Arts·Point of View

With galleries closing, street art has helped us connect in 2020 — and may its future shine bright

The pandemic has brought art into the outside world more than ever before and affirmed how essential it is in those spaces.

The pandemic has brought art into the outside world and affirmed how essential it is in those spaces

Hanna Lee Joshi's contribution to #MakeArtWhileApart. (Gabriel Martins)

With the closure of galleries, street art has been the eye candy satisfying a public hungry for art and culture. This story is part of a CBC Arts: Exhibitionists episode focused on street art's present during the pandemic and its future, streaming now on CBC Gem.

If we've learned anything during this surreal time, it's that art, especially street art, continues to be a universal connector. What's the future of street art in Canada? Well, we can't predict its evolution, but this year has already seen an unparalleled commitment to incorporating a broader spectrum of voices and perspectives — and I'm hopeful it'll continue.

When the pandemic hit, it forced the arts sector, like many others, to adapt and redirect. Vancouver Mural Festival and its partners wasted no time rallying 60+ local artists, including myself, to paint murals on boarded up storefronts. Spanning four different neighbourhoods, the temporary murals contained uplifting messages and imagery to spark joy in these uncertain times and provide respite from feelings of anxiety and stress. #MakeArtWhileApart transformed the apocalyptic doom space of boarded up storefronts into vibrant open-air galleries filled with hope and optimism.

It's important to note that murals are not created in silos. From organizers and suppliers to artists and volunteers, it takes a village to paint a mural — and it's through that collaborative spirit that magic is made. Art continues to be the magic that brings us together while apart.

Sandeep Johal's contribution to #MakeArtWhileApart. (Sandeep Johal)

Over the years, the perception of street art has changed dramatically. It's become elevated and legitimized by arts institutions, organizations, and festivals the world over, but I'd be remiss not to give a shout out to the graffiti artists who paved the way. Hey! Thanks.

In this time of pandemic-intensified social and political upheaval, the aforementioned institutions have pledged to do better, to acknowledge their blind spots, to pull apart and examine their biases, and to be more inclusive of artists belonging to under-represented communities, particularly those who identify as BIPOC and 2SLGBTQIA+. Now more than ever, we're seeing BIPOC bodies, stories, and aesthetics at the forefront, taking up public space in previously unimagined and unprecedented ways — particularly in Canadian mural festivals.

Anthony Joseph's "Hope Through Ashes: A Requiem for Hogan's Alley." (Ben Nelms)

Vancouver Mural Festival course-corrected this year by ensuring the inclusion of Black artists and perspectives in their 2020 edition. Anthony Joseph was commissioned to paint a site-specific 45-metre mural "Hope Through Ashes: A Requiem for Hogan's Alley" along the Dunsmuir viaduct — the very location of a failed urban renewal project which destroyed Hogan's Alley, a largely Black neighbourhood. Joseph's mural embodies the spirit of the people who made the neighbourhood what it was and celebrates its rich history.

Kevin Ledo's "Use Your Voice." (Kevin Ledo)

Elsewhere in Canada, the inaugural Chilliwack Mural Festival brought in Montreal-based mural veteran Kevin Ledo to paint a larger-than-life portrait of local Indigenous musician, community leader, and role model Inez Louis. Indigenous community members then filled in the piece, entitled "Use Your Voice," with positive messages in Cree, Halq'eméylem, Anishinaabemowin, and English.

Alex Kwong's "Simona Lisa." (Harkit Uppal)

Meanwhile, Calgary's BUMP festival brought in local artist Alex Kwong, who paid homage to fellow artist Simone Saunders by creating a large-scale portrait of her. "Simona Lisa" brings attention and support to Saunders' textile practice, which celebrates Black excellence and strength. And Wall-To-Wall Winnipeg managed to sneak in a basketball court mural by Indigenous artist Peatr Thomas. "Apiw" is a multilayered piece encompassing Indigenous rising and reclamation through motif and colour.

Peatr Thomas's "Apiw." (walltowallwpg.com)

Each of these murals exemplify the importance of learning one another's histories to better understand each other's perspectives, the positive impacts of community building, the power of seeing diverse bodies in public spaces, and the healing capacity of identity reclamation. We can't deny the sheer importance of visibility and representation. Seeing yourself in spaces you haven't seen yourself in before truly means something.

Another exciting shift in street art has been watching female artists, like Ola Volo, take centre stage in a primarily male-dominated scene. Volo — a Montreal-based, Kazakh Canadian illustrator and muralist — has garnered international acclaim with her signature style. In 2019, she was commissioned by Le Cartel to paint a mural in Montreal's Mile End. At 15,000 square feet, Volo's piece is the largest mural in Canada ever painted by a woman, and her fearlessness is inspiring legions of female muralists to dream bigger.

The wheels of change are slow, but they are inching forward. Aside from beautification and deterring vandalism, murals represent snapshots of change, communicating what's happening in the here and now. They shape and build communities. They bring people together in extraordinary ways. And while we can't possibly know where street art will take us, I'm looking forward to the ride. Here's to a future of authenticity over tokenism, representation over the status quo, and inclusion over erasure.

About the Author

Sandeep Johal is a Canadian visual artist and muralist whose art practice is aesthetically and conceptually inspired by her South Asian heritage. She has worked with the Vancouver Art Gallery, Burrard Arts Foundation, Vancouver Mural Festival and Indian Summer Festival. Sandeep lives and works in Vancouver BC.

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