Heidi Cho on Art & Social Justice

Working as a Community-Engaged Artist in an Anti-Oppression Framework

Art has always scared me. Just the thought of picking up a paintbrush can induce a panic attack. Where does all this overwhelming pressure to create a unique million-dollar art masterpiece come from? Historically, art has been constructed as a privileged practice belonging to a select class of ‘chosen’ people born with innate artistic talent. Despite my apprehension, I remained drawn to artistic expression and the possibilities that it held for social justice and community mobilization.

I went to art school with big expectations but quickly became frustrated navigating through the art world that seemed to favour the work of able-bodied rich white dudes. As a young queer emerging artist of colour, I found myself at a loss to connect with mainstream ideas of what art meant and whom it was really for. I felt alienated from my peers who argued that art was a neutral form of expression, detached from power and politics. How could art be separate from politics when it seemed that only the privileged few had access to artistic representation and expression?

When I inevitably dropped out of art school and moved to Montreal, my friends encouraged me to seek out a collectively run anti-oppressive studio space called the Ste Emilie Skillshare. At the Ste Emilie Skillshare, I experienced how anti-oppression could be applied through community-engaged art.  I learned how anti-oppression, through art, could act as a practice to rebalance power within marginalized communities through exposing hierarchies of power and systemic interconnections of struggles. The pay-what-you-can studio space continues to be run by radical queers and people of colour who are passionate about the role of art within social justice movements. It was so inspiring to experience how various forms of art production and representation could be shared in a non-hierarchical, anti-oppressive framework. It was there where I began to challenge rigid notions of art expression and how access to art is inextricably linked to systemic oppression.

My recent involvement with anti-oppressive community engaged art has continued in my art apprenticeship with the community-engaged mosaic project at the 519 Community Centre, in downtown Toronto. Led by artists Anna Camilleri and Tristan R. Whiston of Red Dress Productions, the goal of the project was to create a new large-scale public artwork mosaic that visually celebrates and represents the 519’s diverse communities—and that is community-engaged from beginning to end, including 11 community meets where we brainstormed, mapped stories, and sketched together, and then built together for several weeks in a open studio. The outdoor placement of the work is significant: it challenges the ways in which art is often privately created, and consumed.

It was amazing to see how community-minded anti-oppression was integrated within every aspect of this project. From the community consultations, to the materials used, it taught me how anti-oppression within community-engaged art should not only be visible in the final art piece but throughout the production as well. I appreciate how a diverse group of people of varying ages, abilities, and skills were able to take part in the project. The use of mosaic art in the project really encouraged the full participation of all community members regardless of their artistic backgrounds because the medium is very flexible. It was amazing to be a part of intergenerational community members creating relationships with one another, and collectively their own communities. This approach contradicted everything that intimidated me about the art world before.

During open studio hours, we worked to create a working space that was anti-oppressive and did not echo dominant hierarchies of power and privilege. There were challenging moments when certain folks failed to recognize their privileged locations and how their words or actions might negatively affect the dynamic of the group. Learning how to deal with this in real time (not after the fact) so that all participants felt safe and included taught me that anti-oppressive community engaged art isn’t simply about creating art with/in marginalized communities. It’s also about creating dialogue across difference, and challenging entitlement and privilege.

All in all, the role of anti-oppressive community-engaged art continues to teach me how the intersection between art and social justice should always coincide. In my own life, it challenges me to locate myself within the art that I create and the viewers I make it for. The importance of community-engaged art has also shown me how activism can happen in a variety of ways that don’t necessarily involve a megaphone.

Community-engaged public art is radical. It disrupts capital-driven privatization of public spaces, and it contributes to the revitalization of neighbourhoods through a legacy of collaborative art making that authentically connects community members with their neighbourhoods.

Heidi Cho is one of three community-art apprentices who worked on the 519 Community Mosaic Project with Red Dress Productions this year.

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