Local Artists Connect
Hamilton-based muralist, illustrator, and community engager Kayla Whitney of Koe Design took on the organizational role to get this ambitious project off the ground. “I wanted to create a project that was Hamilton-focused in support of Black Lives Matter,” says Kayla, “but also a project that would be done by Black artists and designers, as a way to help diversify the public arts community in Hamilton.” Kayla connected with the murals’ designers: Tandeka Tremblay, a graphic designer with experience in illustration and mural work, and Aichoucha Haidara, a multi-disciplinary artist including being a painter and fashion designer.
Celebrating Black Culture
Setting out to design the mural, Tandeka and Aichoucha knew exactly what would be guiding the artwork. “We really wanted to make sure we were celebrating Black lives. There had been a lot of heavy events recently, with the death of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter reemerging as a really important part of our society. So we really wanted to highlight why Black lives matter,” recalls Tandeka. “We wanted to celebrate our achievements, our history, our innovation, and the contributions that Black people and Black society has contributed to the world. In terms of music, or inventions, or dances, there’s so many rich things that we’ve contributed to society as a whole, and I’m not sure that everyone may be necessarily aware of those things.”
The artists drew inspiration from around the world. “We started pulling aspects specifically from our different areas of upbringings. My parents and my family are from the Caribbean, and Aichoucha’s family is originally from Mali. We wanted to bring together different areas of the Black diaspora and combine them into one piece to show Black unity across all of the different areas of the world.”
Inspiring with Young Artists
Kayla also noted that it was important to create an opportunity for young artists, which is what led to For The Culture’s partnership with Empowerment Squared. This Hamilton-based, not-for-profit organization is dedicated to empowering newcomer, racialized, and marginalized youth. Their summer arts camp was ideal for a collaboration. Kids as young as 5 years old joined in to contribute to the mural. “It added a lot of character to the final outcome,” Aichoucha shares. On another day, a group of 12-year-olds added to this giant canvas, specifically creating the variety of stickers that detail the guitar, one of the mural’s focal points. “We wanted to model to those kids that you can grow up and become an artist, and do that for a living,” says Kayla.
Working with young racialized artists not only brought about the opportunity to demonstrate the possibilities of having a career in the arts, but it showcased the importance of representation, for young racialized folks to see themselves reflected in art.
“The centrepiece of our mural is a Black woman,” describes Tandeka. “That was really important to Aichoucha and I, as Black women, and Black women are often featured in both of our personal paintings and artwork. That was really important to get across for representation, and also a celebration to have it in a really positive and celebratory light.” Tandeka also points out more details in the piece - there are dates from Black Canadian history that are depicted within the sunglasses that the centrepiece is wearing. “We talked to them a little bit about some of the content. We didn’t shy away from some of the heavier topics, but we also really brought a lot of importance to ‘Look at all the different types of music that Black people have created, look at these dance moves that we’ve created, look at all of this history and all of this culture that we have to share.’ I think it was important for everyone to hear and listen to, and it was a really, really amazing vibe on site.”
“We got along so well, and by the end we were such close friends,” adds Aichoucha. “This is something that hasn’t happened in my other group projects. When it was the end, that part was really bittersweet.”
Importance of Public Art
As an artist, Kayla remains community-focused, seeing firsthand the positive impact that public art has over a neighbourhood. “It allows residents of a community to feel that they are part of an interconnected, evolving, social history full of cultural, and economic value,” she says, while adding that it is important to create work that is for everyone, work that makes everyone feel included, represented, safe, and welcome.
Seeking More Collaborations
The artists hope to see For The Culture continue and to spotlight more community groups. “We did this for Black culture, and we also talked about doing For The Culture mural for the Indigenous community, for the Asian community, and it being an annual thing where we focus and celebrate all of the different cultures in Hamilton,” says Kayla, adding that she is looking for more artists and collaborators. Now that they have accomplished this incredible work, the framework is in place in terms of fundraising and logistics, and Kayla looks forward to connecting with people within different communities in Hamilton, and doing it all over again.