Mural honours transgender women of colour

New artwork that hangs on the exterior wall of McNabb Community Centre carries a message of awareness and acceptance in its colourful hues.

Kalkidan Assefa is the artist behind the mural, which is intended to honour murdered trans women of colour.

The mural was originally painted on temporary construction walls on Banks and Somerset streets following Ottawa’s Pride week at the end of August . The artwork featuring five faces against a black backdrop and the names of 24 murdered trans women was subject to multiple acts of vandalism. It was covered with red paint and had racist phrases scrawled across it, replacing “BLACK LIVES MATTER” with “ALL LIVE(S) MATTER” and “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.”

Assefa re-created the mural over a week of work at an indoor location before it was installed at the community centre on Percy Street, near the corner of Bronson and Gladstone avenues. The mural is now strategically placed along an upper portion of the centre’s exterior wall to discourage further vandalism.

“Generally speaking, it was public outrage. A lot of people were very upset that it happened,” he says.

The 33-year-old artist has competed in local art battles and is active in the Ottawa art community with his signature use of bold colours and figurative scenes. Assefa says he felt mostly disappointed by the graffiti, as he had a different mural supporting Black Lives Matter defaced this past summer.

Assefa says the community started rallying to find a permanent location before the vandalism took place, but once the destructive acts started, the push to find a new location became more urgent.

The city got behind the idea with Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney working with local businesses pitching in funds to recreate the mural and find its new home at McNabb Community Centre.

“(It) affirmed the message that we were trying to get out, as well as that that kind of vandalism, that kind of hateful messaging, is just not going to be tolerated,” says Assefa.

The community centre was chosen to keep it in the same neighbourhood, said an emailed statement from the City of Ottawa, sent on behalf of Dan Chenier, general manager of the city’s parks, recreation and cultural services department. The statement noted that in addition to deterring future vandalism, the elevated placement of the mural also gives it high visibility in the adjacent park and from Gladstone Avenue.

Venus Envy donated one half of the proceeds for the new mural, says owner Shelley Taylor. The owner of the Bank Street business, which sells sex toys and books, says she saw the initial mural being painted and it was “amazing.”

Assefa says the mural painted during Capital Pride took two days and was more fluid in design than the one he finished last month. Still, the two are similar with three faces in the centre, with a rainbow flag covering the space between them. The new mural shows hands clasped over the pride flag and forming a heart.

After it had been “destroyed,” Taylor says she told local group BlakCollectiv she wanted to help, which led to the donation. However, Taylor emphasizes the role of BlakCollectiv in the mural’s move.

“A community centre is the perfect place for a mural like that and Gladstone (Avenue) has a lot of bus traffic and foot traffic, but it’s certainly not the corner of Somerset and Bank, the way it was,” says Taylor.

She says a mural with the message it carries should be central and voiced frustration at the deterrence that had to be put in place to prevent future vandalism.

Assefa says he wants the discussion of the mural to continue and doesn’t want the original message of his artwork to be overshadowed by the controversy.

He says trans women of colour are one of the most marginalized groups in society and trans issues are still not talked about a lot. Over 20 transgender women were murdered in the United States throughout 2015, most being of colour, according to Advocate, an American LGBT magazine. In his new mural,

Assefa has in the bottom left hand corner, “All Black Lives Matter.”

He says he wants to support the community through his artwork.

“I think it’s important that we’re getting some attention for that, but the attention itself is not going to do anything until people act on it.”