Calgary

Calgary grad speaks out against racism through powerful art collection

Anthony Russell, a 2020 graduate from Bishop O’Byrne High School, has created an anti-racism-inspired art collection called Fear of the Unknown that is turning heads in the local art world and in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Anthony Russell draws on experience as young Black man to create Fear of the Unknown

Anthony Russell, an 18-year-old artist and Bishop O'Byrne 2020 graduate, has an exhibit at Arts Commons called Fear of the Unknown. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Anthony Russell, a 2020 graduate from Bishop O'Byrne High School, has created an anti-racism-inspired art collection called Fear of the Unknown that is turning heads in the local art world and in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Russell's work is currently displayed in the Arts Commons Plus-15 galleries.

"I didn't feel like I would be heard if I just went to a protest screaming 'I Can't Breathe' and 'Black Lives Matter,'" Russell told CBC News. "So I made this art to actually get awareness that this stuff is real, like this stuff is still happening in today's society. And we shouldn't be taken lightly."

Russell, who has just graduated from Bishop O'Byrne High School, has now created a custom Instagram page to display his work. 

One piece is particularly personal for Russell, who is Jamaican Canadian.

WATCH | Calgary teen uses his art to challenge racism:

Anthony Russell, who just graduated high school in 2020, created an anti-racism-inspired art collection being exhibited in Calgary. 1:58

"There is a piece currently untitled in my exhibition that pictures me stenciled in a Walmart, and is touching on the subject that whenever I walk into a store with a backpack or with a few of my friends, we're always getting followed or looked at," he said. 

"The reason why my exhibition is called the Fear of the Unknown is that there is a fear that comes with the way people look at us and treat us within society just because they don't know us."

Russell says he hopes to give people a glimpse into what it's like to be a young Black man, and a sense of the hardships that can bring. 

The Helment, Russell's first piece, was inspired by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee.

One of his most recent, created after his exhibit was already in place at Arts Commons, was inspired by the death of George Floyd. Russell says he couldn't wrap his head around why the cop continued to kneel on Floyd's neck, when he was complying.

That last piece inspired him to start his own Instagram page to showcase the collection.

Russell works mostly in the medium of multi-coloured stencils. David Nielsen, who teaches visual arts at Bishop O'Byrne High School, describes Russell's work as incredible.

"He is smart as a whip and very talented … all his work is so very timely," Nielsen wrote in an email to CBC, adding that Russell's one-man exhibit at the Art Commons Plus-15 galleries made him "the first high school student in Calgary to exhibit there."

Russell credits his art teacher for encouraging him to showcase his talent, but has clearly found his own voice.

"I never really worry about people looking at me different, because it's just ignorant, unintelligent people that just don't know what they're talking about," he said. "They don't know who I am as a person."

Anthony Russell is a 2020 grad at Bishop O’Byrne High School in Calgary, seen here with his visual arts teacher, David Nielsen. (Submitted by Agel Atak)

Russell's work touches on his own experiences as a young Black man in Canada.

"Because we are a minority at the school, there is only a few Black people. We all have to stick together. We all know each other and we always try to bring each other up because if we don't, no one else really does it for us."

Russell, 18, says the current situation requires speaking out, but that he has hope for being able to bring change.

"I am not fearful of what's going to happen after this high school experience because I know that things can and will get better," he said. "Yes, racism still exists now in Calgary, in Canada, all across the world, but that doesn't mean that we should live in fear, that we are never going to be treated as equals."


Join CBC Alberta for a personal and in-depth discussion about systemic racism, We Need to Talk, on Thursday, June 25, at 6:30 p.m. MT. Join CBC hosts Sandra Batson and Tanara McLean for a free, public forum discussion that shines a light on systemic racism in the province through the stories of people who have experienced it firsthand, with an aim to put forward potential solutions, concrete actions and examples of success. 

Panellists will include: 

  • Adora Nwofor, Calgary comedian and activist.
  • David Este, professor of social work, University of Calgary.
  • Ryan Holtz, Edmonton podcaster and marketing expert.
  • Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse, executive director of Natamoowin, Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation.
  • Spirit River Striped Wolf, president of Mount Royal University students association.

With special performances from:

  • Alanna Bluebird-Onespot, poet, Tsuut'ina Nation.
  • Andrew Parker, Edmonton teacher.

You can watch it live on: cbc.ca/weneedtotalk, cbc.ca/calgary or cbc.ca/edmonton, CBC Calgary's Facebook feed, CBC Edmonton's Facebook feed, CBC Gem or CBC Television. 

Have a personal story to share about your experience with systemic racism? Email weneedtotalk@cbc.ca.

With files from Anis Heydari and Ellis Choe

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