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Q&A with activist-artist Arjun Lal

“Art as a tool for positive social change has been on my mind for a while,” the mixed-media maker tells The Coast.

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The personal has always been political for artist Arjun Lal. It’s an incidental truth woven through their works, which aim to celebrate themselves and other 2SLGBTQ+ people of colour who remain under-represented in art and media. From neon signs to latex fetish masks to the hulking LGBTQQIP2SAA+ Flag they designed that towers over the baggage hall of Halifax Stanfield International Airport, Lal’s art is a call for inclusion, a way for them to stop asking, as they once explained to The Coast, “what’s too queer?” for their would-be audience and instead raise the level of subversion for viewers, one piece at a time.

Lately, that’s looked like Lal’s current curatorial project with Eyelevel Gallery, called “What’s Your Problem”. A trio of recorded video interviews with artists-slash-activists from the region that are all currently watchable on Eyelevel’s website, the project aims to “continue conversations around social justice,” as Lal’s curatorial statement reads. Featuring discussions with the likes of 902 Game Changers’ Kate Macdonald, Winnipeg-based Indigenous artist KC Adams and queer community activist Mikiki, it’s a way for Lal to make good on their longstanding mission to use “art as a tool for positive social change.”

We caught up with Lal to talk about the project, about how art and activism will always be entwined, and more:

The Coast: Let's talk a bit about your recent work at Eyelevel Gallery. You've curated a series called "What's Your Problem" where three artists and activists—Kate Macdonald, KC Adams, and Mikiki—are interviewed in what the gallery bills as a series "blending art, activism and problem solving." Where did the idea for this project come from?

Arjun Lal: Yeah so, over the past year, I've never experienced so much activism. Like, in my life.

In the media, there was a lot going on. And, it was inspiring to see, as a person of colour and a queer person. I feel like I've experienced moments where I felt othered, or less than someone else, and a lot of the project was largely inspired by the conversations about racism that were going on, that are still going on in mainstream media.

And then also, I'm a member of our local creative community,, and I also have friends across Canada who I've been talking to, and just hearing how different organizations are trying to reconcile their history of racism or unequitable working spaces. It was nice to hear that organizations are prioritizing BIPOC and queer and trans people to fill these roles, but also with this program at Eyelevel, I was interested in creating a program that was open to everybody, but it was designed in a way that it could allow BIPOC people and queer and trans people, people with disabilities, other marginalized people who come from groups that experience oppression. And just to kind of design this program in a way to allow them to flourish, because a lot of it is about problem solving.

And I feel like, racism is a problem. Transphobia is a problem. And there are so many problems that need to be discussed. And with this, I'm hoping that it inspires artists to talk about problems because a lot of problems aren't just, like, even if something is really personal: Like, if I have a problem I may think that it's just unique to me. But there's a good chance that many other people also resonate with this problem. And I just want to start having these discussions.

Art as a tool for positive social change has been on my mind for a while. And it's something that I've carried along with my practice, and I'm starting to realize that a lot of artists do the same thing, maybe with a different way of phrasing it but it's pretty much the same. And then to me, it almost feels like a movement. Like there are different movements in art, like, we learn about things in art school, from like the art movements, kind of dictated by white European men, like Cubism or Impressionism.

And right now I feel like there's a movement happening that's about reconciliation and equity and social justice, and I'm hoping that this continues, and changes do happen.

Art and activism have always overlapped in your own work. Back in 2019, I interviewed you for a Coast cover story about a show you were displaying at the Anna Leonowens gallery, and we talked about how you were tired of, as you put it, worrying what art you made might be "too queer" for your audience. How has your own art's activism/politics evolved over time?

Well, there was a point where I didn't talk about—I didn't even think about—activism. I would do things that explored form or explored really general aspects of art: Things that were just more playing with materials without really thinking too much about what I was doing.

And I was definitely influenced by what I learned that NSCAD. And then as I started to think about like, whose history am I learning and how that made me feel, it really started to think a little bit more critically about this institution, and the larger Western arts and culture.

I remember having to do an exam on these two European paintings from like 200 years ago, and I started writing out my responses and then I realized, I don't even really care about this. So I just stopped writing about what I was writing, and started writing about how I don't want to learn about this. And I don't want to carry the history of European settlers, when I don't even know my own history that well, and I don't want to be forced into this knowledge. And I feel like I'm tired of it. I want to learn something else.

And then I really thought I was going to fail that exam, but luckily I didn't.

Eyelevel's tagline for this project is "art, activism and problem solving"—what do each of those look like to you?

So, I'm a millennial. I grew up with TV and the internet, and these things were huge influences on my identity and the knowledge that I was receiving. And I realize now that media, visual media, is like TV shows, and the news, and billboards, advertisements, they're all so powerful at shaping a culture, shaping ideas. And leaving impressions on audiences.

And I think a lot about art as being a form of media as well, maybe in a different form. And it could be a billboard, but it could be anything really: A way to infiltrate people's minds, and be a tool for shaping culture. And with that, I feel like art has a lot of power just like media, and art is a type of media. And all media is political. Like we see in movies, for example, a lot of the times families are depicted as a family with children, and a father that sits at a table while a wife is there making dinner, and serving dinner to everybody and cleaning up. The more people see that example of a role, I feel like people start to believe that as being something true or normal. And I feel like the media has done so many things, like with censorship and the types of content that they want to put forward. It is shaping culture and shaping how people behave and act.

Art can be complicit with that. Or it could be an intervention. And that's how I see art and activism kind of coming in together.

What's your favourite part of this project?

These interviews were sort of support materials for a new grant that will support an artist residency. That will hopefully will take place, hopefully in 2022, because things like that, you have to plan so far ahead. But, I'm hoping to just inspire applicants to apply to this program and present a problem. Like, tell us about a problem and what you want to do about it, or how you might want to talk about it or how does it make you feel? And offer mentorship, and help them create dialogue and support them in this movement of art and activism and problem solving.

So I'm really excited about that. But so far in this project, I feel like my favourite part was just getting to know Kate Macdonald, Casey Adams and Mikiki, who are all so incredible. Such incredible people that make me feel like I'm not alone in this, and that there are other people who are doing amazing things that are in line with this movement. Talking to them and relating with them felt very comforting and such a grateful experience.

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