the ethnic stereotyping’: a backpack in the form of an upside down skull, which is a common symbol of death (see source 1). Displaying the skull upside down was to represent how the backpack can be seen as an object of terror when looked at in the wrong way. By removing the object from the context, Throup subverts the idea of a piece of clothing causing terror.

Deeply affected by the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazillian who was mistaken for a terrorist and shot by an anti-terrorist Police squad in 2005, Throup continued to address ethnic stereotyping in his short film ‘22nd July 2005’. The film shows grainy CCTV like visuals a man suspended upside down wearing the skull backpack mentioned before:

‘With the man upside-down, the skull rucksack stares out of the frame ‘right’ side up, silently communicating the fatal risks of only looking from one point of view.’  (Throup biography, no date).

Throup went on to create a series of pieces titled ‘New Object Research’ (see source 3), replicating the clothing that Menezes was wearing when he was shot; a t-shirt, denim jacket and jeans. Worn over these is a long veil like coat, in the style of a Swiss army jacket, made of fine gauze through which the outfit is visible. The jacket serves as a metaphor for the terrorist stereotype that the police saw in Menezes, with the innocent reality still visible beneath.

Throup’s works are socially engaging because not only do they reflect on his own personal experience of ethnic stereotyping, they also engage with the real event of Jean Charles de Menezes’s death which was a result of this stereotyping. The way Throup works is also engaging because he creates pieces with the intention for them to be puchased and worn as ethical fashion. Those who wear them are challenging the stereotypes, and contributing to making a powerful statement against judging people on their appearance.

Religion is also something which many see as a crucial part of their identity. For this reason it has become something which divides groups of people and has lead to hatred and conflict. Artists have questioned the religious differences between people through their work, in order to educate people and bring them together.

One artist who has used their practice, in a particularly socially engaged way, to explore religion and other aspects that affect our identity is JR; a photographic and documentary street artist whose real identity is unknown. JR works in a simple but incredibly effective way, taking black and white portraits of people, and then pasting the enlarged images around local landscapes and urban environments to attract people’s attention and to inspire people to see the world differently.

One of JR’s projects titled ‘Face 2 Face’ (2007) engages strongly with religious identity, to challenge the violence and discrimination that it can bring. Visiting the wall which separates the Palestinian West Bank from Israel, and saw with amazement the hatred between the two parties. JR wanted to challenge this, and reconnect these neighbors who share so many similarities yet are at war with each other over the land.

‘After a week, we had the exact same conclusion: these people look the same; they speak almost the same language, like twin brothers raised in different families. A religious covered woman has her twin sister on the other side. A farmer, a taxi driver, a teacher, has his twin brother in front of him. And he is endlessly fighting with him. It’s obvious, but they don’t see that. We must put them face to face. They will realize.’  (JR, no date)

He went and took black and white portrait photos of Palestinians and Israelis who share the same occupation, and pasted the oversized images in in pairs along both sides of the wall, and in surrounding cities, so that they were unavoidable to passers by (see source 4). The images challenge the conflict which separates these people, and attempts to make them see each other in a different way, and not as enemies.

The project manages to be engaging, because it helps to connect people with each other, and portrays them in the way they want to be seen – positive, smiling, friendly. Whilst JR enables the interaction via the photo, it is in fact the person who features in the image who has made the decision to offer a symbol of friendship and peace, and this is made clear to the viewer by the expression the person has on their face.

JR’s project titled ‘Woman are heroes’ is another example of successful social engagement, and partially relates to female identity, in a place where women are still disadvantaged. He visited Kibera in Kenya, and spoke to women who had been victims of discrimination and abuse: they had experienced atrocities including rape, murder of family members, and extreme violence from rebels and armed forces. He listened to their terrible stories, then gave them the opportunity to challenge their experiences and to show their strength, taking close up portraits of them pulling faces, grinning, and laughing. These were pasted over the urban areas around the village to prove that these women are heroes, and to give hope to others.

‘The real heroes are sometimes not where you think they are, they are right right there in the street, everywhere around you’ (JR, no date) 

This work is a success because JR engages with villagers real stories, and uses his skills to help them project a message to others, to reclaim part of their lives: the happiness that others have tried to take away. His work is empowering to those involved, and inspirational to those who view.

JR always retains anonymity in order to let the images speak for themselves, and to encourage the viewer to have a unique and personal relationship with the person they are seeing in the image, and not with him as a photographer. He does not usually digress information about the person in the photo, to allow the viewer’s imagination to tell the story behind the face.

Gillian Wearing is a British conceptual artist and winner of the 1997 Turner Prize. Her photographs and videos, from the 1990s to the present document the complexities of identity, through getting ordinary people to share their shocking, tragic or amusing secrets and inner-most thoughts, often in response to how others see them. Her work provides a platform to showcase their true personality. Exhibition curator, Domonic Molon, further expains Wearing’s style of work:

‘Wearing repeatedly creates situations in which first-hand “evidence” is offered about particularly telling experiences, or in which she translates uncomfortable moments that she has witnessed. Her narrative work draws heavily on mundane occurrences, resulting in cinematic fiction that discomfortingly resembles reality.’ (Molon, 2002, p12).

The aspects of identity which Wearing explores is largely dictated by the people who feature in her work. Issues which her artworks highlight include: gender, race, nationality, class, mental illness. She often deals with stereotypes and prejudice by giving people to opportunity to challenge the way other’s define them. Wearing’s practice is socially engaging, because she interacts with the people who feature in her work in a way which lets them speak for themselves.

Wearings work creates a dialect between public and private, by presenting people’s secrets through the public forum of art.

Wearing’s project: ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ (1992-93), came from approaching people on the street and asking them to write down what was on their minds on A3 pieces of card, and being photographed with their message. These photographs were also produced to A3 size, to draw a parallel and then to contrast between the message written on the card within the photograph, and the message of the whole image.

The project is successfully socially engaging, because of its collaborative nature. Every portrait involves a level of collaboration between artists and subject: Wearing allows them to have a voice through medium, photography, which is usually silent. The subject dictates the written message, and so the meaning of the overall image.

‘As Wearing explained to the curator Donna De Salvo, “I’m more interested in how other people can put things together, how people can say something far more interesting than I can.”’  (Molon, 2002, p28).

Rather than manipulating the aesthetics of the image, she structures the photographs in a simple way, to allow the subject’s message to speak clearly, without alteration from herself.  She is keen to communicate the revelations in the way that they were intended.

The piece of work I produced, based on the principles I have examined in the above artist’s work, is a Hijab style headscarf, titled: ‘I am not Oppressed’ (see source 7). The piece explores the issue of Muslim women’s right to wear their traditional garments that they believe uphold their religious and cultural identity.

Since April 2011, French law bans people from wearing any garment which covers the face in public, and the wearing of all conspicuous religious symbols was banned in French schools in 2004. President Nicholas Sarkozy stated that this was to prevent women from being forced to cover their faces by their faith, and to uphold Frances secular values. Joan Wallach Scott examines the politics behind the ban in her text ‘Politics of the Veil’.

‘The strong stand taken against headscarves was, in fact, a sign of the impotence and/or unwillingness of the government to address the problem it shares with many other European nations: how to adjust national institutions and ideologies that assume or seek to produce homogeneity to the heterogeneity of their current populations.’ (Scott, 2007, p40).

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has claimed to support institutions which prevent students from wearing religious garments. This has seen vast disapproval from the Islamic community.

I found this issue very interesting in relation to religious and cultural identity, and was inspired by an online article written by Sofia Baig, a Canadian muslim woman, who believes that her choice to wear a hijab should not be seen as oppression, in fact, it is the opposite:

‘Essentially, if I want to be a contributing member of society, I must take off my hijab; if not, I must live a life of isolation… Whether someone is forcing you to wear hijab or forcing you to take it off, they are essentially doing the same thing.’ (Baig, 2013).

Aitor Throup’s ethical fashion which communicates the risks of judging people based on their appearance, inspired me to create a piece which addresses the issues surrounding the hijab. I aimed to challenge those who judge Muslim women based on their choice to cover up.

Like Throup’s work, I wanted to create something that was wearable to enable people to continue spreading the message. I created a hijab style scarf used to cover the hair and neck, to be worn by women in protest of the ban. I embroidered phrases and statements from Baig’s letter into the headscarf. This idea was loosely based on Gillian Wearing’s style of social engagement in ‘Signs…’, where the subjects in her work speak for themselves, communicating what they choose.

I embroidered the words into a dark red scarf in silver thread, to mimic modern hijab designs. It is popular in Muslim women to wear decorative headscarfs, in interesting colours and patterns, to express their personality and style. By highlighting this way the women incorporate their religious identity with their own, I wanted to challenge the notion that wearing a hijab is oppressive.

In JR’s ‘Women are Heros’ he gives his subjects the opportunity to challenge the negative experiences that have shaped their identity, helping them reclaim part of their lives: the happiness that others have tried to take away. I wanted my piece to be something that could potentially be worn by women, to reclaim their religious identity, and to challenge the people who have defined them as oppressed.

On social networking site Twitter, I came across the hashtag ‘life of a muslim feminist’, which has recently become popular, used in discussions about issues faced by Muslim women who feel as if assumptions are constantly made about their beliefs and lifestyle based on their religion. The hijab issue was raised by many in the discussion, with most supporting the view that it is not a sign of oppression, it is their choice.

Using these tweets as further inspiration, and stitched the hashtag onto the hijab. I photographed the headscarf, and tweeted the image using the hashtag, to the women who had made some of the comments. This was to engage my work within the discussion.

I set out to create something which supports these women’s opinions, and challenged those who judge them on their hijab. I believe this was successful, because the woman who first initiated the discussion on twitter, responded to my tweet by ‘favoriting’ it. I believe my project was quite socially engaging, through the communication with the women and how they influenced the content of the piece. However, it would have been better to directly collaborate by asking them what they would like it to say.

A more engaging project would have been to encourage these women to stitch their opinions onto their own Hijab’s, and then encouraged them to wear them in public as a form of protest, based on Aitor Throup’s approach to ethical fashion. My piece did not turn out to be ‘wearable’, because the stitching was poor the overall finish was unappealing. I was therefore unable to use it, as a piece which would continue to communicate when it was worn. A more visually appealing version might have been successful in this way.

Having examined the way the above artists use their work to engage with the issue of identity, I have learnt that collaboration and communication are crucial to social engagement. Wearing and JR work with their subjects, to communicate people’s messages to society while Throup focusses on telling a story or a message that is then communicated by those who wear his designs. Reflecting on these techniques helped my work engage more successfully with the issue of identity.




Anon. [no date]. On the Effects of Ethnic Stereotyping. [Online]. [Accessed 15 December 2013]. Available from:

Baig, Sophia. [18 September 2013]. Letter to Montreal Gazette: My hijab is a form of worship, not oppression. [Online]. [Accessed 2 January 2014]. Available from:


Bauman, Z. 2006. Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Benwell, B. and Stokoe, E. 2006. Discourse and Identity, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gauntlett, D. 2007. Media, Gender and Identity – An introduction. London: Routledge.


Helguera, P. 2011. Education for Socially Engaged Art. New York: Jorge Pinto Books.


JR. [no date]. Face 2 Face Project. [Online]. [Accessed 27 December 2013]. Available from:


Molon, D. 2002. Gillian Wearing: Mass Observation. 2002. London: Merrell.


Romanucci-Ross, L and DeVos, G. 1995. Ethnic Identity. Oxford: AltaMira Press.


Scott, JW. 2007. The Politics of the Veil. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.


Stecopoulos, H and Uebel, M. 1997. Race and the Subject of Masculinities. Durham: Duke University Press.


Woodward, K. 1999, Identity and Difference, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.




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