A Black artist and his team of mostly racialized people have experienced an onslaught of racism while painting a Black Lives Matter mural in Calgary, Alberta.
Jae Sterling is in charge of painting a privately funded mural, going up in the city’s Chinatown, that celebrates Black lives at a time when racial reckonings are taking place all over the world. The piece, “The Guide and Protector,” includes two Black characters—a woman warrior riding a longhorn bull and a Black male cowboy guiding the two.
The symbolism in the piece is vast, but the cowboy in particular nods at the role Black cowboys played in shaping the city’s culture, which is known for its country western aesthetic. “Black homesteaders settled in the Canadian prairies in the 1800s, a fact that has been brushed over in our history,” the mural’s proposal said, referencing John Ware, a Black cowboy who was born into slavery in the U.S. but later migrated to southern Alberta in 1882. He’s credited for being one of the first ranchers in the province.
“Calgary has this thing where everyone is supposed to be a cowgirl or cowboy, so why not Black people too?” said Sterling. “It’s my way of embracing the culture here. This is what Calgary is and you grow to love it…it was a no brainer for me.”
Sterling said he has had to ignore racial slurs, inflammatory comments online, and critical people approaching the site to ask the security guard whether the team of artists has adequate permits.
“Look at what's going on,” Sterling said. “It’s just a painting and people are literally abusing us while we work. To me, that proves everything.”
Even a far-right news outlet caught wind of the project and bombarded their site, which fed the vitriol, Sterling said.
Pink Flamingo, the community group commissioning the artwork, hired security to keep Sterling and his team safe. Allison Dunne, Pink Flamingo’s co-founder, said she believes this is the first mural in Calgary that has required a security guard.
“Everyone’s an art critic all of a sudden,” Sterling said. “But it’s one thing to not like the art; it’s another to attack artists of colour for nothing more than their skin colour.”
Ryan Tram, one of the artists helping Sterling with the mural, said everyone expected backlash since Alberta is known for its conservative social and political climate. And there was already pushback before Sterling and his team were involved.
The painting was originally part of a city-funded, four-mural initiative, facilitated by Pink Flamingo, a local Black-led collective supporting racialized and LGBTQ communities, to celebrate Black life around Calgary following the hotly criticized city council-led anti-racism talks. The talks, which spanned three days in early July, invited experts and community members to discuss personal experience with racism as well as calls to action and strategies for combating racism in several sectors, including policing and education. The question now is: what’s next?
Sterling applied to be part of the project, which is not affiliated with the official Black Lives Matter organization, despite the fact that it was postponed until 2021 following backlash related to one mural’s original proposed location. Pink Flamingo managed to garner private funds and support, which allowed Sterling’s team to go ahead with their mural at its current Chinatown spot.
Some Chinese Calgarians questioned why Pink Flamingo and those in charge of the building where the mural is being painted didn’t adequately consult the Chinatown community, but after back and forths, the project was accepted. It will include a plaque that honours the relationship between Chinese and Black Calgarians, Terry Wong, the executive director at Chinatown Business Improvement Area, told VICE News.
Dunne, a Black woman, has received “hundreds” of racist messages since she first spearheaded the push to incorporate more public Black art around Calgary.
“It’s people saying, ‘Get the fuck out of here’ and ‘Canada doesn’t want people like you,’” Dunne said, adding people have threatened to vandalize the mural and harm the artist.
“We had people threatening to report us to Canada’s human rights commission,” Dunne said.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi spoke out against the racism that surfaced when the plan to commission the murals was first announced. “The hate and racism that has come out in this discussion is disgusting, and anyone participating in it should be ashamed,” Nenshi said on Twitter.
Dunne said the point of bringing in Black muralists in Calgary is to disrupt public art, which “has been incredibly exclusionary.”
“After the city voted unanimously that they were going to tackle systemic racism with predominant systems in the city, we wanted to put that in permanently. When it comes to stamping the city with anti-racism, murals are an amazing example,” she said.
Sterling said he’s also received an outpouring of support. Black and racialized families have taken their kids to the site to show them what meaningful representation looks like, and allies have consistently shown up to encourage the artists.
“It feels very like we’re making history in every sense of the word,” Sterling said. “We (Black people) have been saying this stuff exists in Calgary…We’ve been through a lot and now it’s all out in the open for everyone to see.”
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