Port Coquitlam artists point spray paint at systemic racism

Their Spirit Are Still With Us uses graffiti art to address colonialism and injustice

You see it scrawled on train cars and festooned beneath overpasses. The canvas is brick walls, old buildings and anywhere else where there’s a can of spray paint and an artist with a limited appreciation for Canada’s criminal code.

The RCMP sees it as mischief under or over $5,000. It depresses property values, hurts tourism and sends a message that “nobody cares.”

Priscilla Omulo sees it differently.

For Omulo, those fire-coloured streaks and silver stencils on backgrounds of grey and rust represent a scream.

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“I know that feeling of wanting to scream and fight the system and feeling so oppressed and unseen and unheard,” she says.

It makes you want to do something, she explains.

It made Omulo want to address colonialism and racism and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It made her want to the “share in that scream.”

From western B.C. to East Africa

Some 14,000 kilometres from Port Coquitlam, Omulo found common ground around her neck.

She was in Uganda on a six-week trip that would turn into almost two years before it was over. For Omulo, the Douglas College trip was an opportunity to further her understanding of mental health and addiction by studying traditional healing methods.

It made sense to speak with a healer.

During one of those conversations, the healer noticed the owl hanging from her necklace.

Omulo, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, told the healer the owl was a sign of warning, often meaning “incoming danger or death.”

She remembers the translator relaying messages between them.

“The healer had said the same thing,” she recalls.

Despite the chasm of language and geography, there was a commonality in terms of their sense of spirits, Omulo realized.

“There was so much in common with my culture and with their practices that I just wanted to stay.”

Priscilla Omulo facilitates workshops on tops ranging from being an ally to workplace violence. photo supplied

During her stay Omulo reflected on the inaccessibility of water and the way many Ugandans were treated by police. It wasn’t anything different than what she knew as an Indigenous person, she reflects.

“Colonization hurts,” she says.

There are solutions to colonization, she says, but those solutions are bigger and bolder than simply hiring a bunch of Indigenous employees.

“You need to de-colonize the system. You need to break down the system that was designed to oppress,” she says. “That’s where this series came out of.”

This series

Their Spirits Are Still With Us consists of six graffiti paintings. Both personal and political, the work is drawn from a low point in Omulo’s life.

“I was feeling very sad and very defeated,” she recalls.

She was working for an institution that, as she put it, didn’t have an avenue to hear from Indigenous employees.
Her life and work were intersecting and both were leaving Omulo with the same question: “Is this where I belong?”

“So, I started painting.”

It was a way to express her frustration.

“It was borne out of this anger with government and systems,” she explains. “You want to have truth and reconciliation? . . . Where’s truth?”

It was that anger that made her think of graffiti. And as luck would have it, Mack Stewart had both time and talent on his hands.

Mack and me

Artist and bike mechanic Mack Stewart displays early drafts for Their Spirits Are Still With Us.

It’s Sunday afternoon and Mack Stewart has spent the morning tuning up three road bikes for a family.

Good natured and quick to laugh, Stewart sounds slightly surprised to have worked on a project about colonialism and systemic racism.

“I had no idea how in-depth and emotionally challenging this project would be,” he notes.

In the 2018 municipal election, Stewart’s mother ran for a seat on council against Omulo. When Omulo needed a graffiti artist, Stewart’s mom put her son’s name forward.

He wasn’t working much at the time so figured he might as well do his part.

“It’s an art project, something to do, I guess,” he remembers thinking.

A Riverside Secondary graduate, Stewart’s gotten pretty handy with a can of spray paint from working on bikes.

“I can turn a 2007 beater into something you think is a brand-new bike,” he tells the Dispatch.

Over a few months, Omulo would pick a concept and the beginnings of a design before sending it to Stewart, who would add graffiti before Omulo finished the background.

As an artist, Stewart is somewhat instinctual. During our interview, he talks about working by: “the flow of the pen.”
This project, however, required some introspection.

“Being white and doing a project with someone who is Indigenous for an Indigenous cause that’s super deep and full of meaning . . .” Stewart trails off for a moment. He didn’t want to do anything stereotypical, he explains. And he also didn’t want to fail to do justice to the work.

“Every project I did I made sure I went through Priscilla and got the A-OK,” he says.

Stewart remembers the way Omulo reacted before adding the final frames.

“It made me go aflutter,” he says.

The event

The paintings are separate pieces but the themes of water, land and justice run together like wet paint.

“You need to see what colonization has done to people with land with water with overall wellness,” Omulo emphasizes.

Land back isn’t just about physically returning land, she adds. “It’s about recognizing the trauma to the land and to the people.”

Tonight, at 6 p.m. Omulo and collaborator Mack Stewart are set to discuss the themes of six paintings as part of a silent auction to benefit rape crisis centre WAVAW.

There are six paintings for sale but, according to Omulo, there could have been a lot more.

“We could just keep painting, that’s the thing, for the rest of our lives we could keep painting.”

All funds raised benefit WAVAW’s Indigenous counselling and outreach program.

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