'Listen to the walls': These Indigenous street artists are converging to decolonialize Montreal

The third edition of Unceded Voices is bringing together Indigenous-identified women, two-spirit, queer and women of colour to promote anticolonial resistance.

The third edition of Unceded Voices is using street art to promote anticolonial resistance

By Melanie Cervantes. (Unceded Voices)

While street art is often positioned as an ephemeral artifact in dialogue with its surroundings, the work produced during Unceded Voices: Anticolonial Street Artists Convergence pushes questions of public space, as well as the politics of place and identity, even further. As the third edition of Unceded Voices begins, ten Indigenous-identified women, two-spirit, queer and women of colour street artists will meet to create work in Tiohtià:ke/Mooniyaang, unceded Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe territories (a.k.a. Montreal). These artists include Aura, Chief Lady Bird, Cedar Eve Peters, Dayna Danger, Dolly, Elizabeth Blancas, Jessica Sabogal, Jessica Canard, Melanie Cervantes and Shanna Strauss.

Unceded Voices began in 2014 through conversations between street artists across Canada and the United States. Says Cam, lead organizer of Unceded Voices 2017, about the nature of these germinal discussions: "We talked about how to live in white colonial cities across Turtle Island, where Indigenous-identified women, women of colour, queer, two-spirit and gender nonconforming artists are rendered invisible and feel unsafe in public space. It's still nearly impossible for these artists to take their space in the street art scene because many of them are constantly subjected to patriarchal violence and sexism. We started reflecting on ideas about building bridges and solidarity networks — and we decided to organize a street art convergence in Montreal."

(Unceded Voices)

Working in a variety of mediums, such as murals, graffiti, stencils, wheat pastes, textiles and performances, the participants of Unceded Voices use street art as a means to illustrate their demands, histories and identities. Though the work is without question visually captivating, these street-based interventions are created not to decorate the city, but rather to call attention to the unceded nature of the contemporary urban colonial landscape. "The artists create work to vindicate public spaces that are not accessible to them," Cam says. "They want to share pieces with the members of the neighbourhood about their community stories, their life experiences and underrepresented narratives."

Unceded  Voices is a call to action to rethink our relationships with the colonial cities — and to have the courage to listen to what the walls are saying to everyone.- Cam, Unceded Voices organizer

Since its inception in 2014, Unceded Voices continues to evolve, and the roster of participating artists is ever-growing. All of the convergence's events are free and open to the public, and it's noteworthy that this is the first year the convergence is receiving funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts de Montréal. "It's a great example of new support for a project run by marginalized artists outside the art institution," Cam says.

(Unceded Voices)

Unceded Voices will also house a series of workshops and panels, including a panel talk hosted by Lindsay Nixon with all participating artists, a Bead & Chill workshop hosted by Jessica Canard and Dayna Danger and an art workshop with Shanna Strauss. There will even be an Unceded Voices table at Pervers/Cité's Queer Between the Covers book fair, where zines, stickers, posters and beading jewelry from some of the artists will be available for purchase.

With such a wealth of activities, it's understandable why one might classify Unceded Voices as a festival. However, naming this event a convergence is an imperative act for the collective. "We call this event a convergence because the collective aspect of this project is crucial," Cam explains. "The artists support each other and engage in questions and discussions while creating works that allow them to move through these reflections — sometimes to more questions, and sometimes to a place of healing. This convergence is different than most of the corporate street art festivals in Canada or elsewhere, where it's always the same well-known male street artists who are invited."

Though the 2014 and 2015 editions took place in Montreal's Little Italy and the Mile-End/Plateau neighbourhoods respectively, it's significant that Unceded Voices 2017 is unfolding in Saint-Henri. Aside from sporting a variety of great wall spaces, abandoned buildings and train tracks, the borough is undergoing major transformations — including ecological and residential disruptions from the Turcot Interchange makeover, and rapidly multiplying condos.

By Jessica Sabogal. (Unceded Voices)

"The gentrification issues will be addressed," Cam says, "and we'll be inviting community members to come see us and maybe collaborate with us. We want to continue the discussions about the complexity of urban spaces, especially in Montreal — an Indigenous unceded land — in different neighbourhoods every time." The Unceded Voices collective, which includes fifteen participating artists from all three convergences, two organizers and a group of volunteers, is looking towards Toronto, Whitehorse or Vancouver as possible locations for the next convergence.

Some of the artists coming to town chose their wall spaces in advance, while others will only see their sites upon arrival, which presents an exciting challenge. The convergence is set up so that installation locations are relatively close together. This fosters a generative atmosphere where the artists can assist and encourage one another. "The walls become a source of public visualization of decolonial practice and address challenges and questions to the larger community about colonialism, violence towards Indigenous women and women of colour, LGBTQ issues and other subjects revealed by the artists," Cam says. "Unceded Voices is a call to action to rethink our relationships with the colonial cities — and to have the courage to listen to what the walls are saying to everyone."

Unceded Voices: Anticolonial Street Artists Convergence 2017. Montreal. August 13-21. www.decolonizingstreetart.com