Vancouver Mural Festival 2018
Artists: Doaa Jamal and Sara Khan
I long to see myself represented in Vancouver in meaningful ways. I moved to Vancouver two years ago via Surrey, Toronto and Johannesburg. Encountering the work of women of colour artists like Doaa Jamal and Sara Khan through the 2018 Vancouver Mural Festival has felt like an act of revolution. Their murals engage the imagination, celebrate different ways of being and knowing in the world, and through claiming visible space, draw our attention to stories of what our city is and what it could become.
What draws my attention first about these murals is that they demand a response from their audience. Jamal's mural for instance, titled Why Can't They See Us?, poses a question to an unseen group, thereby centering those who are rendered invisible. The mural starts a conversation among those who are overlooked and points to systematic omissions that are taking place; the "they" referenced in the mural's title are a periphery reality. Though modest-sized, the backdrop of Jamal's mural is fire-engine red with Arabic text overlaid in teal blue geometric patterns. At one edge of the mural, an English translation of a Qur'anic verse reads: We have created you from male and female and made you into people and tribes so that you may know one another. Though Jamal had a few verses in mind as she planned the mural, this verse stood out to her because it offered an opportunity to connect to newcomers and immigrants to the city. For her, making art that helps others see themselves and feel differently about their own place in the city was one of the most rewarding parts of the mural process.
For Jamal, the verse was also intended to spark reflection on the purpose of diversity by declaring that difference is not something to be feared or flattened, it is something worthy in and of itself. It is difficult to find mosques and spiritual spaces in Vancouver, and, for me, seeing this mural felt like a powerful demarcation of Muslim space in a time when religious space is often portrayed as something to be feared.
In addition to the verse being translated into English, I was intrigued that the mural included the verse written in Arabic in a Kufic script; a script that is not obviously Arabic when you first look at it. Jamal explained that she chose the text because Muslims come from a variety of places and it reminded her of a neighbourhood map. It was Jamal's hope that people seeing the verse in Arabic would make people think about community:
"It's just so powerful that you are able to speak to the city in a different form through its art. Vancouver is very proud of being multicultural and welcoming and I want to ask people: are you actually welcoming? Do you talk to your immigrant neighbour? Do you help people in your community centre? I feel like Vancouver talks a lot about community, but it can be so lacking."
In contrast to Jamal's geometric text, Khan's mural, titled Recycled, offers figurative stories. It forces the viewer to slow down and create a narrative. It is evocative of a dreamscape.
These murals also ask their viewers to participate and use their imagination to tell stories about their meaning, and it is this conversation that makes murals qualitatively different from art that is showcased in galleries or art-specific spaces. Instead of being hidden from public view until one makes a deliberate choice to enter a gallery, these murals interrupt and call out to Vancouverites as they go about the regular rhythm of their day.
For Khan, it was both the experience of people encountering the art and creating a story of what those images meant, that helped her understand her own work differently:
"Seeing people who are just there in that area, walking around, doing their everyday chores - that was a whole other experience. I tell representational and figurative stories, so people can see different things and make up their own stories about my work. Through the mural process I realised that this is even better; that the point of my work to tell and exchange stories."
The bold colours Khan used in her mural was a way to enliven the grey and earth tones of Vancouver with the colours of her hometown Lahore. Her mural evokes the brightness of rickshaws, the colours of trucks, the tiles of mosques and the vibrancy and richness of the city itself. Her work is a celebration of the good things of Lahore, and an attempt to enrich Vancouver with the things about Lahore that she cherishes.
For me, these images and colours matter because cities send us visual messages about who belongs through their cityscapes. Inscribed into the very structure of a city, murals are opportunities to speak back to the city, to claim visible space and to invite the city to imagine new possibilities of what it is and what it could become. And perhaps that is the most compelling aspect of these murals – their existence is a reminder that we miss things when we go about our daily routine and we need artists who see Vancouver and communicate what they see by offering stories back to us.