'A teaching in itself': New mural at Banting Secondary School an homage to solidarity

The richly coloured mural that now adorns the looming walls of Sir Frederick Banting's east entrance is teeming with symbolism.

Students were asked what Indigeneity meant to them. Then, they pieced their answers together on canvas

The mural is a collection of Indigenous symbolism. (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

On the looming interior wall of Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School's east entrance, a colourful mural now stands out against the plain white brick.

It is teeming with symbolism: two drummers bracket a dancer caped in a red shawl. There is a grey buffalo and a howling wolf separated by fire. Throughout the painting, tall pines reach far and wide. It is an eye-catching piece of art. But it didn't begin that way. 

"Each student first drew out or wrote words about what Indigeneity meant to them. And the allies in the group wrote out how they wanted to be represented, " said Olivia Thom, a former student of Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School, who helped organize the project. 

The piece is the work of about thirty students who, along with local artist Mike Cywink, pieced together elements that meant something to each of them. 

A number of students worked on the 'Teachings' mural collaboratively. (Submitted by Ivonne Tavares)

"When I first saw the finished piece, I was amazed by how beautiful it was," Thom said, explaining that while all of the students worked on it together, Cywink polished it off with his artistic expertise. 

She and the other students wanted to leave a mark of their heritage for generations to come. 

"When I came in Grade 9, I didn't see a lot of myself within the school. So I was hoping that this mural would be a form of representation for Indigenous students here at Banting." Thom said. "To leave a little piece of us, so that the Indigenous students in the future would have a piece of themselves here." 

In the "Teachings" mural, the dancing and drumming figures represents the relationship between students and teachers. The drummers are teaching through song and dance. (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

The piece is proving to be thought-provoking for students who pass it daily on their way to class. 

"When I first saw it, I did have questions like, what does the wolf represent? What does the fire represent? What do the people on the on the turtle represent?" said Nourhan Ali, a grade 12 student at the school. 

There is an artist statement on the wall below the piece that answers some of Ali's questions. 

"It's just kind of like a personal reminder for me to continue educating myself because I feel like I don't know that much about it and I want to be a more inclusive person. I want to learn more about different cultures," she added. 

The students that collaborated on the piece were both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The red, yellow, white and blue colours woven together in the mural represent the school and London's diversity.

Nourhan Ali is a student at Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School. Artist Mike Cywink and former student Olivia Thom worked on the mural along with a number of other students. (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

While Thom has moved on from her high school and now studies at Western University, she still has a message for younger students.

"Value the representation and the diverse community that we have here at Banting. Be aware of your surroundings and the other people that you stand next to in class and other people you walk by in the hallway."

That message of solidarity is something that resonates with Ali. 

"As a Muslim woman, I also experience setbacks where people don't understand my culture. So that's where I can connect with Indigenous communities," she said. "I can look back to times where I felt represented, and it just makes me really happy for my Indigenous classmates that they get to see themselves represented in the school."

Cywink says this type of unity between diverse groups at the school is exactly what he and his students were hoping to achieve with the painting. 

In the artist statement, Cywink says the fire inside the shell represents 'the inner fire that we all have - the burning desire to be better than we were yesterday.' (Salma Ibrahim/CBC)

"If you think about all the different difficulties that a lot of these students are facing from different cultural backgrounds, like trying to end racism or bullying, you realize we all need to work together," he said.

"That's kind of what we did with the painting. We all worked together to accomplish a goal, and I think that's a teaching in itself."