Art as Activism with Fanny Aishaa

The power of art can move us to bring about change.

Art can be an essential tool in mobilizing communities to act for justice by spurring the capacity to imagine a better world. Fanny Aishaa is a renowned visual artist and muralist whose work has coloured streets from Montreal to community spaces in Brazil and Heiltsuk territory in Bella Bella, BC. Fanny uses her immense talent to engage diverse communities.

She started painting murals in Rio de Janeiro where she was impacted by a powerful exhibition addressing the violence of Canadian mining operations in Guatemala.  . . “Somebody knew I was a graffiti artist, so they just gave me a wall to paint. There was this guy who told me it was ok if I didn’t know what to do: I was so afraid to mess up and frozen in fear, but he took his time to teach me. Today I look back and it was really simple. I have never stopped painting since that day,” Aishaa told  RAVEN.

Over the last 12 years, Fanny has been active in numerous community grassroots projects centered on intergenerational mural production. Her nomadic spirit has guided her through different artistic universes, from communities in Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Senegal and the U.S. to several First Nations territories in Canada. She is passionate about sharing her love for art and her reverence for the natural world. She believes art is a powerful tool to fight systemic racism and environmental destruction, and to rewrite narratives, celebrate stories of strength and show reciprocity. Since 2010, she has worked primarily as an art teacher with youth-led art and community murals projects from coast to coast.

For RAVEN’s “In Conversation” series via Instagram, we spoke with Fanny Aishaa about the power of art as activism, narrative reclamation, and how art can foster intergenerational community relations. 

You can watch the full conversation here, and catch the highlights below. 

RAVEN: A lot of your artwork addresses systemic oppression by highlighting and empowering intergenerational relationships, knowledge and the land in a way that combats the violence and harm. Why do you feel art is a powerful medium for community and activism?

I always feel that art is a medicine and should be in the community. That’s what I find powerful: when you see culture that is alive, it is important as a human to create that space within schools to celebrate different ways of knowing. I always try to work with local artists and youth who decide what we will paint. 

It is so rich to collaborate. I’ve made such incredible relationships with artists and community.  I’ve learned more in collaboration than all 20 years of my schooling. I learned from community, and since the beginning I have always wanted to paint with youth and find ways to do murals with communities. Art is a healing way to fight.

If we think about RAVEN and other communities fighting legal challenges, most youth I’ve worked with are on the frontline of extractive projects. I had youth who cleaned oil spills and communities give me the trust to work with these youth. When you see all the legal challenges, it is so important for artists to give back to fundraisers to support the legal challenges. The communities facing the injustice should not take all the economic weight of these legal challenges. It is really important for me because often when we speak about art people talk about the freedom of expression but not enough about the responsibility and reciprocity to give back to these communities. Art is a way to give back, especially when I see a legal challenge and if I paint about a situation it is not my place to capitalize from painting a person fighting an extractive project. It has to go back to community and one way to do that is through fundraisers with RAVEN. 

RAVEN: How is that fight, struggle and resistance amongst youth on the frontline translated into art?

There is so much emotion. I still have emotion when I think about all the stories of the youth cleaning up the spill in Bella Bella. This community changed my life: I have so much gratitude for them and the youth. It is hard to put into words, but they are some of the strongest humans I have met. I have so much faith in the future because of the youth. Everything I saw in this art project was powerful leadership, a bright future. All these young people who have so much to say and share. 

RAVEN: I feel like art repairs our ability to think outside the limitations of colonialism and capitalism for what we can envision as being possible. Do you notice that with yourself and with the youth, the ways in which art can nourish the potential for visionary thinking and leadership? 

When I was in Kingcome we did a mural about the fight for wild salmon. Youth were telling me how they were impacted by the stories of residential schools but also the stories of their elders, how their grandparents fought the government. These stories change  the way you see yourself; you are not just someone who has lived through trauma but also one who has generations of strength. We need to hear those stories: it’s important for Indigenous youth and settlers to hear that too, to see the strength of the nation. Everytime I hear those stories, and when we share ideas for the murals I get goosebumps. People are so strong. There was a story of when there was a potlatch ban, people faced the worst storm in their canoes to go potlatch. From coast to coast there are so many stories like these. 

In Canada, if you are under 18,  you can’t vote.  You don’t have a voice. It is really colonial to discredit youth. To have space for youth to speak about leadership and governance is really important. T hat can be done through art;these youth will leave with our choices today and tomorrow.

RAVEN: What is your vision for the land and these movements?

I remember when I was making the painting for Spirits of the Coast. I was supposed to paint something about the fish farms, how they were affecting the wild salmon and the orcas. I realized I was unable to paint the fish farm because it is so ugly; I prefer to paint a world without them. It is something I think we need to be able to envision a world without those industries. When you can see it in your mind you can achieve it in reality. When you look at the news and media it is really heavy right now: from climate change and covid to biodiversity loss, it is so bad for our mental health. I think as humans we need stories. If we are living a nightmare, we need that dream. We need to see where we are going. If we can have these meaningful discussions to create an art piece, then we can do that as a society too. 

No Tankers, No Pipeline Image Credit: Painting by Fanny Aishaa made from an original photograph of Michaela McGuire (Haida Gwaii). 

Kingcome Mural Image Credit: Collaboration with Beyond Boarding and Kingcome Inlet Community. Traditional design by Eugene Isaac and Daryll Dawson Jr.

You can follow Fanny on Instagram: @fannyaishaa

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