How does political activism seep into art about poverty?

Drawing focus to current issues and its depiction within visual culture can allow for an exploration of the overlap between art and politics. In a global society where close to  1 in 10 people live in extreme poverty - classified as an individual getting by on less than £1.60 per day - visual representations of the subject can provide a pertinent view into how political activism can seep into art. Within a society of global news and easily accessible information, artists can provide an alternate insight on the global state of economics and inequity. In one instance, artworks depicting poverty can act as an expression of governmental discontent and criticism; and in another, those same governing bodies can use art as a medium for political propaganda. 

Throughout art history, poverty has been an ever-present topic…

Artwork has been seen to visually reflect the norms of those experiencing poverty. The realist movement, beginning in the 1840s, saw an artistic move toward a frank representation of everyday life - with issues of poverty coming to the fore. Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters is symptomatic of the period; it reflects the harsh realities of 19th century peasantry. Themes of poverty have been ever-present since this art-historical shift. Its exploration is relatable to audiences, while the visuals act as an easily accessible vehicle for communication.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885), oil on canvas, 82 x 114 cm. Courtesy of:

Political activism can emerge through underlying governmental criticism…

At least 271,000 people in the UK are currently homeless. With a rising cost of living, including soaring renting costs, many are criticising the government for their lack of action. The current office have, for example, pushed many into homelessness due to a continuation  of the freeze on housing benefits - an outdated policy formed upon, now irrelevant, 2018-19 rent levels. James Earley’s depiction of the homeless seeks to humanise and understand. Where politics unfairly treats the vulnerable, the artist provides them an equal basis of representation, as he does all his muses. In turn, one could read his work as a commentary on the governmental disregard and dehumanisation of the homeless. 

James Early, Anthony's Answer (2021), oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm.

…while commenting on global relations and abuses of power

Accounts on globalisation have opened up discussions of richer nations taking advantage of vulnerable nations for economic gain. The recent Abuse of Power Index highlights the intertwining between exploitative countries and the history of colonialism. Mikarla Teague’s work Golden Child takes this further, exploring the diamond industry. Noting how 46% of African miners are children, and producing 15% of the world’s diamonds, the artist underscores poverty and exploitation. Teague’s piece works as overt political activism: it criticises and questions how wealthy nations choose to overlook poverty inequity on the basis of individual gain. 

Mikarla Teague, Golden Child (2022), mixed media on canvas, 61 x 92 cm.

Poverty in art can also sway public opinion by promoting a political perspective

Utilised as a political tool, art on poverty can exude political activism to impede, supposedly, threatening ideologies. The Cold War created a global atmosphere of invisible threat and propaganda. Photographer Gordon Parks captured a selection of shots of a 12-year-old boy in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, suffering from debilitating asthma to highlight the poor standard of living in the area. The Flavio Da Silva (1961) portraits became a representation of poverty in Latin America. The works were published as part of a promotional campaign, discouraging the spread of communism and thus encouraging capitalist cooperation between the United States and Latin America.

Gordon Parks, Flávio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1961), gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Courtesy of:


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