In 2015, Ishtar Lakhani met the Center for Artistic Activism for the first time. The Open Society Foundation (OSF) had brought the  Center to Cape Town, to organize a five-day workshop for organizations involved with the Sex Worker Movement in South Africa. At that time, Ishtar was working as an Advocacy Manager at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force  (SWEAT).

Ishtar Lakhani talking to a group
Ishtar Lakhani organizing for sex worker rights at the 2016 AIDS Conference in South Africa


The workshop, called the School of Creative Activism, provided paticipants a deeper understanding of the history and theory behind their creative activism practices. It brought together members of organizations from other regions in the country who did not know each other’s work and it connected members of the movement, laying the groundwork for future collaborations.

One of the SWEAT team’s highlights was developing a 24-hour creative activism action with organizations from across the country. The activity inspired and united them, giving them a common language, a sense of urgency, and solidarity. 

Ishtar describes the experience as eye-opening and enlightening. The training gave her team a new level of investment and commitment to artistic activism. This training was much more transformative than several others the organization had been part of, after which people often returned to work as usual.

The transformative experience made SWEAT a lifelong fan of the Center’s work. After the workshop, the Center offered mentorship to workshop participants, and SWEAT signed up for this opportunity. The process involved sporadic calls and meetings to brainstorm, an interaction that kept the relationship alive.  


21st World AIDS Summit in Durban. South Africa (Photo: UNAIDS)

In 2016, the Center received funding to attend the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) in Durban, South Africa, which allowed SWEAT to work closely with the Center.

The Desk of Disappointment

Several of the actions around the 2016 AIDS Conference centered on getting the South African Law Reform Commission to release a Report it had been holding onto for decades which in turned stalled the movement on sex worker legislation.

On of the actions was called The Desk of Dissapointment and was specifically targeted to the Deputy Minister of Justice to embarrass him about the stalling of the report. It consisted of a skeleton wearing a tie, sitting on a desk, in front of a sign that read “This space is reserved for work on South African Sex Work Legislation“.

An installation by SWEAT highlighting the delays of the South African Law Reform Commission and the Department of Justice in transforming apartheid-era sex work laws (2016).

The report was released less than a year after this, and other actions were deployed during the 2016 AIDS Conference. The creative activism tactics pressured the Deputy Minister and led to a major win. For the movement, this was clear evidence of the impact o C4AA on their work.

Changing the Conversation with a sign and an Umbrella

One of the most potent actions developed during the Conference changed the conversation on Sex Work during the event. The amazing thing is that, aside from the creative process, it only required a sign and an umbrella.

Steve Lambert tells the story in this wonderful video:

“From Anger to Utopia,” a presentation by Steve Lambert at the Frank Conference (2020).

The Elton John Award

During the 2016 AIDS Conference, Sisonke — a nation-wide movement formed by sex workers for sex workers — wanted to meet with representatives of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, well-known for supporting Sex Work and HIV+ organizations.

Getting the Foundation’s attention had proven to be very difficult, so they came up with a creative strategy: They made up the Elton John Award, to recognize the singer and the role of his Foundation in supporting the movement.

The action got Sisonke a meeting with the artist and the Foundation after the Conference, something that would have never happened before. And although the meeting did not lead to funding, it proved that a creative action could go beyond direct action, and help to position organizations in a better place to access funds and get oneself on a funder’s radar. 

One more: A Sex Worker for President

In the 2019 Presidential Elections of South Africa, the Sex Worker Action Group (SWAG), an initiative founded by SWEAT, ran a fake political party campaign with a Sex Worker for President, inspired on previous real campaigns in Brazil. 

They  made amazing posters and got very creative with  it. And even though they expected a huge pushback they actually got a lot of support on social media. People were hungry for an alternative. This affected how people viewed Sex Workers and Sex Work.

Concretely, the action led to the two opposition parties — The democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters — putting sex worker rights in the election manifestos, something that had never happened before.

Swag Campaign, Sex Worker for President (2019)

What can Artistic Activism do?

The story of SWEAT shows us that artistic activism, as a collective creative process, brings people together and strengthens bonds between people and organizations. It can also help to accomplish the following:

Changing the narrative

The creative activism actions during the AIDS Conference changed the conversation on Sex Work and Sex Worker’s rights. The narrative shifted from one that kept sex and sex workers invisible, to a different one that named and recognized sex work, as a valid policy topic within decision-making spaces. The effect of this change were lasting and profound, strengthening the movement and other global policy spaces to come.

Affecting Policy

Creative activism can affect policy by creatively and festively pressuring public officials to speak the previously unspeakable (that sex work is a valid activity and sex workers are important actors within a policy arena), using surprise and the unexpected to open new conversations and signal alternative futures (a sex worker could be president!). By generating compelling images (a skeleton bureaucrat, halting policy change), creative activism brings affect and emotion into policy worlds, shaking up up public discourse and action.

Impacting activist organizations tactics

All the creative activist actions listed above were designed and implemented by organized sex workers. Because SWEAT and many of the organizations that are part of Sisonke, the National Sex Worker Movement, are run by sex workers or workers of the sex industry, we can confirm that the Center’s training had a direct effect on South Africa’s Sex Worker movement.

The impact is not felt as much among the sex workers who aren’t part of the organized movement, since there are so many more issues to worry about than the tactics of advocacy (criminalization, underemployment, harassment). But for those directly involved in Sex Worker activism, creative activism was a game changer.

According to Ishtar, SWEAT’s work on creative activism has “definitely changed how the Sex Worker Movement does its activism, thinks about activism, and thinks about how to impact change.” 

Reducing costs (creative activism is cheaper) and guaranteen funds

Creative activism is a lot cheaper that more established alternatives, and this fact mobilizes funders. For SWEAT, appearing in the front page of the news after the opening night of the international AIDS Conference, costed a good sign and an umbrella. And the more expensive actions that mobilized 1,000 people barely made it to the news.

In Ishtar’s experience, organizations often need to convince organization directors and funders on why to invest on creative activism. The work conducted by SWEAT over a period of five years allowed them to gather the evidence and stories of success needed to convince those at the top. And because a lot of these actions took place in a short time, they produced direct evidence of impact.

Because of this, Ishtar managed to include a very broad  line item of 300,000 Rand (approx. 15,000 USD)  in the OSF budget for “Creative Activism”, a move that was fully backed by the organization’s leadership who had seen the impact of this work in their advocacy. The creative activist actions enabled this kind of support, and the validation turned SWEAT into a poster child around Sex Worker Activism, using this work as an example for their grantees.. In other spaces and conferences, our work would come up. For example, the OSEP South Africa Director, would always use a SWEAT’s actions as a creative and innovative examples.

Influence other activists in the field

The actions during the 2016 AIDS Conference impact on other AIDS Conferences that came after. For example, the next conference in Thailand included an action by local sex workers’ organizations featuring  a jail cell, complete with policemen that would frisk the passing public, making people feel  what criminalization is like.

The international Sex Worker’s movement tends to be creative (See the experience of the Sex Workers Opera, for example), but by using gameshows, talkshows and other installations, SWEAT ramped up expectations for each conference after 2016, setting a bar for the movement, which has carried on. 

Ishtar sees a direct correlation, between actions that came later in other Conferences and events, and the work done in South Africa. While unwilling to claim direct responsibility, SWEAT does see a connection with what appear to be local adaptations of previous work, inspired and validated by the history of the creative activism history of the movement.

Attention of funders

According to Ishtar, the 2016 Conference  was a pivotal movement for the organization and the movement in general,  because it took their creative activism to a new stage. It also made it possible for other organizations to witness the power and impact of creative activism.

Organizations in and and outside the movement started paying attention to how that had been accomplished through creative activism. Some of the actions deployed by SWEAR made it to the front page of the news, which also made funders pay closer attention to the impact and benefits of artistic activism. 

SWEAT was used as a model for other organizations. The public attention validated the impact of the actions and creative activism in general, turning an extravagant and unconventional possibility into a realistic and effective strategy.