by Selah Woelk

Despite a snowstorm cancelling the official launch event, the Grebel Gallery’s newest exhibit has been busy with Conrad Grebel residence students and visitors writing on the gallery walls

“Your Wall Can (Not) Divide Us” opened on January 25th and will be up until April 30th. The exhibit features a huge interactive graffiti wall that visitors can add to and photos of vibrant, colourful street art and graffiti from conflict-affected areas around the world including Hong Kong, Cyprus, Timor Leste, Colombia, Iraq and right here in Kitchener-Waterloo. A six-foot tall cardboard cutout of the Queen Victoria statue in now-called Victoria Park splattered with red paint reminds viewers of what graffiti can communicate about one’s own community such asthe history of violent colonialism here in Canada. 

Inspired by his research into graffiti in conflict-affected areas, Peace and Conflict Studies Professor Eric Lepp has been involved with the exhibit from its inception.The Centre’s Program Assistant Selah interviewed Eric about the exhibit. Below are his reflections onwhat we can learn from graffiti. 

Selah:What led you to create this exhibit and later bring it to the Grebel Gallery?

Group of students writing on the gallery wall

Eric: The first iteration of this gallery comes out of being asked to create an exhibit for the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development – organized by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) – this was going to be held in Sweden in May 2020. Obviously Covid had other plans and so this big event didn’t take place in-person.

Since my colleagues and I had photographs and captions ready to go for five conflict-affected settings (Hong Kong, Cyprus, Timor Leste, Colombia, and Iraq) it was great when the Grebel Gallery committee asked me to bring it to Waterloo. Adding the local graffiti discussions, particularly the 6-foot cardboard Queen Victoria statue, added a local lens to the exhibit and the brick wall with its interactive possibilities really brought the exhibit to life.

Selah:How does this exhibit reflect the research you have done on graffiti in conflict-affected areas? 

Eric: Central to the research I am working on is the importance of location and spatial context in understanding and analyzing graffiti. My work really centres the ‘where’ and the ‘when’ that graffiti is present. Where it is written, its location can be as important as the actual images or written content, with meanings of pieces changed or lost if dislocated from their ‘spot’. This exhibit captures a few different places at specific moments in time demonstrating the local voices, painting, and grievances of people in places deeply impacted by violent conflict. The exhibit captures Iraq after the American Invasion and the fall of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Medellin’s Communa 13 following the signing of the historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), or the transformed cityscape of Hong Kong during the extradition bill of 2019.

Selah: Visiting the exhibit and looking at the interactive graffiti wallprovides a fascinating reflection on what is on the minds and hearts of those in our “spot,” here at Conrad Grebel, be that students, professors, staff, or community members.What do you think this exhibit (or graffiti)can teach us?

Eric:Engaging with graffiti work is part of a shift to listening to more localised voices and understandings of peace and conflict. Peacebuilding work has tried, to varying degrees of success, to move away from the big international plans and voices that are far removed from actual conflict-affected spaces to more localised ideas. It is local people, organizations and activists who understand the context, grievances and challenges faced in conflict affected spaces. My colleagues and I posit that graffiti is one of the ways we can hear voices that might not be invited to the meeting tables at city councils, community meetings, or places where power is enacted and upheld. Graffiti provides rich insight into societies, different cultures, their different social issues, their trends and political discourses."

It is local people, organizations and activists who understand the context, grievances and challenges faced in conflict affected spaces.

Selah:Do you have a favourite piece in the exhibit? 

Eric:I find hope in many pieces in this gallery. There is a street art piece from Medellin in Colombia that calls for more peace in a place that has known far too much violence. In bright paint it says, “Colombia – balas, mas sueños” [Colombia, less bullets, more dreams].

Eric Lepp hanging pictures for the exhibit

The exhibit will be open until April 30th. Check out the gallery homepagefor the gallery hours and come see for yourself how graffiti can hold strong messages of peace.