The Artistorian: Canada Day with Canada’s Self Portrait

Canada's Self Portrait. Photo Alex Tran Photography Canada's Self Portrait. Photo Alex Tran Photography

I didn’t spend this Canada Day in the Old Port, or in my friend’s backyard for a barbeque. Instead, I made my way to Galerie Mile-End for the unveiling of Canada’s self-portrait. An ambitious project by Montreal artist, Aquil Virani, and Rebecca Jones, diversity educator at ENSEMBLE pour le respect de la diversité, as well as approximately 850 collaborators from across the country, Canada’s self-portrait turned out to be much more successful than Virani and Jones had anticipated.

Virani has always been interested in the concept of art empowerment, or art for the people. He explained: “people are fearful of drawing, of not being perfect at it.” His goal is to challenge this fear and the idea that art is only for the artist. Jones’ interactive workshops for elementary and high school students deal with topics like identity and diversity. Really, there could not have been a better pair for this project.

After their crowdsourcing campaign on Indiegogo last year, Virani and Jones set out on a journey across Canada while also sending e-mails, call-outs, and forms to celebrities, politicians, schools and community centres. In the end, the submissions collected represented Canadians between the ages of 3 and 86, of different socio-economic backgrounds and with many different stories to tell.

Virani and Jones asked: what does being Canadian mean to you? They encouraged participants to be honest, meaning that both positive and negative answers were accepted. Here are some stats:

When asked to describe Canada in one word, most participants answered – Freedom (10%), diversity (6%), beautiful (5%), cold (5%), home (3%). The overall themes of the submissions were: freedom (freedom to express yourself, to be who you are, believe in what you want…), inclusivity (inclusive, diverse, accepting, welcoming, multicultural…), nature (beautiful landscapes, trees, mountains, lakes, outdoors…), friendliness (friendly, Welcoming, polite, open, accepting, on interpersonal basis…) and the weather (intense temperatures, snow, rain, diverse climate…). Virani and Jones also found that people were very influenced by where they lived within Canada. For example, many Saskatchewanians brought up farming while participants from the west coast mentioned mountains.

The final piece, a 17-panel drawing by Virani represents 200 hours of drawing and the collection of all 850 submissions. Individual submissions interact with each other, forming an abstract face. Virani recopied the drawings, spelling mistakes and all, adding crosshatching and shading to create depth, but keeping the drawings recognizable. He wanted participants to spot their work in the larger piece. In it, we find your typical Canadian stereotypes: a drawing of two moose saying sorry to each other, Tim Hortons coffee cups and hockey. My personal favourite is the drawing of an angry beaver on a goose wearing a maple leaf bra and holding up two hockey sticks. But, we also find messages like: “spice box of earth” or “it doesn’t mean anything to be Canadian.”

The last panel remains empty. Virani explains in his artist statement: “Canada is young, Canada has potential.” Leaving this panel blank acknowledges that potential for growth and change. The rest of the gallery was full of various paintings, photos and even post-it notes. And, of course, we helped ourselves to some maple leaf cookies.

This project has come a long way: from the note Jones found in Virani’s sketchbook about a year ago, to this final collection of work today. And, I have to say, Virani and Jones really do fit the friendly Canadian stereotype; chatting with them was as easy as with old friends. To find out more about the project, check out the documentary, available online. Also, to see photos of the process and exhibit, visit Alex Tran Photography. Last but not least, don’t forget to have your daily dose of Timmies, eh.

We interviewed Aquil Virani last year HERE about his fundraising campaign for the project.