Diversity at Vancouver Mural Festival puts a new face on public art

At this year’s event, more than half the artists are women of different ages, backgrounds, and styles

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      While the alleyways, parks, and brick walls where public art lives may appear more inclusive than prestigious galleries, pristine admission-required museums, and other stuffy suit-and-tie venues, there remains disparity in the people that are—and aren’t—permitted in such spaces. This inequality in traditional art has long been criticized, and manifests itself in the dismal number of women, people of colour, and those who identify as LGBT, among other groups, in mainstream art and culture. And it’s a concern that this year’s Vancouver Mural Festival curators kept at the forefront of their minds when putting together the artist lineup.

      “I definitely—in everything I do—consider visibility and representation for those who are not always represented,” Pennylane Shen, local artist consultant and educator, and one of three guest curators of 2018’s fete, remarks by phone. “So the race, gender, and identity politics come into play in my decision-making.”

      Of the 23 participating artists at the third annual VMF, which takes place from Monday to next Saturday (August 6 to 11), more than half—including all three of this year’s international guests—are women. Two are openly queer, six are Indigenous, and many more are folks of colour, bringing a welcome dose of diversity to a realm that has, historically, been ruled by white cis men. “Even though so many women do make artwork, it’s usually dominated by males,” notes Roxanne Charles, First Nations storyteller and guest curator of VMF.

      Charles, who curated most of the work by Indigenous artists, considered the history of Coast Salish land and the recent protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline during her selection process. She says that, for her, it was important to have First Nations artists reclaiming public spaces because “visual representation has been absent from the landscape for such a long time”.

      Pennylane Shen, local artist consultant and educator, and one of three guest curators of this year's VMF, takes care to consider race, gender, and identity politics in her work.

      Beyond gender and race, Charles worked to ensure a diverse scope of media at the festival. Coast Salish artist Zac George is an experienced carver, for example, while Ronnie Dean Harris is a multimedia and spoken-word artist who develops youth workshops centred on reconciliation. Both will showcase murals at the almost weeklong event. Shen, who comes from a fine-art background, wanted to introduce figures that would take VMF beyond just “street art”.

      Her choices include Phantoms in the Front Yard, a local artist collective that emphasizes figurative art; the Los Angeles–based Bunnie Reiss, whose style Shen describes as akin to an adult colouring book; and Danielle Krysa, a Vancouver-based artist, writer, and founder of the Jealous Curator website, who specializes in collage.

      “Her work is humorous and very self-aware,” Shen says of Krysa’s pieces. “I wanted to give her an opportunity to integrate wheat paste and stencil into these hidden alcoves and nooks and crannies in the area we’ve chosen for her.”

      Both Charles and Shen aim to break age barriers in public art, too. Charles sought out 18-year-old Coast Salish artist Atheana Picha, who she hopes will inspire and empower youth, while Shen looked for artists between the ages of 40 and 65 in an effort to counter the view that street art is associated with younger generations. “With public art, in particular, where you do not have the choice to view what’s in front of you…you don’t see yourself most of the time,” she explains. “I don’t see myself in what’s advertised to me. I think it’s important to have that representation in all different shapes, sizes, and walks of life.”

      Below, meet just three of the artists who will be dreaming up and completing murals in and around Mount Pleasant as part of VMF.

      Sara Khan brings vibrant colours of Pakistan to the rainforest

      The medium isn't the message of BK Foxx's hyperrealistic images

      Michelle Nguyen finds feminist approach to traditional painting