Canada's Self Portrait consists of a coast-to-coast trip across the country to gather sketches and stories from over 700 members of the general public in order to explore who Canadians are and what they stand for as Canadians. The written responses and drawings will be included in the creation process of the Canada's Self Portrait artwork, book and documentary.
The main activity involves filling out a submission form with written answers and a small sketch about Canadian identity. In addition, photos will be taken of enthusiastic participants holding up a white board that says, "Canada is...," and video logs will be shot in which participants share their views on Canadian identity.
The project will result in a body of artwork that includes a major painting featuring a depiction of the sketches; a book featuring scraps from the trip, blog posts, images and artwork, plus a documentary featuring responses from different participants and footage of the art production process.
Canadian identity has always been important to Rebecca Jones and Aquil Virani.
Ms. Jones's family has been in Canada for generations while Mr. Virani's mother and father were both born overseas. Yet both individuals have labeled themselves as Canadians without truly understanding their identity. Canada's Self Portrait is their mission is to find out who they are and what defines them through authentic stories and expressions from the diverse body of people that live in this country.
The point of their coast-to-coast adventure is to investigate further than the tales told by commercials and textbooks; to dig deeper into Canadians' diverse identity, and to celebrate what makes them unique.
Mr. Virani's background as a collaborative visual artist serves as the perfect means to explore identity in a creative way, and Ms. Jones's work as a bilingual workshop facilitator, addressing issues surrounding identity, human rights and discrimination, gives her an invaluable set of skills to plan such a grand undertaking.
The goal is to include and inspire all those who feel a connection to Canada and its values, regardless of citizenship status or ethnic origin.
The idea is to further the conversation about our country's cultural identity – about what defines Canada – and in the process of reflecting and expressing their views, contribute significantly to the discussion.
Participants range in age from 3 to 77 and their occupations include police officers, taxi drivers and professional ballet dancers. It was important to the integrity of the project to include the voice of First Nations peoples as well as a variety of immigrant and ethnic groups.
Discussion surrounding Bill 60 – the proposed Quebec Charter of Values – peaked in early 2014 and many Canadians considered its measures to be disrespectful and unaccommodating. At the same time, commercials and textbooks governed the Canadian identity, and being Canadian was understood simply as not being American, with no clear, constructive identity.
Ms. Jones and Mr. Virani were upset about the increased intolerance and prevalent misunderstandings among Canadians, and they wanted to know what people thought about the place of multiculturalism and diversity within Canadian identity. They wanted to do something to unite the diverse peoples of the nation and celebrate the shared values that go beyond skin colour or religion.
They decided that a documented journey, an ongoing discussion and a collaborative painting were the perfect solution to define Canada in a creative and authentic way.
Making a Difference
Art resonates with people. It is a unique and accessible avenue for communicating ideas and evoking emotional connections with people of all backgrounds.
Art is a powerful tool for creating change, for expressing both logical and moving ideas, and for uniting everyone as artists of the same brushstroke.
The creation of a body of artwork, a book and a mini-documentary will allow people to creatively express authentic Canadian ideals.
The main challenge has been coordinating a representative sample of participants from across Canada. While the project does have participants from all 13 provinces and territories, the multicultural nature of the country can be difficult to represent.
While submissions are accepted both online and in person, it was important to travel and interact with Canadians. Keeping costs low was also important.
Another challenge has been encouraging participants to reflect deeply about Canadian identity in an original way. While the project coordinators cannot decline submissions, they explain the project's goals and hope for authentic stories that move past clichés.
Vision for the Future
The multimedia nature of the project allows for maximum exposure and impact. The artwork and book inspired by Canada's Self Portrait will be available as a travelling show with artist statements sharing a message of unity and diversity. The documentary film will be entered in festivals and shown to audiences and will also be viewable on the Canada's Self Portraitwebpage (aquil.ca/canada).
Canada's Self Portrait will also be adapted into educational material and a teacher's manual – geared towards specific subjects such as visual art, language art and social studies – will be created. While it is important to reflect and create, it is just as imperative to keep the conversation going, and schools are a great place to start.
About Canada's Self Portrait
Aquil Virani is a freelance visual artist, graphic designer and speaker based in Montreal whose work has taken him around the world and received considerable media coverage.
Rebecca Jones is a facilitator for the Montreal-based non-profit, ENSEMBLE for the respect of diversity, whose mission is to work with youth to promote a more inclusive society.
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