At the Power of the Arts National Forum, the Black Lives Matter movement is first brought up by Kalkidan Assefa, an Ottawa-based artist with Ethiopian roots. As he speaks, images of his art are projected on the screens to either side of the stage. The first piece is a mural memorializing Sandra Bland, a portrait of her smiling face done in a vibrant pallet.
He speaks at first about being contacted by Bland’s family, who were moved to see that their daughter’s story had spread so far, that it continues to produce a reaction beyond national borders by those who recognize its profound injustice and refuse to remain silent.
But he also speaks about vandalism. For an artist that creates murals, I guess that’s something of an occupational hazard – but what Assefa shows to us when he moves to an image of the mural with the words ALL LIVES MATTER sprayed in white paint across Bland’s face and name goes beyond vandalism. This, as Assefa explains, is a hate crime. This is an attempt, under the guise of equality, to aggressively push black lives out of the spaces they’ve fought to carve for themselves.
The incredible part, though, is what comes next. He tells us about people from across the boundaries of race, class, and gender coming together, not only to fix the mural but to stand guard over it for several days. Something similar happened with the mural Assefa painted to memorialize transgendered women of colour, where people fought back against vandalism by “re-vandalizing” Assefa’s art to reflect its original message.
So what does it say about art and social change? That public art can be provocative, sometimes even uncomfortable in its visibility, is obvious – that it is also necessary is even more so. Part of this is because, as Assefa points out, public art is a dialogue: there’s the statement of the original piece, but the vandalism and resistance that follow also function as communication. And that leads to the question of space: it’s pretty clear that the few spaces that do exist for public art are precious, precious real estate, forcing any public artist to struggle to carve out their niche and get their message heard (or rather, seen).
Visibility is one of the lynchpins of another discussion on Black art that takes place on Saturday with a bunch of the folks involved in the Scratch & Mix Exhibition, including representatives from the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Black Experience Project, Nia Centre for the Arts, plus two of the artists whose had their art featured in the exhibition.
A little bit of background: the Scratch & Mix Exhibition was a Toronto project displaying the work of 11 GTA-based young artists at the Art Gallery of Ontario, with the theme of “Empowering the Black Community.” Thinking back to some of Assefa’s comments, this is a pretty significant move in providing more spaces for black youth in their own community.
This is more than just another exhibition. Bringing the work of youth who so often get pigeonholed as “just” community artists into the AGO helps to validate their work as art, as well as their experiences as black youth artists. And sure, you don’t need validation to be an artist; all you have to do is create art. But the AGO is a notable and recognized institution in the art world—well, that’s pretty powerful.
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Credit for all photos: Kalkidan Assefa
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