TALK: Unpacking Art: Adriana Contreras Correal on murals by artists Nora Patrich and Juan M. Sanchez from the SFU Art Collection

Emma Kenny | March 3, 2017

Adriana Contreras Correal speaking at Unpacking Art: Lunchtime Talks on Works in the SFU Art Collection. (Mural by Nora Patrich and Juan M. Sanchez, Arrivals and Encounters (detail), 1992. SFU Art Collection. Gift of the artists, 1996). Photo: Karina Irvine 

Adriana Contreras Correal's Unpacking Art lunchtime talk provoked questions regarding the role that art plays within a community's sense of its past, present and future. When Contreras Correal immigrated to Canada from Colombia as a youth, she faced the challenge of establishing a personal identity amidst a foreign culture. Art helped Contreras Correal not only to explore Vancouver's culture, but to find a personal distinctiveness within its milieu. Contreras Correal reflected on how, during her tenure as the Gallery Coordinator at SFU Gallery, she became familiar with art works within the SFU Art Collection. She took a particular interest in murals by Argentinian artists Nora Patrich and Juan M. Sanchez. This interest was spurred by her personal connection with the murals' expression of hybrid culture, in particular Arrivals and Encounters (1993), which depicts individuals from Latin America arriving in Vancouver and encountering a breadth of diverse people, cultural forms, emotions, and politics. This mural is one of four painted by Patrich and Sanchez on display at SFU, and part of SFU's Art Collection.

Nora Patrich is an Argentinian born artist who left her country during the national political revolution of the 1970's. Travelling to many countries before joining her parents in Vancouver in 1982, Patrich felt a strong affiliation with her Latin American heritage. In 1989 she returned to Argentina, where she connected with her future husband, artist Juan M. Sanchez. Sanchez was an established member of an Argentinian artist collective whose goal was "to create an Argentinian identity within the visual arts" [1]. Working together, Patrich and Sanchez brought this motive back to Vancouver in the hopes of maintaining their cultural identity, while addressing issues of gender, race and class for "third-world" people. Since Sanchez's passing last fall, Patrich has shared her plans to continue her artistic practice, with hopes of preserving the same cultural motivation and aesthetic style.

Through recent contact with Patrich, Contreras Correal was able to gain insight into her artistic and political motivations. Through her art, Patrich depicts the struggles that immigrants face, in hopes of establishing dialogue and connection amongst people from similar situations. Patrich and Sanchez's artworks are individually interpretive and contain messages surrounding revolution, solidarity and preservation of culture. Something that Contreras Correal found particularly interesting about Patrich’s murals was that they were made on wooden panels as opposed to being directly painted on walls, as murals traditionally are. Patrich initially worked this way to preserve the artwork from censorship by making them mobile. Her painted wooden panels were also used in demonstrations and protests, signifying their deeper political and cultural significance. 

Juan M. Sanchez, Life and Woman, 1998, acrylic on MDF. SFU Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2012.

In contrast to Patrich and Sanchez's murals, Contreras Correal referred to the large-scale outdoor wall paintings commissioned by the inaugural Vancouver Mural Festival in 2016, to provoke questions regarding the purpose of a mural. Common traits of mural painting, as it emerged in Mexican muralism in the 1920s (post Mexican Revolution), are that they are politically informed, rich with history and created for the people of a community. The murals painted for the Vancouver festival - predominantly along the Main Street corridor, Strathcona and the False Creek Flats - have been criticized for lacking social or political value and promoting gentrification. This festival did not stimulate transgression but instead, "[fit] comfortably within a pattern of municipally-led gentrification and tech redevelopment" [2]. In our local context, these murals are beautiful, yet the messages within these pieces, or lack thereof, cause us to ask: Who are these paintings for? How do they represent the culture of Vancouver and the people within it? Where are they placed, and whose influence do they express? Why don't these murals address the issues that the community they are placed within are facing? Erected amongst condo developments, local breweries and food trucks that have emerged in previously low-income communities, the mural festival appeared to celebrate these economic developments while being willfully oblivious to the displacement they have caused.

Scott Sume. Hootsuite Media Inc., 5 E. 8th Avenue. Photo:

These are questions that should be continuously considered within contemporary public art practices and projects in the city. They also lead us to think more broadly about the role of art in our city and who maintains the power to make decisions. From Contreras Correal’s first-hand experience, we were informed about the benefits that socially conscious art can hold, solidifying its importance within our community.

Reflecting on practices such as Patrich and Sanchez's, the historical significance of the mural becomes visible. Shouldn't this potential be utilized with hopes of not only making our city beautiful, but empowering the voices and perspectives of the community, and transforming it into a place where all are welcome and those who are struggling may find comfort?   

[1] Adriana Contreras, "Unpacking Art: Lunchtime Talks on Works in The SFU Art Collection"(Presentation, SFU Gallery, Burnaby, BC, February 8, 2017)

[2] Zachary Hyde, "Vancouver Mural Festival is Caught up in Gentrification" The Mainlander (October 5, 2016)