What holds us together? (Urban Art 003) #ndg #diversity

So we’re back to the theme of urban art in NDG. In this neighbourhood urban art (socially and politically approved) has been a spreading phenomenon. In this post I’m looking briefly at a mural that fills a wall at the corner of Cavendish and Somerled – it is the wall of Antico Martini restaurant, next to the gas station. This mural is really in my neck of the woods – we live a few blocks west. Here’s the mural:

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The colours of this piece are earthy and rich – the greens and yellows and browns capture attention without being stark. This isn’t urban art that screams out for attention. Rather, it sits comfortably and even nonchalantly on the corner – it beautifies without being in your face. Which isn’t true of all urban art!

This piece was created by MU, which is non-profit organization in Montreal dedicated to public art – both to supporting artists and to social development within the city. On its website, MU describes this mural (called Diversitree) as follows:

La direction artistique de l’œuvre était de réaliser une murale qui célèbre symboliquement la diversité culturelle. Ce thème est très représentatif du quartier qui rassemble une grande population multiculturelle de Montréal. L’arbre représente les peuples du monde avec son écorce aux différents camaïeux de couleurs de peaux; ses racines, des mains s’entrelacent et s’unissent pour former une coupe qui contient la sagesse de l’humanité. Différentes sortes d’herbes et d’épices typiques y poussent reflétant la diversité culturelle du voisinage : le basilic italien, le poivre jamaïcain, la menthe sauvage, le curry et la sauge. L’énergie unificatrice du Soleil rayonne à travers nos différences et nous apprend à travailler ensemble : « We’re all the same under the sun » affirmait Bob Marley.

As an expression of diversity this mural tells the story of the neighbourhood – it represents the narrative of the neighbourhood and mirrors it back to neighbourhood, while also anticipating how we might live together in the future. Unlike the previous two urban art pieces I’ve looked at (Akhavan and Our Lady of Grace) this piece is rooted in the community and its narrative. This is not a piece of urban art that drops meaninglessly out of the sky.

The story it wants to tell (I particularly love the easily-overlooked detail of the various herbs growing below the tree) is that people of many cultures have come together in this neighbourhood, and that our lives are both expressed in and enriched by that diversity.The roots – the earthy hands that cradle the tree – point to both the fragility of the tree and the shared life that undergirds it.

It’s on only this last issue that questions arise for me in relation to this narrative. For it is one thing to insist on the diversity of our neighbourhood, and it is quite another thing to discover the system of value (the theological, ethical, or philosophical framework) that supports or can sustain this diversity. At one level we simply live together – that’s it. But if difference is truly to be honoured and affirmed, it will require an account of the human and of human difference (serious difference – not just our diversity of clothing and food) that creates space for those with differences of culture, opinion, and identity. My worry is that this mural simply represents a facile and clichéd account of tolerance that will not sustain human community in the face of real adversity or difficulty. (In fact, one wonders whether a mural with public support from a restaurant, a bank, a paint store, and a municipal borough, and community organizations could ever say something provocative or ‘questionable’.)

As long as we are comfortable; as long as we remain prosperous (relatively speaking); and as long as we do not face significant social strife (of some unknown, future type) this somewhat facile approach to tolerance and diversity might work – but without a deeper account of the human, my suspicion is that this too-easy diversitree won’t be sustainable. Genuine diversity, and an affirmation of it, is something that must be discovered and worked toward in a much more careful and intentional way…

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