Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Is this how we treat refugees?

There was an uproar in Halifax during the month of August, which I missed, being away on vacation. I might have missed it entirely were it not for getting my hair cut yesterday.

My hairdresser is the wife of the artist, Zeqirja Rexhepi. Rexhepi is a refugee who came to Canada from Kosovo more than fifteen years ago, and the Tall Ships mural at the corner of George and Barrington Streets was one of his first commissions here in Canada. Rexhepi is an accomplished artist with degrees in art; he is not just another "street artist". He has made his living from his art for his entire working life, and has supported his wife and family of six children with his painting.

But the story of painting over the Tall Ships mural has been given short shrift. The mural was commissioned by the Downtown Halifax Business Commission and they were helped by a grant from the city. It was commissioned to commemorate the historic visit of nearly 100 "tall ships" to Halifax Harbour in the summer of 2000. I remember that visit well; dozens of magnificent ships sailed into the harbour, giving the onlooker the sense that we were suddenly eye-witnesses to something from the past. I believe that close to a million visitors walked the waterfront that summer in order to see the ships.

Freak Lunchbox, a business that resides in the building where the mural is displayed, wanted to put up a new piece of art in its place. They felt that the mural was outdated and they wanted something fresh that fit with their business, which is a candy store. From all accounts that I could find, they tried to contact the painter of the mural in the hope that Rexhepi would arrange for moving the mural (which is painted on boards, not on the actual brick wall of the building). They could not reach him, so they went ahead with their plans which were to paint over the mural in black before a new mural could be painted. They had made arrangements with a Montreal artist who was scheduled to fly in and paint the new mural. This entailed the leasing of staging and equipment and I think it also involved hiring other people besides the painter.

The Friday before this was to happen, the daughter of Rexhepi contacted Erin and Jeremy Smith, owners of Freak Lunchbox and asked that they be given a few more days so that the Rexhepi family could remove the mural and have it placed elsewhere. She was told that they were "too late", that the painter was on a tight schedule, his flight and hotel had been booked, that equipment had been leased, etc and that they were going to go ahead with their new plans.

As related to me by the painter's wife, this is what they arrived to see on that fateful morning.

The account seems fairly clear from the various news reports that I read. A company in Dartmouth had agreed to help move the mural, but then they realised the cost of erecting it somewhere else was beyond their means. A GoFundMe account had been set up but it hadn't reached the required $3500 to move the mural. The Rexhepis were prepared to undertake removal themselves but their offer came "too late". The Smiths, owners of Freak Lunchbox, said that they had waited three weeks for a reply from the Rexhepis and hadn't received one.

There is so much more to this story than is being told. And I don't claim to have the whole story either. But from what I could get from Rexhepi's wife, there is a story of heartbreak here that isn't being told.

Zeqirja Rexhepi was an artist in Kosovo who saw his works slashed by soldiers as they tore his country apart in a civil war. And he and his family were displaced, arriving in Canada, with a flood of refugees seeking asylum from their war-torn country. When they arrived in Canada with five of their children, they couldn't even speak English and had to make their way, both of them being self-employed and without much to start up a new life. But they survived.

The Tall Ships was one of the first commissions that Rexhepi got in Canada. He has since done many more murals, but this one is of particular significance to him. Not to mention the fact that the Tall Ships mural has been a wonderful tourist attraction to many visitors to Halifax and a beautiful memory to the residents of Halifax of that wonderful summer of 2000 when our harbour was graced with the beautiful ships from antiquity.

But antiquity and the past, history, memories don't seem to carry much weight in this new scenario. Now it is about "street art" and putting up something "more relevant" to the people who pass by on Barrington Street. It would seem that a mural commemorating a historical event in the life of Halifax doesn't matter as much as having some eye-popping piece of modern art. I wonder how many people take photos of this new mural, compared to the number who took photos of the Tall Ships one?

Or how many will email the artist to tell him that his mural was a highlight of their visit to Halifax and to thank him for his work? Zeqirja has many of those, but now they hurt instead of bringing joy as they did in the past.

What I want to ask is did the Smiths, owners of Freak Lunchbox, take the time to learn the backstory of the Tall Ships mural?  Did they meet with the artist to talk with him about his work and to see if they could come to some sort of agreement? Or did they simply email and then forge ahead with their plans, when they didn't get the response they felt entitled to? Could they not have realised that the artist might have been in shock at news of their plans?  Or that he was subdued into silence as he realised that he simply did not have the money or the means to move the mural himself? That he felt helpless, as indeed he was.

Where was the city of Halifax in this, asks Rexhepi's wife? Why did no one come forward to help? Fighting back tears, she said to me "we left Kosovo because of war; now we see there is war here, but it is a silent one." As refugees, the Rexhepis feel betrayed by their new country. They feel that the original welcome they were given has been retracted. They do not feel welcome any longer.

All because someone thought Rexhepi's art was outdated and should be replaced by something that they preferred. They didn't even ask Haligonians what they wanted. Surely a piece of art like the Tall Ships mural had become a landmark in the city and the residents should have been asked for their input. There is so much more to this story than the simple ownership of a building and the right to do whatever you want with it. Surely some consideration should have been given to the artist and the spirit of gratitude and love that he expressed in his painting towards his newly adopted home.

It pains me to think of this. I could only sense a fraction of the pain of this family as Bea related the story to me. She told me of the comments on Facebook and Twitter about this, most of them full of swear words and supporting the painting of the new mural. She told me, I don't want to hear people say "f..... the Tall Ships" nor does she want to hear her friends say "f.... Freak Lunchbox". With tears in her eyes, she told me that they had left a country ripped apart by war, that it is love and support that matter most to her people, that she doesn't want anyone to be fighting over her husband's art, but that she feels the love and support they once felt in this city have been ripped out from under them.

Ripped apart by someone else's determination that they have a right to do whatever they want with their property, that they can put up whatever artwork they like, that it doesn't matter if many people loved the mural that was there. It is over, it is dated, it is the past, let's move on, nothing to see here as the saying goes.

But I give you exhibit A

and I give you exhibit B

And I ask you: which mural will be remembered 10, 20 years from now?

And who will remember Zeqirja Rexhepi and his wife and the artist's joy at being selected to paint this historic mural, a decision that gave him the approval he was seeking in his new life in Canada?
Surely the tears of his wife tell a story of betrayal, of injustice that must be corrected in some way by all of us who once welcomed them here fifteen years ago.

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