Mayworks paints a picture of worker’s rights

The festival surrounding International Workers’ Day uses art to fight for the labour movement

Zachary Gough

Mayworks Festival of Working People & The Arts
various locations
April 28-May 10
free-$25 (festival pass $50)

Over 130 years after workers protested for an eight-hour workday at Chicago's Haymarket Riot, the Mayworks Festival of Working People & The Arts is using art instead of picket signs to push for fair working conditions.

While Mayworks is holding the reception for Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council's May 1 march, the festival's artistic approach is less typical for a labour movement. Festival director Sébastien Labelle says art is an entertaining way to "challenge our assumptions and bring uncomfortable things to the forefront.

"Going out to a protest with placards has its place," says Labelle. "But I think there are other ways to engage with political and social justice issues that are meaningful."

When Mayworks came to Halifax from Toronto in 2009, it was just a one-evening event. This year, the 13-day festival will include a film screening, art installations and live performances, such as Raven Davis's Decelebration of Canada 150.

Liliona Quarmyne's contemporary dance piece The View From Her(e) questions just how far abstract art can carry a clear activist message without compromising the piece.

"People speak a lot about dance as its own language and say dance has its own communicative power— which is true but i think is also a pretty easy answer," says Quarmyne. "I'm interested in pushing beyond that and seeing just what dance communicates and how much dance communicates."

In response to this question Quarmyne, along with dancers Jacinte Armstrong and Sarah Rozee, will perform the piece in two phases: first as a stop-start presentation inviting audience feedback, and again a week later incorporating that feedback.

Labelle says he hopes the festival will bring artists closer to the labour movement and other activist movements. He says art is a good way to bring attention to issues that people might otherwise find "daunting or inaccessible."

The content of work featured at the festival is diverse, exploring issues involving prison justice, Indigenous issues and issues of labour in art spaces. "We're trying to show a nuanced and complex picture of what working class is, what workers are and what the labour movement actually represents," says Labelle. "Workers aren't just white men in overalls."

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