Global Track Interview: Street Artist Zola Takes a Radical Approach to Her Medium

Zola, a radical and feminist street artist, talks about her politically-charged work.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Global Track is our bi-weekly street art column by Rhiannon Platt.

A radical, a feminist, and an anarchist, Montreal-based street artist Zola enacts these politics on the city’s streets. Unafraid of confrontation, she is a hero for those who are marginalized. Her beliefs extend to include the intersections of race and gender as well as her personal politics. While she often expresses these ideas in affordable zines, Zola discussed her work and beliefs with Global Track for the wider public.

Global Track Interview: Street Artist Zola Takes a Radical Approach to Her Medium

There is nothing more absurd than art for art's sake. Art is a social product, so why not use it for social means?

Where did the name Zola originate?
Zola is a pretty random choice! I was looking for a name with less than six letters to sign easily if I ever would want to start signing my work, which never happened. I liked the letter Z, and didn't want to take a name that someone was already writing, to avoid any confusion.

How do you identify politically?
Sometimes I feel like stating I am a feminist can include most of my politics. After all, it is women of color who have brought intersectionality and critical theory into the political spectrum. I have a structural analysis of society and identify with anti-oppressive theories. My privileges are an integral part of what defines me, so it's important to state the most obvious ones. I am white, from French settler descent. Living in francophone Montreal, Quebec, this is a big privilege. I have no debt, a good job, a graduate degree, and will probably be financially secure for most of my life. I'm able-bodied and have a good health.

Besides from the things that I benefit from, I've been in the ongoing process of seriously learning about decolonization, and try to integrate this and anti-oppressive politics in as many aspects of my life as possible. I sometime identify as an anarchist, but it depends with whom I'm speaking.

How did you become involved in political activism and street art?
I was brought up to be aware of politics early on, so it has always been a part of my life. Most of my awakening, though, was made possible within the context of the strong student movement we have in Quebec. I was in college during the 2005 general unlimited strike, and the one-month experience blew me away! It was my first experience of general assemblies, police brutality, and I was slowly understanding how fucked up capitalism was. I've been active since then in different social movements.

I seriously started street art in 2011 after being a fan of Banksy for a while. I must admit I even bought his book at Urban Outfitters! Yeah, I know...well, we all have to start somewhere, right? I did yarnbombing for the next three years and stopped out of frustration with the scene. I started wheatpasting last year and feel like I can develop my creativity and my discourse to much further extent now.

To me this plays a central role in your artwork. Why was it important for you to create politically charged work?
For someone breathing politics on a daily level, it's pretty obvious that if you want to make art, it will be politically charged. There is nothing more absurd than art for art's sake. Art is a social product, so why not use it for social means?

Art is always more interesting if it is created through a dialogue with its environment.

Who is the figure depict in your wheatpastes?
All of my pastes have been inspired by photographs taken during protests and riots in Montreal in the past years. You could say I'm working on the allegory of the masked protester. I want to honor the girls who have participated in direct action because I feel like most of the time the black bloc stereotype will erase the presence of women or queer folks, and also because it is close to my own experiences. I am giving the city a visual presence of radical ideas that are flourishing. I've been working on patterns of roses to reflect on the romantic aspect of insurrectionism and the attraction that the libertarian/anarchist/anti-capitalist community has with this iconic figure.

Why was it specifically important for you to react against the Montreal MURAL Festival?
First of all, I want to say that I am not criticizing MURAL until I get invited. I got invited the first year, and it is when I realized how poorly I was going to be treated under the terms offered to me compared to the big names that I thought it was necessary to create a counter event, a counter group, because their event was not representative of my vision of street art.

MURAL follows the trend of what I call "parachute festivals." They call themselves street art festivals, but let's not fool ourselves, everything is ruled by money and it's all legal. They are parachutes because the artists are sent from everywhere in the world for a very short period of time to get up on scaffolding to paint a wall, and they have no time to get to know anybody or learn anything about the place they are in. Art is always more interesting if it is created through a dialogue with its environment. How can you think of anything while you are jetlagged and stressed because you have to finish a huge wall in three days? It is noticeable how these types of events have less and less politically or socially charged artworks in them.

In the case of the MURAL Festival in Montreal, the parachute also illustrates how none of the organizers are from the community, and it shows. They come from the marketing industry, and they bring their VIP shit and sponsored walls and recreate the hierarchy of monetary value related to popularity. The different artists are not all equally paid. The bigger names get more of it. They are bringing the capitalist system further into the street art world, which perpetuates inequalities between artists, and I hate it.

Public art is not street art. Street art is not public art. Legal murals are not street art.

You outlined this in your Radical Thoughts on Street Art zine, but could you talk more about what you see as the most ethical way to practice street art?
Ethics are relative to everybody's different ideas of how society should work, so there isn't one “ethical” way to make art. Writers, for example, will have their own set of ethics. In an anti-o approach, I try not to fuck with regular people, so I'll choose a location that is not too bothersome to residents and local businesses. Most of the time, I'll prefer abandoned buildings, permissive neighborhoods, and alley walls for that reason. It's also important for me to not fall into the trap of cool art in a cool neighborhood that would participate in the gentrification process. I would prefer my art to shock some people rather than be viral on Instagram

Besides everything that I just said, the most important thing if you want to give thought to your art is the process of making it. Don't be a parachute, and get to know the causes that you want to support by getting involved. If you're into portraits, don't just draw a face, but tell a story that was shared with you. Talk from your own point of view, and don't speak for the others because they can speak for themselves.

Also I think it is central that people start to think about the fact that we are using “public space” that is stolen native land. We are benefiting from colonization, and that's a very deeply entrenched problematic. That's partly why I like to highlight anti-colonial struggles in some of my work because I think working on these subjects helps me in my process of recognizing my privilege and using it in a way that's useful in the fight against colonialism.

What do you see as the biggest hypocrisy in public art today?
Not naming it that way. Public art is institutional, made with money from a corrupt system and with the ideology of bringing an elitist aesthetic to the masses, sometimes even while making money. I'm an art historian, so for me there is nothing more important than naming things properly. Public art is not street art. Street art is not public art. Legal murals are not street art, etc. There is nothing more hypocritical than naming a mural "street art." If muraling or public art is your thing, fine. But don't capitalize on a subversive culture and try to look edgy.

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