Artwork by Francisco Toledo. Photo courtesy of the artist.

How have Right Livelihood Laureates used arts and culture to create social change?

News 21.02.2023

Good art has the capacity to hold a mirror to ourselves and the societies we live in, pointing out painful or inconvenient truths. But how can arts and culture be used to create change, especially on a societal level? 

The Right Livelihood Laureates below have found ways to use their artistic talent and passion for social justice to transform their communities, creating ripple effects that reverberate even today.

One common element is that their work is very much rooted in the local context. Yet, by addressing societal ills surrounding them, these artists have also tapped into the universal language of art that transcends national boundaries. Their work shows that arts and culture are essential components of societal transformation, bringing beauty and creativity into spaces often fraught with pain and injustice.

Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

The International Poetry Festival of Medellín is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious poetry festivals. By organising poetry readings in public spaces, the festival aims to re-establish cultural life and help residents reclaim their city.

It started in 1991 as a beacon of hope in Medellín, one of the world’s most dangerous and violent cities. In the early 1990s, Medellín was ruled by fear, political terror and fighting between criminal groups. Some 100 people could be murdered in one weekend.

The idea was simple: by organising poetry readings in the streets, the Festival’s creators wanted to help residents feel safe again in their city. With time, more and more listeners felt secure enough to attend the poetry readings.

Today, the Festival is an internationally-recognised poetry event drawing people from around the globe to celebrate art, democracy and freedom of expression, and to discuss solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The Festival received the Right Livelihood Award in 2006 “for showing how creativity, beauty, free expression and community can flourish amongst and overcome even deeply entrenched fear and violence.”

Francisco Toledo

Francisco Toledo (1940-2019) is one of the most important painters, potters and engravers in contemporary Mexican art. As a member of the Zapotec indigenous group, he was an active promoter, sponsor and disseminator of the cultural values of his native state of Oaxaca, turning its main town into a dynamic centre for the visual arts and literature. He brought Oaxacan art to the world stage by becoming Mexico’s most famous contemporary artist.

Toledo was concerned with the well-being of the Oaxacan community and devoted much of his wealth to this purpose. He was an outspoken supporter of agrarian reform and stood up for the needs of students and indigenous people. He also worked to resist the expansion of McDonald’s in Mexico and the spread of genetically modified corn. Because of his activism, he suffered attacks and death threats throughout his life.

He founded several important artistic and cultural institutions in Oaxaca, involving local actors. He created children’s libraries in indigenous communities, and a number of important artistic and cultural institutions, like the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca and the Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca, which holds some 100,000 books on art and architecture.

After watching a group of blind people visit a nearby art museum, he created the Jorge Luis Borges Library for the Blind, which bears the name of the prestigious blind Argentine writer. It is also thanks to Toledo’s initiative that the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Ediciones Toledo, a printing house that has, for example, published translations of works by poets John Ashbery and Seamus Heaney, exists.

Toledo received the Right Livelihood Award in 2005 “for devoting himself and his art to the protection and enhancement of the heritage, environment and community life of his native Oaxaca.”

To learn about his art and life story, read this in-depth interview with him published in the Smithsonian Magazine a few months before his death.

Astrid Lindgren

Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) was a Swedish author whose children’s books have been read and loved around the world by young and old alike. Pippi Longstocking, one of her most beloved tales, has been translated into 60 languages.

Lindgren’s personal warmth, idealism, sense of humour and sheer humanity were legendary. Her books showed a world of loving relationships, soaring spirits of empowerment and freedom, and closeness to nature for future generations.

Throughout her life, Lindgren stood up for children’s right to security and love. She took a clear stand against the corporal punishment of children. In later years, Lindgren got engaged in the struggle for animal welfare and was instrumental in passing a 1988 law controlling factory farming, putting Sweden among the most progressive countries on this issue.

Lindgren received the Right Livelihood Award in 1994 “for her unique authorship dedicated to the rights of children and respect for their individuality.”

José Antonio Abreu

José Antonio Abreu (1939-2018) was a Venezuelan musician, composer and teacher of several generations of Venezuelan musicians. With a background as a cultural manager, university professor and public servant, he founded the Symphony Orchestra Simon Bolivar and the National Symphony Youth Orchestra (NSYO) in 1975, explicitly serving and training musicians from lower-income social groups.

The success of the NSYO under Abreu’s direction led to the establishment of youth orchestras in other Venezuelan States, which have grown into the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela known as El Sistema.

Abreu’s orchestras have had a substantial social impact in the communities where they are active, legitimising and promoting music and creating a true musical and cultural renaissance. Studies have also shown that the young people involved in the orchestras ended up also performing better in other academic and social life areas.

Inspired by the international tours of El Sistema’s orchestras, similar initiatives have been started worldwide, for example, in several Latin American countries, across the US and in Germany and Sweden. It is probably the first worldwide movement for social change through art.

Abreu’s legacy continues to reverberate around the globe: Gustavo Dudamel, Abreu’s most famous pupil, was named music director of the New York Philharmonic in February 2023.

Abreu received the Right Livelihood Award in 2001 “for achieving a unique cultural renaissance, bringing the joys of music to countless disadvantaged children and communities.”

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