Shafia Shaikh is a visual artist and community organizer working in Toronto. Her work strives to bring awareness to the lived experience of people of colour, as a means to contribute to change. She is also the founder of The E.W.o.C. Project, an initiative committed to creating art that highlights the complex narratives of women of colour and their intersecting identities, in public art, as a means to defy prejudice against gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and identity.
Shafia connected with Art Starts a number of years ago, which lead her to applying for the TakingItGlobal grant and more recently, facilitating a 6-week workshop titled ‘Turbulence’.
How did The E.W.o.C Project first begin and what inspired the initiative?
The E.W.o.C. (Equity for Women of Colour) Project began in the summer of 2017, following Mural Routes’ program MACD (Mural Art Career Development). I had dabbled in mural work as a youth in Scarborough but hadn’t considered it professionally. This program revived my love for public art and I was excited to dive in. Soon enough, I started to notice local street art in the city, and something always felt odd. A lot of what I saw wasn’t very representative of racialized people, and the few pieces that did incorporate POC (People of Colour) weren’t always painted by those groups. This realization became incredibly apparent in larger laneway projects which featured many artists, of which you could count the racialized people on one hand, with women and other intersections of identity barely existing. The idea of “inclusivity” and “diversity” were more decorative words meant to flatter, and barely did any actual work. Meanwhile, I just wanted to paint and get into the street art scene which is riddled with barriers.
As I got my first mural opportunity with the Bell Box Project in Scarborough, I thought more about creating art as a form of activism. I pulled from my own experience within a marginalized community and the many intersections which are often underrepresented. As a woman of colour, Muslim, and immigrant, I operate in a very specific reality. I also understand that within the pool of women of colour, black, queer, trans, female-identifying and those with disabilities are living in a completely different one. This formed the premise of The E.W.o.C. Project, which creates public art as a means to expand the visible representation of women of colour and their intersecting identities, and oppose prejudice against gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and identity. Through The E.W.o.C. Project, I create spaces for other women of colour to authentically represent their own experiences and stories. I focus on supporting emerging artists and encourage bold and creative representations. Proceeds from all public art projects are donated to organizations/charities involved in activism for marginalized groups, on a local and global scale.
What accomplishment are you most proud of as an artist or as an organization?
I’m currently most proud of my first ever solo project, funded by TakingItGlobal. As part of the E.W.o.C. Project, 3 artists and myself painted a community mural at 10 Boultbee Ave., with the help of its residents. The mural was led by east end artists, who identify as women of colour. Themes for the design surrounded authentic narratives and representations of groups to which they belong/identify with. Some were in the form of portraits of global activists or local change-makers in social justice as well re-imaginings of childhood heroines. They were also in the form of cultural prints, patterns, text, or imagery, that convey stories and experiences of women of colour. In total, the mural spanned over 100ft long and was created in partnership with Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC). Residents of the neighbourhood were invited to paint with the artists and were an integral part of the project celebration. This project was incredibly meaningful because it was the first time I had to plan an entire project from the ground up. It was also a period of immense growth and I was able to learn a lot about myself and my purpose.
How did you first connect with Art Starts?
My experience with Art Starts is strongly tied to Julian Carvajal. He reached out to me about the TakingItGlobal grant and encouraged me to apply. Without him I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities or made the same connections. He’s been nothing but encouraging and supportive, and values community art in the way that I do. I feel incredibly lucky to know him!
Art Starts as an organization provides much needed resources, whether it be materials or space, for emerging artists. It’s a place that is welcoming, inclusive, and blends community art and healing.
What advice would you give women of colour/newcomer artists wanting to develop their career as an artist?
The advice I would give to women of colour/newcomer artists is to continue to take up space. There’s often this hesitancy to speak up because it can make some people feel uncomfortable. I can’t stress enough how vital these conversations about inequity and representation are, especially in today’s political climate. That goes hand in hand with making space for other intersections of identity, because true equality cannot be reached while leaving some behind.
What does community art mean to you?
Community art, in my opinion, is synonymous with accessible art. It transforms spaces by creating accessible art and experiences which are not always available to all. Community art also tends to prioritize and reflect the community it caters to and is more representative, celebratory, and healing by nature. It can also be an empowering and inspiring catalyst for change, when paired with the lens of social justice.
What can we expect to see in the future from The E.W.o.C Project and yourself as a visual artist?
The E.W.o.C. Project is doing a lot of exciting things in 2019! This summer The E.W.o.C. Project will be facilitating Turbulence II , a mixed media storytelling project in Scarborough for youth who identify as Muslim women of colour. This is a continuation of the workshop series presented by Art Starts in spring, and features myself and 2 other Muslim-identifying artist facilitators. The E.W.o.C. Project will also be taking part in Nuit Blanche this year in Scarborough, with an installation and audience participation throughout the night! As part of The E.W.o.C. Project, I will also be taking part in a community storytelling project called Block by Block, by the Toronto Ward Museum, with the exhibition taking place in Regent Park this fall. The project collects the oral histories of displacement and migration of people in Toronto. On top of all of that, I’m hoping to squeeze in a few street art projects as well!
Shafia just wrapped up her workshop Turbulence, with the support of Art Starts, which guided youth to create a collection of visual art pieces through the lens of social justice. The series concluded with a gallery exhibition, showcasing the stories of the diaspora experience and disrupting harmful narratives.
We’re honoured to work with Shafia, and support her mission of creating opportunities for women of colour. We wish her well on her next artistic endeavour and can’t wait to see what is next for The E.W.o.C. Project.