In November of 2017, I received a text that would fulfill a couple of my dreams. Curator Neysa Page-Lieberman asked "Would I like to go to Morocco to paint a mural?" For a moment it didn't feel real. For years I've flipped through magazines and the internet fascinated with artists that traveled the world to paint multi-story murals in countries I'd never been. It was something I often hoped to do.
I started my public art career about eight years ago, while running a full-time art business which consisted of gallery exhibits, corporate commissions, merchandise development, the works. This came after 10 years in advertising, and a desire to create more work that made an impact on the world.
I hadn't planned any of this ( art life ). In high school I was trying to deal with being queer. Figuring out what I would be doing with my life was an after thought. If I were told then that in 20 years I'd be painting a five-story mural on the coast of Africa, that I would accomplish this grand opportunity with my partner/girlfriend, and be the first women to do this in Casablanca, Morocco, I probably would have laughed in disbelief.
Art has always been a form of communication for me. As a teenager I used it to understand myself, to reveal my identity, to express things I had no idea how to say with words to my family and friends. Now, 20 years later art is the center of my life and is still a major communication tool for everything I want to share. It is a way of celebrating my identity and culture; a way to create more visibility for underrepresented communities. Everything I needed more of when I was younger, I had been creating it all along.
When I received the call from Neysa, I wanted to shout from the top of my lungs, "Yes! I did it! I beat the odds! I proved, hard work pays off!" I wanted to cry, I did cry. Not once did I expect to be in a position where my art would take me to a place that meant I had to return to the closet.
I cried on the plane en route to Morocco. As I sat in my seat, leaving Montreal to Casablanca, the fact that I would not be able to touch, talk about, or recognize my partner for who she was to me in public for a month, broke my heart.
A flood of memories overwhelmed me. All of the hate crimes I've survived, two being life-threatening, sat with me the most, as I was preparing to enter a place where who I am is illegal. Growing up queer in the states was challenging, but for the past 15 years it's been legal to be me.
I felt as though I were under a microscope and I hadn't even entered the country yet. I felt the painful urges of resistance building up for the many times I would want to reach out and hold her hand but couldn't … . After taking deep breaths I tried to focus on my mission and eventually felt the spirit of happiness fill my soul. I thought, "It's just another obstacle we'll get through AND being the first woman to do thisis even more vital to stay focused, AND I'm going to Africa to paint a muralon the coast of the continent that for years has been the first place out of my mouth when asked, "If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?"
I hadn't experienced such an unbalanced range of emotions in a while. It was almost like preparing for my first kiss with a girl ... "I wasn't supposed to be doing it," but the anticipation of that action felt amazing!
Jen ( my partner ) has studied Northern African and Mideast cultures for more than a decade. A professional dancer, she has shared stories of her travels through Morocco many times throughout our relationship, which always piqued my curiosity. So, I guess this was destined to be. My tears dried up and I shifted my mind to this life-changing adventure presented to me.
Over the course of the month, we did all of the things we usually do, but in Africa! We explored the local culture and did exchanges to show our appreciation. We volunteered to teach workshops for youth in an underprivileged area called Sidi Moumen. I created two murals with youth for their Cultural Center, and Jen taught dance workshops.
We wandered the mazes of the Medina in Marrakech. Every step was a joyful reflex as motorcycles piled with two or three people zoomed by, donkeys pulled carts with goods through narrow streets, and pedestrians hustled on to their next destination. I felt my imagination blossom, as my eyes soaked in all of the vibrancy, patterns and details I'd hope to remember for future creations filled my brain.
We ate in the homes of the poor and rich, public housing apartments, beautiful restaurants and glamorous riads, with politicians, everyday people and local artists. We experienced every level of hospitality Casablanca had to offer, and every place presented us with the most exquisite preparation of food I'd ever seen.
The elegant dinners included five- to six-course meals with Moroccan salad, pastilla, cornish hens, fish and khobz, but they were no match to the couscous that was made for us in the homes of two women.
In the neighborhoods where we worked lived the impoverished, most in need residents. Unsurprisingly, they gave more food and nourishment than we could consume. Countless trays of Moroccan Mint Tea with homemade corn bread, cookies, seloo and Halwa chebakia were delivered to us daily. Some women carried trays of hot tea with several glasses for blocks to treat us to a small break in our days. The smiles that crossed their faces as they handed us a glass, as our spoons filled with couscous, as we gobbled up their creations in gratitude were easily a highlight in this adventure. We could feel the love in their cooking and what more is there to ask for beyond that?
There were many encounters which evoked thoughts like, "I could have never imagined art would bring me here." In the beginning, the organization ( Chicago Casablanca Sister Cities International ) that invited us arranged for several meetings and presented my work to the mayor of Casablanca, Wali of Casablanca, U.S. Consulate General and her staff. There was so much to celebrate, 35 years of programming between Chicago and Casablanca, and when I looked at who I was surrounded by, who brought me here from Chicago, it was a team of incredibly strong women.
All of my work leading up to this point started to replay in my mind. Acknowledging women, celebrating women, being the woman that does the things I'm "not supposed" to do, and here we were, women changing the game again.
In the final week of our trip we completed "Sister Cities," a five-story mural in the El Hank community of Casablanca that celebrates women and encourages unity and friendship for years to come. During this time, we dealt with the usual external challenges encountered as female muralists, but that couldn't shake us. We were 40 feet in the air on a scissor lift that leaked gas and had other issueswith the most incredible view of the Atlantic! We were determined.
On multiple occasions despite what nonsense was happening on the ground, we turned around and said "Can you believe this?" We whispered, "I love you honey" and exchanged glances of adoration away from windows and places where no one could see or hear us.
During this time, I realized another level of love from my partner. Jen chose to cover her head for the month. She often does this in the U.S. as well, but not daily. My appearance when traveling and even in the states is often noticed. The tattoos, hair, androgyny all give pause for thought. While changing some of the answers to many questions and hiding our identities was one task I could manage, I didn't know how to be anyone else or how to alter my physical self.
Jen knew this and decided she would cover her head to help distract from my appearance, also to not reveal her short hair, but mostly to be an example for all, that every type of woman can do this work.
This journey was an amazing opportunity to explore a world very different from my own, to be outside myself and learn from people. No matter what we had to do to hide who we were, Jen and I embarked on this journey together for the visibility of women/women in the arts.
While I was asked to design this mural, she completed it with me and together we are the first women to complete a mural in Casablanca's CasaMouja Annual Street Art Festival. I thank the women that brought us here to make this happen. It further cements the steps I've taken in my life and I hope more women see this and are encouraged to go beyond what is expected of us, and to support other women in fulfilling their dreams.
About the artists:
Sam Kirk creates artwork to celebrate people and to inspire pride and recognition for underrepresented communities. Her work explores culture, identity, and the politics that have formed society for generations. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, working-class communities continue to be Kirk's key ingredient of inspiration. Partially autobiographical, her vibrant color palette and intricate line-work highlights cultural communities via multi-toned figures and familiar buildings and elements. She has exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the U.S., worked with many private and commercial clients and made custom artworks for nonprofit organizations in Chicago and New York. For information visit www.iamsamkirk.com, @iamsamkirk.
Jenny Q. is a cartoonist and performer ( under the moniker Jenny RaQs ). She is a proud Afro-Latina who also moonlights as a Birth Doula. Born in Brooklyn, New York she has lived across the globe throughout her life. Jenny has studied Raqs Sharqi for approximately 12 years partially at the Egyptian Academy of Oriental Dance in New York City before leaving a career in politics where she opened the first breastfeeding room at the NYC Mayor's Office. Since her first venture into the dances of the Maghreb she has performed as a soloist at several national/ international venues including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Newark Symphony Music Hall, Rakkasah, Lincoln Center Local and many others. Currently, she is planting roots in her new hometown of Chicago and resides with her partner and their pup Frida Chancleta. For information visit www.quirklyn.com, @quirklyn
Thank you to the women from Chicago who lead us to this amazing adventure: Lisa Roberts, Julie Stagliano, Neysa Page Lieberman, Cindy Mitchell , Andrea Zopp, Marilyn Diamond and Paula Kahn
This project was organized by Chicago Sister Cities International and World Business Chicago, Curated by Neysa Page-Lieberman as part of an art exchange to celebrate 35 years of collaboration.
To learn more about the Chicago Casablanca Sister Cities International Art Exchange please visit: www.chicagosistercities.com/news/chicago-casablanca-kickoff-mural-exchange/ .