‘The credit they deserve’: Art exhibit showcases hidden talents of Victoria’s street community

CHEK

For Makwa, having her artwork in an exhibit for all to see is a big deal.

“It’s an honour,” she told CHEK News, noting the piece next to hers wasn’t just crafted by a friend. “They’ve become my family.”

Many from this ‘family’ live on Victoria’s streets, and some of their seldom-seen work is together in this gallery that’s “celebrating people for their strengths rather than discriminating against them for their weaknesses,” said organizer Tanya Bub.

You could say Building Bridges: An Art Exhibit by Local Street Community Artists, on now until Feb. 4 at Saanich’s Cedar Hill Recreation Centre, is special for all involved.

“It’s going to show that they’re not just people on the streets. They’re not just homeless people. They have beautiful spirits, and they all have something so important to share with the world,” Makwa said Wednesday, Jan. 10, the same day the gallery opened.

Admission is free, and some of the artwork is available for purchase.

“That’s what we want to focus on — giving the artists an opportunity to share their mode of expression for people who might not otherwise have a chance to see it at all,” said Bub.

For some, it’s a feat cueing happy tears.

“That’s why I was emotional because this is for all the wounded souls, and it’s time we build the bridges between the community and have a little more love and understanding instead of judgment and assumption of knowing,” said organizer Star Casement, wiping away tears.

‘A long journey’

Casement and Bub met during the filming of Sitting with Grace, a one-hour documentary featuring eight unscripted interviews with members of Victoria’s street community. Ross Alexander Whelan directed the doc, and the trailer is now on YouTube.

“It was this kind of growing awareness of an accepted prejudice that I could feel and see. And I think you can if you open your eyes a little,” said Bub, who’s an artist herself best known for her driftwood work.

“Rather than just rolling with the stereotypical they’re homeless people, they’re useless, they’re garbage. Because I hear it so often,” added Makwa, who’s also a tattoo artist.

Words hurt, so they pushed for change.

“It’s been a long journey. Something that I’ve wanted to start a lot of years ago that ran into many, many barriers on the mainland,” recalled Casement.

“When (Tanya) found out what it was and what my goal was, she was like, ‘Wow, let’s do a gallery. Let’s get this street community acknowledged. Let’s build some bridges.

“Let’s start there.”

Perseverance paid off, and now Building Bridges features about 10 artists and their “really unique, interesting, diverse art,” said Bub.

Heart and soul

Grant McKenzie, Our Place Society’s communications director, applauds the organizers and says their gallery will likely have a significant impact.

“For so many of the people living on the street, we don’t necessarily see their value. And a lot of time, when we see their artwork, we begin to understand their values more and see the creativity behind their survival,” said McKenzie.

On its website, Our Place lauds itself for having “multiple locations serving Greater Victoria’s most vulnerable, including people struggling with homelessness, mental health challenges, substance use issues, the working poor, and impoverished elderly.”

The society’s main location is in the 900-block of Pandora Avenue.

McKenzie says many of the people they help are in survival mode, “and yet, they can pour their heart and soul into their creative pursuits. I think it’s so important…to see that these are our neighbours, and these are people that we need to embrace and try and lift up.”

A 2023 Point In Time Homeless Count survey found that more than 1,600 people in Greater Victoria were homeless, and 68 per cent of them had a substance use issue.

“I was an addict. I was there before,” said Makwa, adding she often spends her Friday nights at Victoria’s Centennial Square, which the street community frequents.

“There are people who ask me, ‘Why do you hang out there all the time?’ They’re so important to me, and I just want to do a little more good in the world,” she said.

Worth celebrating

So, being involved with Building Bridges is something to celebrate because, as Makwa reiterates, it’s a platform these artists don’t often get to participate in.

“Being a part of this now, and finding a better place in my life that I’m not going to drugs and I’m not drinking and I can actually be there with them,” she said. “It makes me so happy to bring a little bit to them that isn’t trauma and pain.”

Now, admiring the gallery in all its glory, she has a big smile on her face.

“It really warms my heart for them to all be a part of this and get the credit that they deserve for the talent that they have,” added Makwa.

Find more information about the gallery online here.

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

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