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Shattering oppression in schools through art

From the ground up

Despite Montreal’s seeming openness towards equality, oppression and discrimination are still pervasive elements of daily culture in various neighborhoods. With that in mind, and in a brilliant display of creativity and collaboration, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) hosted a special educational exhibit on May 10 in conjunction with the Groupe de Recherche et d’Intervention Sociale de Montréal (GRIS Montreal), a local non-profit organization that advocates against the discrimination of homosexual and bisexual students. The exhibit was housed at the new Studios Art et Éducation Michel de la Chenelière, a wing of the museum renovated to nearly double its area, the entirety of which is devoted to educational activities.

The collection consisted of various pieces of secondary students’ art in the form of paintings, collages, and photographs. These were based on two main themes: verbal violence in schools, and discrimination among youth. Created exclusively by students based in Montreal, works ranged from energetic, to aggressive, to emotional in their portrayal of sensitive issues encountered by many high school students. The artists were highly effective in expressing their feelings on topics such as suicide, bullying, self-harm, and depression. Collages were made using various mediums such as newspaper clippings, paint, photographs, and typologies. Some paintings expressed their message through abstract somber images, such as cut wrists and a silhouetted face, while others had more direct messages: “L’intimidation c’est comme la guerre, c’est douloureux, impossible a oublier, et ca ne devrait pas exister,” or, “bullying is like war – it’s painful, unforgettable, and must cease to exist.”

The exhibit was one of many in a program designed to engage youth interest in solidarity building and education through art. Following the viewing of the exhibition, speakers from GRIS Montreal, including Macha Limonchik, a spokesperson for the organization, and GRIS Montreal’s new president, David E. Platts, along with museum representatives, offered congratulations to the artists for their contributions. “Students have been so brave to speak out on these issues – they are not easy topics to openly discuss,” said Plats, in his impassioned address to the audience. “It is only when you ask us the questions you ask that you remind us what it is to be discriminated, what it’s like to be your age and not have your family to confide in…”

Most touching, perhaps, were the reactions of the many young artists who attended the opening of the exhibit, who clearly basked in the pride of having their work displayed on such a visible platform. “We had a little help in the initial brainstorming process, when the GRIS Montreal workers visited our school, but after that all the ideas were our own. Some of us already supported the cause and wanted to express it, and others who didn’t know anything about the cause got to learn more and get interested,” said Rim Kalach, a student at Antoine de Saint-Exupery Secondary School located in Saint Leonard. She wryly added that “some students were clearly not enthusiastic about the project, and these were usually the students responsible for bullying or making fun of homosexuality anyway. But even that only helped to prove our point, and I think this has made us less tolerant to bullying as a class.” By using art as a way for students to create their own messages, the initiative not only raised awareness and sensitivity for the cause, but created solidarity and friendship within the school community. This may not be the only way to fight bullying in schools, but getting to hear the students’ own voices and helping them overcome their fear is a good first step toward more permanent action.

As far as progress toward social change goes, this was an initiative under the Quebec government’s Fight Against Homophobia program. Students include both Secondary I (grade 7) students of the Commission Scolaire de la Pointe-de-l’Ile in Montreal, but also young people outside the regular Quebec schooling system (welcoming classes, special needs, youth employment carrefours, etc) who were drawn into the project through their local youth centres. Initiated by the Education Department of the Museum of Fine Arts, the first step was a homosexuality and bisexuality demystification workshop for young people. According to the museum’s Education Director, Jean-Luc Murray, the biggest challenge was “getting the youth of lower-income neighborhoods involved and enthusiastic.” He also stated that despite the difficulty for kids to express themselves on such delicate topics, it was “most necessary for young students to try and get involved, and that is why giving them a space to feel comfortable about their art, and making art fun and accessible has been such an important goal in the Museum’s education programs.”

While the youth are key actors in bringing about social change, next year Murray hopes to initiate the project earlier in the year, with a longer term goal to include more people of the community, such as the parents and extended family members. This move, on Murray’s part, suggests that only by a more inclusive and penetrating approach towards community building and education can mindsets and attitudes truly change. Nevertheless, the progress and energy shown here – thanks to the support of the Museum Education Program and NGOs like GRIS Montreal – is heartening to see.