To most of us, the muskox is just a shaggy, smelly (hence the name) beast from the far north. But artist Rob Friday, who identifies as two-spirit, has a knack for giving the animals he paints a special significance.

He specializes in nature paintings and usually uses canvas for his creations; but he’s stepping out of his comfort zone to paint a muskox on a small crate for The Great Crate Show, part of this year’s Chinatown Remixed art festival in Ottawa. The festival begins Saturday, Sept 24, 2016.

Friday, who cites his indigenous background and two-spirit identity as sources of inspiration, frequently depicts the animal he paints in an abstract, “psychedelic” sort of way, with complex drawings of animals filled with other images, colours and designs. When he wants to give his animal a gender, those designs can involve ovaries, penises or sperm. But he is intentionally leaving his muskox ambiguously gendered.

“I think I picked this particular muskox design [for the crate] because it’s gender-free,” he says, adding that his muskox is intentionally ambiguous as a gesture of support for the trans community.

“I just want [this piece] to represent freedom,” he says. “I guess with regard to gender . . . I’m trying to show freedom. Freedom for everyone. Why not, right?”

Rob Friday paints his gender-ambiguous muskox on a crate in preparation for the Great Crate Show. His art is influenced by his indigenous background and two-spirit identity.
Courtesy Rob Friday

Each year, Chinatown Remixed — which Friday describes as “very queer positive” — takes over a slew of hair salons, grocery stores, cafés, alleyways and other locations  — anyplace, really — in Chinatown. The 40 or so participating artists are each given assigned an unconventional place to exhibit their work.

The main event — the vernissage —  will take place on the festival’s first day, in the afternoon. The pieces will stay on display until Oct 29, but the kick-off is when the various artists will be with their work, on hand to explain their pieces, charm those passing by, and sell their creations. And the parking lot of Shanghai Restaurant will be alive with performances and other diversions.

But the Great Crate Show, where Friday’s muskox piece will be shown, is something a little different. While most of the other artists at the festival are off on their own, this is a group exhibit. Artist and festival founder Don Kwan creates one-of-a-kind wood objects and custom wooden crates, and decided to incorporate the crates into the festival.

“I invited several local artists whose artwork I admire . . . to get inspired and transform the crate with their own style” Kwan says. “Like a blank canvas, but instead it’s a blank crate,” he says.

The pieces — decorated by Rob Friday, Greta Grip, Guillermo Trejo and others — will be on display at Shanghai Restaurant for the duration of the festival.

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