With each written word, frame, pixel and note sung, Vivek Shraya leads.
The multimedia Toronto artist — this year’s recipient of the Community One Foundation’s Steinert & Ferreiro community leadership award — isn’t standing at a podium when he leads. He’s not heading marches or dictating by megaphone. His leadership is his artwork.
“It’s definitely an honour to be considered a leader,” Shraya says, adding quickly that he doesn’t “run around calling [himself] a leader.” He’s on the phone from Los Angeles, where he has just finished a tour for his debut novel, She of the Mountains, and is beginning another for his short story collection God Loves Hair.
“As an artist and somebody living in Toronto, I have tried to make the kind of art that I could have benefited from as a queer teen growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, facing homophobia,” he says. He moved to Toronto in 2003 to pursue a music career — it has since evolved into the mediums of literature, performance and film.
An artist doesn’t fit the traditional mould of “leader,” but Shraya and others like him in the queer community know the influence of their own work because they’ve experienced it through the work of others in their own lives.
“Change can often happen in innocuous small ways. How people engage with someone’s book or someone’s film or dance. That kind of change is also really important,” he says. “One of the things that I’ve witnessed is the power that art has to change people’s perspectives and open minds. It’s art that has been transformative for me.”
He recalls reading transgender activist Leslie Feinberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues, the story of a masculine girl growing up and coming out as a lesbian, as a catalyst for one of those moments.
“Almost all the content that I read or saw in university was [made by someone] either straight or white, and I didn’t realize the way that that contributed to a sense of isolation. I was reading Stone Butch Blues, and I was like, ‘Wow, this would have been so helpful,’” he says. “That was one of the books that really inspired me to share my own story and think about the importance of LGBT books in the world. It’s that transformative power that art has that can render it to be a leader.”
She of the Mountains is a “bi/queer love story” that he hopes will challenge the biphobia he has experienced in his own life and fill the gap that exists for stories about “queer brown love or bi brown love.”
The novel is a new chapter for Shraya, but it’s his past work in education and collaborative visual art that has perhaps made the greatest contribution to his status as a leader in the community.
“His artwork has not only been consumed and appreciated by the queer community, but the evolution of some of the projects involved the queer community,” says Andrea Love, co-chair of the Community One Foundation board. Shraya’s film What I Love About Being Queer features the faces and stories of countless members of the Toronto queer community. Similarly, his upcoming exhibit Your Cloud, premiering at Videofag in February, will be made up of community contributions: texts and messages that have gone unanswered.
“It’s about being a part of creating the art,” Love says, explaining why Shraya’s work has made such an impact. “It’s about seeing a reflection of yourself in that art and then being able to discuss that with the community, with students, and continue to draw out the community.”
The Steinert & Ferreiro Award, valued at $10,000, is the country’s premier recognition of leadership in the LGBT community and was launched at the bequest of the men it is named after. Jonathan R Steinert and Fernando Gumercindo Ferreiro fell in love in 1985 while Ferreiro was on vacation in San Francisco. The pair relocated to Toronto, where Ferreiro, a native of Chile, continued to feel homophobia and discrimination. The award was established to recognize significant contributions to the understanding and acceptance of queer lives.