Gianluca Costantini Is Using Art to Change the World

The activist opens up about illustrating Ai Weiwei's new memoir and the transformative power of images.

A bearded man wearing glasses and a dark shirt looks off into the distance
Gianluca Costantini. Courtesy Gianluca Costantini

“Art has always influenced society,” cartoonist and activist Gianluca Costantini tells Observer. “Our task—indeed our duty—is to try to change the rules through a different vision. I am interested in an art that interacts with the community, an art that shares rather than imposes. For me, art is a way to navigate discomfort, conflict and mutual aid, and to work in political and civil spaces. Art helps me not to look away.”

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Over the past two decades, Costantini’s art has taken an unvarnished look at human rights issues around the world. From revolutions and protest movements in Egypt, Turkey, Hong Kong and beyond, to political prisoners and the censorship of journalists and artists all over the globe, to those killed in relation to the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising in Iran, and much more, he has endeavored to draw attention to some of the most pressing matters of the day.

Most recently, Costantini collaborated with his wife—artist and curator Elettra Stamboulis—in illustrating artist Ai Weiwei’s graphic memoir Zodiac, one of Observer’s picks for best new memoirs of 2024. In it, Ai’s life is narrated via a series of dialogues with his son and others around him.

Two men and a woman stand in front of what looks to be a colorful painting
Ai Weiwei, Gianluca Costantini and Elettra Stamboulis. Courtesy Gianluca Costantini

“The dialogues,” Costantini tells me when I interviewed him after the book’s release, “offer a unique and profound insight into the creative process and the ideas that drive artists engaged in social change.” Through these conversations, readers are drawn into an intimate and thought-provoking dialogue about the importance of art in confronting the injustices of the contemporary world. “With Zodiac, we sought to create a manifesto for change, a call to action and a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. It is a book that invites reflection and inspiration, urging readers to raise their voices and join the fight for a fairer and more just world.”

Zodiac was produced over three years, during which Costantini and Stamboulis were immersed in a vast world that included Chinese culture and politics, Ai Weiwei’s life and that of his father, activism, mythology, and especially Weiwei’s personal narratives. “The graphic creation process required extensive iconographic research. I wanted the book—even though created by a Westerner—to evoke the aesthetics of Chinese design.”

The result is a meditative, allegorical account of the life of one of the world’s greatest artists, heavily laden with sociopolitical implications.

“I believe, as Ai Weiwei does,” explains Costantini, “that all art is political. In these dramatic years we’re living through, if someone paints landscapes, I believe it means they’re okay with the world as it is. On the contrary, I want to change things and help others through my work.”

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Costantini’s artistic journey launched at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna, where he began publishing illustrations as early as his second year. Comics became his raison d’être out of practical concerns.

“Initially, my choice to pursue comics was driven by economic reasons,” he recalls. “Coming from a working-class family, I had limited financial resources, and comics represented the most accessible and promising art form. It required very little: just a sheet of paper and some black ink, and you could start.”

Over the coming decade, he would enjoy a certain degree of success through publication and exhibition at home, but Costantini felt a growing urge to draw on a larger stage and began illustrating events beyond his native Italy. One of his early political drawings, for example, depicted the killing of Filipino journalist Rowell Endrinal. He started sharing these illustrations via Indymedia, “a no-global counter-information portal that played a significant role in disseminating certain messages in the 2000s.” From there he began linking with like-minded people via Twitter such as the Gezi Park activists of Istanbul, Occupy Wall Street and protesters in Hong Kong and Cairo.

“Over time, I became increasingly interested in individual people,” says Costantini. “Those whose fundamental rights are denied and violated.”

A line drawing of a press helmet with a red splatter of blood
“I have focused mainly on the slain journalists.” Courtesy Gianluca Costantini

These days, Costantini can frequently be found aiming his art at a range of human rights issues around the world.

On Iran: “I have closely followed the Iranian protests, starting from the killing of Masha Amini. Within these tragic events lie all the themes that deeply concern me: the deprivation of freedom of movement and expression, women’s rights, the death penalty and religious extremism.”

On Gaza: “The issue of Palestine represents one of the most significant cases of deprivation of freedom, and I have been following it since I began creating political drawings in 2004. In recent months, everything we have built in terms of human rights has been demolished. I have focused mainly on the slain journalists, drawing their portraits in collaboration with the Committee to Protect Journalists.”

On Julian Assange: “I believe Assange’s fate symbolizes broader challenges facing our evolving digital society, and his story continues to inspire critical reflections and debates on the fundamental principles of democracy and freedom.”

A cartoon of a blue bearded man with barbed wire twisted around his head
“I believe Assange’s fate symbolizes broader challenges facing our evolving digital society.” Courtesy Gianluca Costantini

The list goes on. Attacks on journalists, writers and poets in Eritrea. Repression in Belarus, Turkey, and China. The migrants flowing through Libya.

In each situation, Costantini believes that it’s crucial to create meaningful narratives to foster understanding. For him, drawings serve as a tool for denunciation and awareness, stimulating public debate and inviting viewers to reflect on the broader implications of the issues at hand. “My goal is an act of artistic resistance and incisive criticism of injustices and human rights violations in the context of contemporary society,” he says. “I seek to inspire deep reflection on the need to defend democratic values and press freedom in an era of increasing obscurantism and government control.”

Costantini’s work has not gone unnoticed by at least one of the governments targeted by his art. After the coup attempt in Turkey, his pro-protest drawings initially drew him a Twitter ban within the country (a common tactic used by authoritarian regimes around the world) which escalated to charges of terrorism for which he was tried in absentia. Suffice it to say he is no longer welcome there.

“Being labeled as a terrorist based on my artistic work is not only absurd but also incredibly unjust,” says Costantini. “As an artist, my intention has never been to spread terror or threaten public security, but rather to explore social and political realities through the medium of visual art. This experience has led me to deeply reflect on the fragility of freedom of expression and the need to defend it at all costs. In a democratic society, artists should be free to express their opinions and criticisms without fear of persecution or censorship.”

A bearded man in short sleeves sits next to a cardboard cartoon cutout of a man
Gianluca Costantini with his illustration of former detainee Patrick Zaki. Photo by Michele Lapini

Because of reactions such as this, Costantini argues that his preferred medium—illustration—is just as politically relevant as ever.

“In recent years, it seems that drawing has played an increasingly important role in activism, communicating uncomfortable themes in a different and perhaps more empathetic way. Drawings, as well as comics, are very powerful in communicating, especially on social media. People stop and look. But perhaps it’s always been this way. Art has always been political, from that used for propaganda to that used during revolutions.”

In the immediate future, Costantini says he will persist in his documentation of events in Palestine and Iran and will soon publish a comic book biography of Xi Jinping in France in an effort to further characterize Chinese politics and society.

“I will continue to fight for freedom of expression and for the right of every artist to express themselves freely, wherever they may be,” asserts Costantini. “My battle is not just for myself but for all those who have been victims of similar injustices and for all those who believe in the transformative power of art and freedom.”

Gianluca Costantini Is Using Art to Change the World