Labour History in Art with the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre

What is the role of art in the labour movement? We asked Sonali Menezes, a working artist with ties to the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, to tell us her answer.


My name is Sonali Menezes, my pronouns are she and her, and I am an inter-disciplinary artist based in Hamilton, Ontario. That is just a big word to say that I make a bunch of different kinds of art in different mediums.

I would consider the role of art in the labour movement and in working class movements in terms of the value that it adds in terms of storytelling is to add an additional entry point into the labour movement. One that is potentially less urgent. One that allows you to enter a museum and enter the issues that are happening in the labour movement from a different perspective. One that involves colour, and texture, and emotion, and isn’t just an essay. It’s just a different way of entering the labour movement. I think art can also offer a perspective into the labour movement that makes it seem irresistible and exciting and maybe less intimidating. One example that I would love to give is that I am a zine-maker. I make zines, which is like independent publishing. I have traded zines at zine-fairs with other zinesters when I started making them on various political topics. It was a very good entry point for me to access these topics through a zine format, which is a DIY (do-it-yourself) self-published magazine or pamphlet. It is done quick and dirty on a photocopier; it has fingerprints on it and it is focused. It was less intimidating than attending a lecture or googling something on the internet which is so vast overwhelming. Instead, I received this very focused topic, like a zine about key questions that I needed answered when I was eighteen on sexual health. That was so important to access in a zine and accessible. I have numerous zines on the labour movement, and I have found them very informative, and I love giving them to people to read.

I can talk about a project I am working on with Mayworks Festival in Toronto, which is a Labour Arts Organization. I am working on their “Labour Arts Catalyst” project. I have been partnered with a labour organization, Labour Against The Arms Trade, which advocates for the end of the arms trade in Canada and a just transition for arms trade workers. I am going to be producing some art on this topic as an offering of an entry point for folks to enter this topic of a just transition for arms trade workers and an end to the arms trade in a way that is not a power point presentation, a lecture, or an essay. That is not to say that those are not very valuable points of entry. This is just another point of entry. I am going to be producing a series of silkscreen posters on these topics that include slogans, information, and anti-war imagery. I am also going to be producing a zine on this topic with the goal of distributing it to arms trade workers in London, Ontario that produce light-armoured vehicles that are destined for Saudi Arabia that are then used on the Yemen. These actually get transported through Hamilton on their way to ports in Baltimore. All these things are connected. I think this is a good example of using art in the labour movement as another point of entry into the issues that people are already working towards.

I would consider artists to be workers. I would not consider ALL artists to be workers, in that their relationship to work might be different. There are some artists who are landlords and some artists who are millionaires. I would not consider them to be a part of the working-class. I think the perception is that, because there are sort of bourgeoisie quality that are attached to art, think of the art market and the people who buy art and appreciate art, we think of bourgeois people who have a lot of money and can drop one million dollars on a painting. But the reality of working artists that I know in my life is that they are all working-class people who are working hard to pay their bills and are not buying million-dollar paintings. They are not homeowners, but renters. They are working in coffee shops, in bars, and are making art at the same time. I think there are misconceptions of course, there are some very rich artists, some very privileged artists. But the reality is that the majority of artists working today are working-class people.

The exhibition here at the Workers Arts & Heritage Center right now is called “Future of Work: Letters from the Land and Water”. It was co-curated by Simranpreet Anand and Srimoyee Mitra and we have a few art works behind me by Jagdeep Raina which are highlighting embroidery and textile practices that were lost through colonialism and he is exploring them, celebrating them, and reviving them.

What is nice with what Jagdeep Raina is doing in his artwork here is that he’s telling the story of these lost embroidery and textile practices that were lost through colonialism and he’s showing viewers the beauty in these textiles that were lost and helping us see the value in these textile practices and what has been lost through colonialism.

I think the role of artists is to make the labour movement and other social movements irresistible. Our role is to make them exciting for people to enter, accessible, interesting, and not intimidating. We want to find points of relation where people can relate. For me as an artist, if I make something, my goal is for the viewers to relate to it. If they cannot relate to it, there is no entry point, they are not interested in it. We want viewers to be able to relate to the issues that we are talking about. We want to make it personable. We want to affect people’s emotions. If we cannot affect their emotions, they are not going to be interested in the art or the issues.

For me, the most important thing about my art, is that it helps to connect with people. I want it to resonate with people in my community. I don’t want it to stand alone. I don’t want it to be made and put out into the world and do nothing. I want it to function. I want it to do something. I want it to affect people’s emotions and actions if possible and inspire.