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Simorgh: The art of apartheid walls – Al Jazeera English

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Earlier this month, BBC Culture published an excellent article by Arwa Haidar exploring the global reach and universal language of the art of protest through the murals painted across the world to honour George Floyd – the Black American man whose killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May triggered a massive uprising for racial justice in the United States and beyond.

In an equally insightful article for AFAR, Maya Kroth has also drawn our attention to how artists around the globe are able to turn border walls that symbolise division and oppression into powerful protests.

Indeed, from Syria and Palestine to Egypt and the US, artists defiantly transform the walls that divide us into virtual galleries of resistance against injustice, cruelty and violence, reminding the tyrants and mass murderers ruling over them that they are being watched and will one day be held to account.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

This year’s Black Lives Matter uprising in the US and the way it resonated with people in different corners of the world drew renewed attention to the art of protest. However, the distinctive art forms that express and help shape social movements and revolutions exist in a much larger frame of reference that certainly includes the Black Lives Matter movement but is not limited to it.

From Asia and Africa to Latin America, murals and graffiti calling for justice, honouring the fallen, and shaming the oppressors act as mirrors to a broken and fragmented human soul yearning for a unified liberation made impossible by the very walls on which they are drawn and painted.

Together, these artworks draw a different map of the world than the one shaped by fictitious colonial borders that divide nations and their collective dreams. From the murals and graffitis painted and drawn in the last century during national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, to the ones created during the ongoing struggles for freedom and justice in Kashmir, Palestine, Hong Kong and most recently in the US, these artworks reveal the overcoming of false borders and the mapping of global defiance.

From the heavens down to earth and back

In renowned Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar’s 1177 masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, we read the story of a flock of birds that embarked on a journey towards Mount Qaf to find their “king”, the mythical bird Simorgh. In the poem, Attar tells us how this divine bird once dropped a single feather from its wing upon China and cast the entire world into commotion:

That feather is now in a museum in China –
That’s what the Prophet meant by “Seek knowledge even in China!”
If the colour of its feather had not been revealed
So much commotion would not have happened around the world …

Attar’s sublime mystical allegory has found renewed meaning in our troubled time. It is as if scores of selfless, mostly nameless, artists around the world have seen a vision of Simorgh’s solitary feather and been inspired to inscribe the humanity’s collective cry for freedom on walls around them.

The feather of Simorgh has always been a symbol of beauty and truth, inspiring poets and philosophers to do and say the beautiful and the just. These anonymous artists, the mystics of our time, depicting the cruelties of our age on those fearsome walls are the offspring of Simorgh.

Murals as mirrors

Revolutions and social movements, however successful they may appear in the moment, often face the risk of being squashed by blunt military force or paving the way for a different type of oppression with the passage of time. But the artworks they inspire keep alive the dreams and aspirations of the brave souls who initially brought them to fruition.

Let me share an example: Soon after the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979, my colleague Peter Chelkowski and I collected an entire archive of revolutionary art that included murals, posters, graffiti, and other related material and published the first book on the visual memories of that historic event. Our book, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (1995), came to be seen as a close examination of the whole iconography of revolutionary uprising and placed the Iranian revolution next to similar landmark events, such as the French, Cuban and Russian revolutions, and the monumental body of public and political art they had produced.

Decades later, I chanced upon a precious collection of pre-revolutionary posters from 1950s and 1960s anticipating the 1979 revolution. I used this collection to help curate an art exhibition in Ashville, North Carolina, and later published a book on these posters, In Search of Lost Causes:  Fragmented Allegories of an Iranian Revolution (2014).  During that period, I was also working to archive Palestinian cinema in an effort to preserve a precious body of art documenting the struggle and dreams of the Palestinian people.

Simultaneous to my efforts, thousands of others across the world, from Iran and Syria to Egypt and the US were working to produce, preserve and promote political art that helped and continues to help regular people defeat armies, end occupations, topple dictators and claim their most basic rights and freedoms.

The Iranian revolution degenerated into a theocracy. The Egyptian revolution that followed decades later was brutalised by a military coup. The Syrian revolution was murderously maligned by the combined forces of Bashar al-Assad, reactionary Arab leaders and their Western benefactors. The Palestinian national liberation is facing the gargantuan US/Israeli military machinery. The Black Lives Matter uprising in the US is combatting a racist and militarised police force that the first Black president says we must not call to defund. But what remains constant in the ebb and flow of all these dreams and struggles is the visual and performing arts they have inspired.

Mirrors as walls

Let me now turn to another example: In February 2004, I visited Palestine alongside a number of renowned Palestinian filmmakers to participate in a film festival I helped organise. As we were crossing a checkpoint near the apartheid wall between Jerusalem and Ramallah, legendary Chilean-Palestinian filmmaker Miguel Littin began speculating on how he could project his feature film on to the apartheid wall. Our hosts living on both sides of that wall swiftly persuaded Littin to abandon the idea by expressing their fear that trigger-happy Israeli snipers would shoot and kill anyone who came near the wall to watch his film.

On that occasion, we could not project a Palestinian filmmaker’s vision of freedom on the Israeli apartheid wall.  But soon countless, mostly nameless, Palestinian artists turned those very walls into a mirroring gallery of their struggles.

Walls are not just artificial political boundaries dangerous fascists like Trump or Netanyahu erect to try and preserve their crumbling empires and colonies. Walls are also invitations to paint, to dream, to defy, to dismantle what they represent.

At end of Attar’s Conference of the Birds – in a play on the word “Simorgh” which literally means “30 birds” – just 30 birds survive the arduous journey to Mount Oaf. As they reach their destination, these birds come face to face with not the legendary bird, but a mirror in which they see nothing but their own reflections. They come to the realisation that “Simorgh” was none other than their own 30 brave and defiant souls who, against all odds, had dared to see they were the agents of their own destinies. They did not need any king, they were all kings.

The artists who defiantly use the walls that divide us to deliver a message of hope and unity are like these birds – kings seeing the visions of their freedom on the mirror of the walls they had beautifully painted and boldly faced.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Visit the city's tiniest art gallery: Five things to do in Saskatoon this weekend – Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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In an effort to help Saskatoon residents share art with one another, Suzy Schwanke has created the Free Little Art Gallery YXE outside her home at 332 Hilliard St. E.

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Whether you’re interested in art, a virtual party, some outdoor activities or cleaning up around the house, there’s a little bit of something for everyone this weekend in Saskatoon.

1. Visit the Free Little Art Gallery

In an effort to help Saskatoon residents share art with one another, Suzy Schwanke has created the Free Little Art Gallery YXE outside her home at 332 Hilliard St. E. Designed in the style of community libraries and kitchen boxes, visitors to the gallery can take a piece of art, leave a piece of art, or do both. You can check out some of the artwork on Instagram @Freelittleartgalleryyxe.

Art teacher Suzy Schwanke is hoping to bring “a little joy to the community” by installing a tiny art gallery on her front lawn in Saskatoon’s Queen Elizabeth neighbourhood.
Art teacher Suzy Schwanke is hoping to bring “a little joy to the community” by installing a tiny art gallery on her front lawn in Saskatoon’s Queen Elizabeth neighbourhood. Photo by Matt Smith /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

2. Hit up The Bassment’s virtual party

Featuring the music and talents of eight Saskatoon bands, The Bassment presents InTune 2021 — a free online party playing from 2 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The shows will be streamed live through the Bassment’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

3. Check out local performers

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Watch as some of Saskatoon’s performing artists share their work in Episode 1 of Persephone Theatre’s Open Stage, which was published earlier this month. The episode is available to watch whenever you want at persephonetheatre.org and features Peace Akintade, Kathie Cram, Amanda Trapp, Sketchy Bandits, Carla Orosz and Ellen Froese.

4. Have some family fun

The Fuddruckers Family Fun Centre (2910 8th St. E) is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Sunday, weather permitting. Families can practice their skills on the 18-hole Putt N’ Bounce miniature golf course, reach new heights on The Rock climbing wall or take a swing at the Grand Slam batting cages. More information is available at fudds.ca or by calling 306-477-0808.

5. Drop off your hazardous waste

The City of Saskatoon is holding its first Hazardous Household Waste Drop Off of the year on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Civic Operations Centre (57 Valley Rd.). The drop off is open to Saskatoon residents from residential properties only. Products eligible for drop off include aerosols, automotive fluids, batteries, cleaners, light bulbs, yard chemicals and more. Learn more at saskatoon.ca/hazardouswaste.

  1. Art teacher Suzy Schwanke is hoping to bring

    Little art gallery brings colour, connection to Queen Elizabeth neighbourhood

  2. Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon

    Persephone Theatre brings in community co-leads for new Artists’ Working Group

The news seems to be flying at us faster all the time. From COVID-19 updates to politics and crime and everything in between, it can be hard to keep up. With that in mind, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix has created an Afternoon Headlines newsletter that can be delivered daily to your inbox to help make sure you are up to date with the most vital news of the day. Click here to subscribe.

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YK ARCC celebrates 10 years by pushing for NWT art gallery – Cabin Radio

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Its trailer doubles as one of the NWT’s only art galleries. Now, the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre is turning 10 years old.

The group, YK ARCC for short, formed in 2011 in a downtown Yellowknife church scheduled for demolition. “There was always something going on,” recalled Métis artist Rosalind Mercredi, owner of the city’s Down to Earth Gallery, who was YK ARCC’s first president.

“I think it was so good to be able to have a space where people wanted to work on stuff and, if they had bigger projects they wanted to do, there was a space to do it. It was pretty vibrant times, I would say, for art.”

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Though the organization stayed in the church for less than a year, it has brought art and shows to Yellowknife since. Temporary homes have included an apartment above a Vietnamese restaurant and empty spaces in the Centre Square Mall.

Casey Koyczan, a Tłı̨chǫ artist from Yellowknife pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Manitoba, held some of his first shows with YK ARCC’s help.

“It really helped to be able to show work within an environment that was conducive to more of a fine arts aesthetic as opposed to … a coffee shop, or a pub, or something like that,” said Koyczan, who was on YK ARCC’s board.

“YK ARCC felt like it was getting to more of a formal-exhibit kind of feel.”

‘We need a territorial gallery’

The group made headlines shortly after opening a mobile art gallery in a trailer. At the beginning of the pandemic, the team took art to residents by accepting reservations through Facebook then driving the gallery to make house calls in different neighbourhoods.

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“Because it’s so small, we might be the only gallery in Canada that didn’t have to close,” said longtime board member Sarah Swan. “It has a limited capacity. We knew we could still operate it safely.”

YK ARCC’s first home is pictured in 2011. Photo: Submitted
Casey Koyczan stands in front of a painting at a YK ARCC show in 2014. Photo: Submitted

Yet the trailer’s success simultaneously illuminated what YK ARCC’s members believe is a glaring deficiency in the NWT: the absence of a territorial gallery.

The cost of rent makes it difficult for the non-profit to hold on to one space for any length of time. Many of the spaces that are available in Yellowknife don’t work well for art shows.

“We need a territorial gallery,” former board member Dan Korver said.

That doesn’t mean a commercial gallery geared toward profit, he clarified. Instead, Korver wants a space where artists can show their work and engage with an audience “for art’s sake.”

The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is the only large-scale, non-commercial, gallery fitting that bill in the NWT. It hosts two fine art exhibits a year.

“It’s just simply not enough,” said Swan. “There are so many more artists and so much more work out there to show, so many more ideas.”

“We created the mobile gallery in the first place to feel that exhibition gap, but also, we created it to be a piece of agitation in itself. That’s why we called it the Art Gallery of the Northwest Territories.

“It’s really pathetic that our territorial gallery is a trailer. We all joke that if there ever is a real gallery of the Northwest Territories that’s not in a trailer, we’ll happily give the name back.”

YK ARCC debuted its mobile gallery in the summer of 2019. Pictured are board member Brian McCutcheon and artist Terry Pamplin. Photo: Submitted
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mobile art gallery, yk arcc

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Art by Shelley Vanderbyl is displayed in Yellowknife’s mobile gallery in May 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
A YK ARCC show in 2018, called Social Fabric, was held inside a former bank in the Centre Square Mall. Thirty-two artists were featured and 800 people attended. Photo: Submitted

Koyczan described obstacles in establishing his career that stemmed directly from the lack of a territorial art gallery.

“Back when I was showing at YK ARCC, it wasn’t recognized by the Canada Arts Council,” he said. “Therefore, when you go to apply for grants and funding … and you provide your CV saying that you showed work at YK ARCC, they check their records and say the show basically didn’t exist because they don’t recognize it as a legitimate gallery.

“I’ve had to work really hard on exporting myself and making artwork that is impactful so that, regardless of where I was located, it would be recognized by people in the south, or around North America, or internationally.

“The NWT needs a contemporary gallery. It’s just holding us back, not having that space.”

‘No GNWT mandate’ for a gallery

In a written statement to Cabin Radio, the territorial Department of Education, Culture, and Employment said it has no plan to create a territorial gallery.

The department said it “does not have a mandate to create physical infrastructure for the arts.”

“However,” the response continued, “the GNWT would be happy to work with regional organizations to see how the GNWT can support their plans.”

Korver believes government involvement in creating an artist-run centre or non-commercial gallery should be limited to provision of funding, so any gallery can remain community-driven and independent.

“We need that physical space, but how do you run it?” he wondered. “Is it better to just provide a grassroots organization – or organizations, maybe there shouldn’t just be one – with stable funding so they can provide those spaces and run those spaces?”

More spaces that can host art are on the way.

Makerspace YK moved into the old After 8 pub this January and is planning workshops and exhibits. The City of Yellowknife expects to open a visitor centre in the Centre Square Mall that would include art displays.

Meanwhile, the territorial government is set to release its updated NWT Arts Strategy this June. The previous territorial arts strategy, released in 2004, had identified a need for more arts spaces.

As a gallery owner, Mercredi said she is curious to see how the strategy is implemented.

YK ARCC staged an outdoor installation in 2017. Photo: Submitted
Rosalind Mercredi, first president of YK ARCC, at the mobile gallery. Photo: Submitted

“You can make a strategy but if the plan doesn’t have an implementation idea behind it, then really just sits,” she said. “How do you implement it when most of the arts organizations don’t have enough infrastructure or people to put those things together?”

Swan said YK ARCC will continue to run its mobile gallery while celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Members have applied for funding to run a series of “emerging curator workshops.”

“Art is our passion,” Swan said. “I think there’s just this drive to share.

“Because we know how good art can be, or how amazing and fully developed it can be, we want to fight for that. We want to try to grow the art community in Yellowknife.”

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