Creating Art in the City: Interview with Sonia Ekiyor Katimi
Sonia Ekiyor Katimi is a Nigerian non-binary artist based in Sudbury, Ontario. They are a self-taught artist with a master's in architecture from McEwen School of Architecture and run an online art store and an illustration Instagram account with the moniker Studio Baby Cupid. Sonia reminds me that we shared a primary school class in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where I always had my head in a book and sat in front of the class. This connection makes me even more excited to talk with them.
In this interview, Sonia shares their experience working on a mural last year for the UpHere Festival in Sudbury. They recount having to navigate negative remarks and outlandish behaviours from passersby as well as having their mural vandalized twice before it was even finished. Many artists of colour share similar experiences with Sonia and this demonstrates how it is vital for the art world, institutions and governments that talk about diversity and inclusion to provide equal opportunities for Black artists. These themes touch the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on Reduced Inequalities.
Sonia’s experience highlights how much more work needs to be done, while their work is on a large mural downtown in their city, they still fought every step of the way to get it there. Sonia’s mural titled Here to Stay Baby was made specifically to honour Black and Brown bodies that have faced exclusion in their community; “...no matter how much violence, and erasure we face here, we will pass down our stories through community and we will live on.”
How did you find out about the festival and how did you begin participating?
There’s always this art festival in Sudbury. They usually have a group of muralists, some Canadian, some from different places, but mostly from Sudbury. A friend of mine got on the board with them and she decided to include my work and the works of artists that she liked. In July, they asked me if I would like to do a large mural downtown and I was like; “of course! Are you kidding me?”
I thought I was going to start in August but we just didn't get approval on the wall. Some people let the city use their walls for murals, however, when I was submitting my designs I found that people would back out. This is something that kept happening. We found a wall in October and I was one of the last people to receive a wall. But as it turned out, the people whose wall I was going to paint were just excited to have me there. I was ready to go and I had my design in August but in the end, I changed the entire design the day I decided to paint it.
What was the first idea before you changed it?
The first idea was of two people and I wanted it to read as lesbians and I had their legs interlocking in the middle. I didn’t go with that because I thought it was maybe too intimate, or provocative, and I felt I could take the piece in a more platonic direction. For the final idea, I decided to include three people. You know Destiny’s Child, there has to be three. I chose the characters to not fit in the plain category, I wanted them to be in clothes that they could move in.
I made sure that the woman in the middle had longer sagging boobs - something we need to see more of - and I gave them armpit hair; just characteristics that are personal to me and that I see in my friends. I wanted them to wear big boots because I used to be a sex worker - visually I assign big boots to sex workers. Interestingly enough, that plot of land used to be a Women's Centre.
The area used to be a Women's Centre? What is it now?
Yes, a Women's centre. I’m not sure why they took it out. There’s a management company that just started buying all the buildings downtown. They own the building I live in, they own the parking lot for the mural, they own the building down the street; their name is everywhere. That parking lot there used to be a Women's Centre, they knocked the whole thing down for a giant parking lot. I know that a lot of women who used to go there were sex workers. They were downtown sex workers and I wanted to show that they were here in some way. The people whose wall I was painting did nothing but encourage me, they loved the colours, and I felt like the process for working for them was really nice.
Did you get any help while working on the mural?
I got a volunteer, he was with me and he was trained on the machinery. I had to take a course for one day to use the machinery and I was not confident. He was helping me out.
Was it your first time painting for your city?
The first time I did a painting downtown, they had these electrical boxes. It was the same festival that commissioned me to do a tiny little painting there. I received so much anxiety from that experience, people in the neighbourhood called the cops on me three times. And it was just this tiny little painting that the city paid me to create. They gave me a workman's vest and they gave me all the things that I would need to do that work. Yet, the cops still showed up, they said they received calls about vandalism. I was wearing an orange vest, not sneaking around. It was 10 AM and it was in broad daylight. I've got buckets of paint, not spray. Like I'm not going anywhere; I am not running.
The chief of police apologized to me three days later. They showed up three times. The worst thing about it was that the police were there when we had to do electrical safety training to be able to start the mural. And they received maps to show them each location of where each artist would be. So the police had my location and somehow out of all the artists I was the only one who had the cops called on me and I was the only Black artist participating.
It’s surreal to work as a Black artist in 2021. On one hand, you expect it to happen but how do you prepare yourself?
I expected it, and I thought I was ready. I showed up with a White friend. I told him to stand right there because when they showed up, he was the one who was going to navigate that experience. However, he didn’t even get the chance to stand up for me. The tone of the police was; if you get in our way, we will take your ID and charge you for obstructing justice. I had to give them my supervisor's number and inform them of their supervisor's number who knows about this city job. I was educating them right there while it was eating into my painting time and painting energy.
In the end, my design wasn’t really what I wanted it to be because I just didn’t want to be out there anymore. I felt like just wrapping things up. However, I regret that now because I have to walk past it every day and I think it’s not complete. It was traumatizing when I went to work on the larger mural since I was nervous that the police were going to show up. They were cruising by multiple times but didn’t stop. It was so nerve-wracking but it was better than the first time.
What was your experience painting a mural the second time around?
This time the issue was mostly about commentary. Someone walked by and said, “my 12-year-old daughter could do that.” I thought, if you are trying to insult the work then you are also insulting your daughter. One guy walked by and said, “do they all have to be Black?” These were the only images of Black people included in the murals. Few murals in the city have Black people in them and the city is full of murals. There is a huge community of Black kids younger than me growing up in Sudbury, a quite White-washed town. I want those children who are walking down the street to see that mural and feel like this was also their city. To feel that “I belong here. I can take up space here. I am represented here.”
The guy that I was working with - I don’t know how to put this - he was getting catcalled quite a bit. He was a good-looking guy and women wouldn’t leave him alone. A woman tried to talk against the mural just to get his attention. She was said, “this is shit anyways.” We were in construction gear, I’ve never seen women stop to catcall construction workers. He could have been my partner working up there and no one considered that, neither did they care.
He felt like it was weird too. The mural was vandalized on the first day by one of the women who had previously catcalled him. She wrote her name, she wrote on it before we were done, telling us, “fuck you”. She kept getting crazier and showed up again. She was watching us, waiting for us to notice her graffiti. Honestly, it was a mess and I didn’t know who to call. I still had all my paint out so I just painted over it.
The second day we were going to put on the protective coat. The timeline between finishing the painting and getting the protective coat on, the mural had already been vandalized again. Some guy wrote, “I’ve always been here” and posted it on his Twitter. He is known for saying things like, “we need to take back our city.” Online, a lot of people were taking credit for vandalizing the mural. I feel like a lot of people were just taking credit because they were not only excited about annoying me but also just excited to be anti-Black. There was no reason for this kind of behaviour.
Moving forward, do you feel confident working on another mural in Sudbury?
I feel more confident than ever. To be honest, after that first time, I started looking at people as if they were idiots. I thought, “if you don’t get this, if you are against this and this does not make sense to you, then you are unintelligent to me.” I simplified the murals so much so that children could enjoy it. It’s my colouring book style. This is when I am having more fun. It's non-threatening, it’s inclusive. If the most threatening thing you can think of is Black bodies and armpit hair, then lucky you. I feel like I can do anything now.
I was really nervous about painting the mural so big because I’ve never done anything that big in my life before. And I never thought I would. Even if it’s the last mural I do, I am also happy with this and the fact that I did it at all shocks me. My adrenaline was through the roof. I’m scared of birds and I’m scared of heights but I didn’t know I was afraid of heights until I got up there.
The machine wobbled which is apparently a good thing. When people were talking to me from down below I was just thinking, “keep it moving.”