As we reckon with Canada's troubling history, visual art gives us what words and statistics can't
These artists are painting vivid counter-narratives of race, gender, colonialism, and the spaces they occupy
When the graves of 215 children were unearthed at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, the world was forced to stop and reckon with emerging facts of the cultural genocide and violence of settler-colonialism in Canada. The number of unmarked graves continues to climb alongside protests against the Canadian government and the Catholic church.
As many have reflected on the atrocities that led to hundreds of unmarked graves, artist Whitney Gould reminds us to understand the experiences from the perspective of the children themselves. Gould, a substitute teacher from We'koqma'q First Nation, crafted her piece "They Found Us" (2021) in response to the news at Kamloops Indian Residential School. The piece, which immediately went viral, introduces a largely overlooked narrative: the profiles of two children are depicted, assumed to be running from a residential school — compelling the viewer to sit with the children in their moments of escape and unease from being found.
Gould, who is the granddaughter of a residential school survivor, is using her creative medium to provoke reflections on the violence of this project called Canada — and she isn't the only one. Her recent illustration compelled me to talk with other Indigenous and Black artists in Canada who are similarly responding to the social and political world through their artwork across visual mediums.
…and a small voice whispers, “They found us.” <br><br>🧡🧡🧡<br><br>Mi’kmaw artist Whitney Gould of We’koqma’q drew this re the above quote. It’s very beautiful and powerful. <a href="https://t.co/o2N0APT0Lg">pic.twitter.com/o2N0APT0Lg</a>—@JarvisGoogoo
Christi Belcourt, a Michif (Métis) visual artist from northern Ontario, uses her work to ask us to engage the transcendence of Indigenous ways of life, languages, and cultures and to confront the failures of Canada's attempts at reconciliation. In 2015, she unveiled "Aabaakawad Anishinaabewin" (Reviving Everything Anishinaabe), a painting that explores intergenerational effects of residential schools and evokes a feeling of hope and revival of Indigenous life, languages, and connections to the land. She spent seven years creating "Walking With Our Sisters," an installation tour that commemorates missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her artwork has also inspired the Valentino fashion line, and she was named the 2016 winner of the Premier's Awards for Excellence in the Arts.
"I think [visual] art is necessary for any social movement," she tells CBC Arts. "However, what I think is more important is the artists themselves. Artists think deeply, problem-solve, think outside the box, and challenge the status quo in their practices every day. It is the ability to think outside the box and present alternatives to the status quo that is so badly needed."
In her 2016 keynote for the Maamwizing Conference, titled "The Revolution Has Begun," Belcourt addressed the colonial heist of Canada and the government's failure at reconciliation, while urging listeners to shift their thinking away from centering the individual and collective rights and instead toward centering our responsibilities. "Without creative thought, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes," she says. "Artists have more to offer than just art. To regulate artists to the realm of art only and not political leadership or discourse does the world a disservice."
The sentiment is similar for Shantel Miller, who believes visual arts can reveal overlooked realities: "I am interested in using the visual arts as a tool of communication," she tells me. The esteemed painter, whose work has been exhibited in Boston's Commonwealth Gallery and Toronto's Xpace Cultural Centre, explores race, gender, and religion to make sense of our social and political world. Her work evokes a vulnerability of Black people and spaces, the contours and layers of Black womanhood, and leaves you pondering about the inner worlds of her subjects. "I have several sketchbooks that I treat as journals. They are quite private and [I] often have drawings that are quite revealing for how I process the world around me."
The painter's process of evoking the personal is what contributes to the deep emotion of her work. One of her recent oil paintings, "Suffering" (2020), depicts a Black woman in the nude on her toilet, appearing distressed and tired — a reflection of a pandemic that has made the ever-present spectre of anti-Black racism all the more tangible and undeniable. In two of her other oil paintings, "Lukewarm" (2019) and "Deliverance" (2019), she offers us glimpses of Black women in the vulnerable stances of their private lives. Her piece "The Meeting Place" (2018) focuses on the feet of a small group congregating in a living room — a sacred place of gathering for family, friends, and community.
"As a visual artist, I am interested in representing important aspects of our various realities and points of existence that would otherwise go unnoticed or taken for granted," says Miller. "It is through gestures of noticing, remembering, touching, documenting, preserving and creating where disparate forms of knowledge are brought together to help contextualize and communicate alternative ways of looking and seeing throughout history."
Meaningful art need not be confined to a canvas — it can also flourish in the streets. Such is the case with well-known Toronto street artist Elicser Elliott. Elliott, who has completed large-scale murals across Toronto as well as Capetown, South Africa, archives neighbourhoods, moments, and cultural figures central to Toronto and its underground cultures. A 2020 mural of his, in an alleyway at Queen Street West and John Street, depicts a large view of Kalmplex — an artist who has been documenting and archiving Toronto's music and nightlife for over 15 years — in Elicser's immediately recognizable style. The piece is a meditative ode to an unsung local hero, and nods to the photographer's talent for actively chronicling the city's underground art scenes.
At a time that Toronto is undergoing rapid changes through gentrification, many Black artists and cultural producers who have contributed to the ethos of the city's vibrancy are being economically pushed out. Creating public murals at the centre of the city's downtown core, as Elicser has done with Kalmplex, is a political and thoughtful act of archiving the richness of Toronto's Black communities — and showing love to one another while still here.
As one of Toronto's most celebrated street artists, Elicser has witnessed an evolution in how graffiti has been challenged and celebrated in Toronto. In 2011, incumbent mayor Rob Ford — who once called graffiti "nonsense" — tried to put an end to street art through neighbourhood clean-ups and enforcing bylaws that penalized property owners with graffiti on their buildings. Only a few months into his term as mayor, Ford ignited a long and troubled feud between Toronto's street artists — who utilize public spaces to express political dissent and offer the counter-narratives of those on the margins — and politicians, who do not see the public as a space to confront the weight of the government's failings. Elicser met with Ford to advocate for graffiti murals as public art and its significance to the vibrancy of cities.
Despite the history of criminalizing graffiti, the art form is now regularly used by building and condo developers to craft an "urban" aesthetic of their "revitalized" neighbourhoods. In an interview with CBC's Exhibitionists, Elicser admitted to Amanda Parris that he often feels like public murals can be "the last leg of gentrification," likely because the current celebration of street art on commercial buildings often overlooks the history of municipalities condemning the artform as public defilement and nuisance. But street art's capability and weight clearly supersedes desires to eradicate it altogether. "Every piece of art is political and social art," says Elicser.
Artists like Gould, Belcourt, Miller, and Elicser use their art to create counter-narratives of race, gender, colonialism, and the spaces and cultures they occupy. Through collage and graffiti, oil and acrylic paints, or quillwork and embroidery, they compel us to see beyond the narrow perspectives of the status quo toward something bigger.
As we continue to grieve more unmarked graves at former residential schools, artwork like Gould's "They Found Us" offers us something different to consider. In just a few months since the release of Gould's piece, six more First Nations in B.C. have launched investigations into possible gravesites at former residential schools — a demand they continue to request that the government echo.
In a moment where we are all reckoning with the violent histories that have been long overlooked, it's easy to detach from injustices lived by others, or reduce atrocities to numbers and theoretical ideas. Visual art gives us something different: it forces us to confront the feeling of experiences unknown to us and sit with them. Visual art offers us what facts, statistics, numbers, and evidence can't — it provides a holistic feeling of a given moment in time and space, an understanding too subtle and ephemeral to be contained by other forms. It does what an "objective" news story cannot. It relays empathy and the realities of our conditions — and, most importantly, it offers a witnessing of narratives untold.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.