The walls aren't even dry yet but this feminist mural project already has people debating the issues
Why women artists are getting together to create 18 original murals in Toronto this weekend
Over the next two days, a collective of women artists will produce 18 new murals in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, taking over a 2,000 square-foot stretch of laneway that spans the block from Landsdowne to MacDonell Ave. Many of the 19 painters involved have never met before, and they won't until they all arrive in that particular alley. They include first-time muralists and members of seasoned street art collectives, long-time Parkdalians and new Canadians — and Bareket Kezwer is the artist who organized the paint jam, an event that she's simply called "Women Paint."
Kezwer is a long-time resident of Parkdale (her family has lived in the west end neighbourhood for 20 years), and since putting up her first Toronto mural in 2013, she's noticed a major absence of women in the city's street art scene. That's one of the drivers behind the event: "I'm organizing it so there are opportunities for other artists to paint," she says.
This weekend's meet-up is partly meant to be the first step toward establishing a "supportive community of female artists," she explains. People will ideally come together to share their talents and resources — and potentially inspire others to join, as well. Then Sunday afternoon between 3-7 p.m. — while everyone's completed murals are presumably drying in the alley — the public will be invited to meet the artists and ask questions about the project. "I'm really hoping that people come out and they'll see the work and they'll talk to the artists and they'll be engaged in conversation," says Kezwer. But dialogue about the project is already happening, particularly as pertains to its politics and its accountability to the community itself.
Every artist on the project has been asked to create a design responding to the same theme, Kezwer explains: "intersectional feminism representing diverse experiences." Though the full roster was not made public on its event page, it features some notable names — including Aura and Chief Lady Bird (who will collaborate on a piece), Kirsten McCrea, familiar Parkdale muralist Caitlin Taguibao, as well as Emily May Rose and Jieun June Kim (who actually completed their additions to the project last week). To find the Women Paint crew, Kezwer says she put a call out for artists by spreading the word through area organizations including the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust (PNLT), Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) and Black Artists' Network in Dialogue (BAND). A few more painters came in through her personal contacts.
Tennille Dowers is the programming coordinator at BAND, where she heard about the Women Paint project. "I felt like I had to get involved," Dowers tells CBC Arts. "A lot of [my artwork[ has to do with feminist ideals and intersectionality." Her mural will involve a range of abstract forms, she explains — shapes meant to resemble both speech bubbles and faces. "Intersections are meetings and collisions of ideas," she says of the concept, and she says she's excited that everyone's meeting for the first time on-site. "I feel like we're all going into it from wherever we're coming from, which is actually the biggest thing about intersectional feminism — meeting everybody where they are and accepting them as that. So we don't have an opportunity to look at each other's work and be like, 'You know what, let me just change this colour or do this to assimilate or blend in.' It's whatever we plan, we're just going to do it and, you know, it's going to work."
Some members of the community, however, are critical of the event's understanding of the term "intersectional feminism," and how it's been understood in its execution. The Parkdale area is unique to the city, with a higher concentration of renters, many of whom have among the lowest incomes in the city. On the event's Facebook page, some critics have questioned why the project lacks leadership from key representative communities in the neighbourhood — poor, disabled, racialized, Indigenous, non-status. Its partnerships have also been questioned: the Drake Hotel is providing light snacks for Women Paint's public event on Sunday, which has raised discussion surrounding gentrification, a major issue in the neighbourhood. The event was also made possible through a partnership with StreetARToronto's Toronto Police Partnership Program, whose involvement entails officers approaching property owners, requesting permission to paint their walls; they also work with youth volunteers to prime the painting sites. StreetArtToronto pays for painting supplies and provides an honorarium for artists.
Sheila Sampath, an OCAD professor and creative director of Parkdale activist design studio The Public, is among the project's online critics. Though she was unable to respond to our questions by deadline, Sampath responded to one of the participating artists on the Women Paint Facebook page, writing that her questioning of the project "stemmed from the language in the event description, choice of partnership and lack of acknowledgement of the very public tensions in the neighbourhood."
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Some Women Paint artists have also voiced their concern regarding the project's partnerships. As Caitlin Taguibao writes CBC Arts by email: "It is unfortunate that this discussion wasn't initiated amongst organizers and artists in the early stages of the planning process, and I too regret not asking certain questions from the start regarding the level of community involvement of this event and how it may play a role in the ongoing gentrification of the neighbourhood. In regards to the TPS partnership, I'm a little disappointed that I was not made aware of their involvement when initially asked to be a part of this event and believe that to be a serious oversight."
Sampath tweeted that she has plans to publish an online toolkit "for artists wanting to take a harm reduction approach to their own work." As she writes CBC Arts via email: "It's about starting to ask questions, not proposing any one-size-fits-all solutions."
Though Kezwer has refrained from joining the conversation online, she says she's been following the comments on the Women Paint Facebook page and welcomes the criticism. "For me, this project was really about bringing people together and though it may seem as though this conversation isn't doing that, I think it is," she says.
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"I think people are meeting each other through this project, people who might not otherwise know each other — and I'm hoping as a result of this I'll meet other people engaged in the community who can teach me things, who can help build stronger projects in the future, projects that perhaps they can share information that they've built and learned and researched about how to be more accountable to the community."