Fanny Aïshaa: An Artist Inspired by Nature

Born in Québec City of a French Quebecoise mother and a Moroccan father, a youth protection placement officer brought Fanny-Pier Garneau into the lives of a Quebecois couple. But this was no adoption horror story in the making. In fact, Fanny’s new home was filled with love and tolerance: Fanny’s new parents allowed her to forge her artistic sensibilities as well as a strong sense of joie-de-vivre. Her adoptive parents made enormous sacrifices, encouraging her to follow her dreams of becoming an artist.

By Raymond Viger   Files Graffiti, Culture, Native, Environment

The color of Fanny’s skin left her open to racism when her new family moved to a remote spot in the countryside. Surrounded by nature, and sometimes hostility, she grew to love color and form – and to hate hatred. She developed an instinctive need to fight ignorance and injustice. Armed with brushes and spray cans, she goes to war – with colors and shapes as her ammunition!

Growing up in the wilderness, she would take long walks with her father. Together they would drink in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest and its creatures. Inspired by wildlife, the pair would use art, particularly drawing, to capture their thoughts and emotions on their hikes.

“My dad is an unacknowledged artist,” says Fanny. “He never took a course, but he’s got remarkable talent. He always said he’s paint after retirement. But he worked hard all his life so I could study,” she beams with pride. “That’s why I never set aside my passion for art.”

Growing up, her only contact with urban civilization was the railway line that crossed a nearby country road. Passing trains would entrance her – she never saw the train itself, but instead focused on the colors in motion. Railway cars were a moveable feast, an art gallery in motion carrying strange and wonderful hues and shapes, even graffiti, not found in her surroundings. She did not have to visit museums to be in contact with art: museums were brought to her.

Graffiti Dreams

Oddly, after moving to a town where she and her twin sister suffered racial discrimination thanks to the color of their skin, the pair found themselves cast in a college film on preventing cultural violence. Dressed as American natives, they danced. The backdrop, walls covered in multi-hued graffiti, made an indelible impression on young Fanny’s consciousness.

Fanny Artist Fanny Aïshaarealized she was different as early as grade school. “I couldn’t learn a thing without dancing, singing, or doing two things at a time. They wanted to give me Ritalin,” she recalls. “They put me in ballet class. I invented my own dance steps. I was expelled. I started getting involved in theatre. I’d draw in my books and on my desk, paint on my arms… Everything around me was a canvas on which I’d express myself. I always felt like a free spirit.”

She ended up in a high school with a bad reputation. One teacher, Claude Beaupré, organized “Rap Battles.” Fanny recalls: “The school was extraordinary because there were a lot of different cultural communities and immigrants there. We learned that to evolve, we had to unite and celebrate our differences. Some of my friends would never have finished high school if it hadn’t been for these artistic activities. Arts can change, heal, create lasting relationships.”

She was happy and proud when her cousins taught her some breakdance steps. “When I got my first I Am cassette (a rapper from France) I was deeply moved by his music and lyrics. I identified with hip-hop culture. Hip-hop overcomes differences, and denounces injustice,” Fanny says admiringly.

At university, Fanny took part in semesters abroad, in Latin America. In her final year she landed a bursary to study cinema in Brazil. While taking a course in directing, she realized that her head was bursting with visual imagery. She reoriented her studies to concentrate on animation.

Favela Frescoes

Rio de Janeiro’s walls are choc-a-bloc with lively, multicolored images. She would paint frescoes on walls in the city’s favelas (slums). Residents would offer her food in thanks for adding life to their neighborhood. “In Brazil,” she recounts, “survival is such a struggle that there’s an innate reflex to be fair and respectful towards others. Their murals show the history of this struggle.”

Disillusioned by dry, academic courses at her elite, segregated Brazilian university, Fanny strolled through the favelas admiring street art – learning lessons from the school of the street. “One morning,” she says, “I asked the university to help me find a way to get back into drawing. They opened a graffiti class.” Without hesitation, Fanny regained her enthusiasm for school. After school, she would draw until sunup.

“I was really heartbroken when my courses were over,” she recalls. “I wanted more. Once I was invited to a community event. Everyone brought their own materials to paint with. Someone mentioned that I was Canadian and that I was really good at graffiti art. There was a communications breakdown somewhere: I’d never touched a spray-paint can in my life!  Someone offered me a wall of their house to paint on. I hadn’t prepared a thing. I’d never painted a mural. Another artist sensed my reluctance, and taught me some techniques. I decided to throw myself into it, with a laugh,” Fanny says with a twinkle in her eye. She painted that first mural in June 2008, and has never looked back.

“I could never work a conventional office job. If you work to serve the dreams of others you can never follow your own dreams. If everyone followed their interests rather than focusing on earning a buck, the world would be a better place.”

Fanny recalls: “In Brazil the media is very biased, like in a lot of other places. They only give you one version of events. Art makes culture accessible. Art can transmit personal stories that come from the very soul. Art transforms us, makes us understand our roots. Art touches everyone. Art battles prejudice by presenting positive role models to youth.”

Fanny began her painting career working shoulder-to-shoulder with drug traffickers. “Kids who grow up with drug dealers as heroes dream of getting famous by selling cocaine,” she says. “But once they see hip-hop artists and painters, once they hear rap poetry or see an explosion of color, they dream of becoming artists. Some of the armed street gang kids guarding the favelas would stop us artists and thank us for what we were doing. They’re human beings too. Look them in the eye and you see their hopes, like anyone else. Art in Brazil is fundamental to giving kids’ lives worth,” she concludes.

Coming Home Again

After 4 years in Brazil, Fanny came back home. “I dreamed of forests and ice,” she says. “One day there were some surreal floods in Rio. It was as if the city was drowning. It was a brutal reminder of the nature’s strength. I love that country, but my heart told me to head to northern Quebec. When I see the black spruce dancing in the wind, the wild animals of the north, the emotions I feel are impossible to describe. Every place is beautiful in its own way, but I wouldn’t trade the beauty of northern Quebec for anywhere on Earth.”

She acknowledges that hers is a generation that has traveled far and wide. But Fanny sees the world changing. “We’re going to naturally migrate back to our communities,” she says. “In 30 or 40 years, everything will be different. Oil is so expensive that we won’t be dependent on it anymore. People will buy local and become self-sufficient. We will live off the land. Build strong communities. That’s why we’ll have to take care of our land and choose sustainable means of economic development. The choices we make now will affect future generations.”

When she returned to Montreal people told her to get to know the artists Monk.el and the Café Graffiti. In 2002, Monk.el was part of the team of artists Café Graffiti sent to represent Quebec at an international graffiti art convention in Brazil. Stimulated by their similar experiences, Fanny and Monk.el hit it off. As well, Fanny was flattered by Arpi’s invitation to participate in his first exhibition, Renaissance-2009. Another Café Graffiti artist, Fluke, offered Fanny her first artist’s contract. These meetings launched Fanny’s art career.

She Who Lives

Fanny adopted the name Aïshaa, which means, “she who lives.” Once that was the name she wanted to give her daughter. Fanny Aïshaa is a nomad. She travels the world giving life to empty walls, sharing her vision and talent with the communities she visits. She travels to create group projects involving whole neighborhoods and villages. Along the way, she hears people’s stories.

“I completely believe in my dream,” she says. “Everything in life is magical. I want to communicate that to the world. The media is full of negativity: It’s easy to be cynical. It’s more helpful to develop positive solutions.”

Her parents have been very important to her development. Those walks in the woods with her father nurtured her talent. Fanny’s mother inspired her in a different way. “She was often very ill,” Fanny recalls. “My mom is a warrior who’s fought cancer three times. She’s defied the medical statistics. We call her our little miracle. With her strength of spirit and her dreams, she’s battled hard for us. She always taught the importance of inner peace and spirituality, and the value of expressing one’s emotions. The art of living. She did some art-therapy during her cancer battles. Her energy, despite all her close brushes with death, shows me just how precious life is. She’s given me the will to pursue my dreams.”

Fanny realizes just how lucky she is. “My adoptive parents were always warm and accommodating. I know a lot of youth protection kids who suffered. The eyes are the mirror to the soul, and without them saying a word you can see how bad their experiences were. That’s why I paint a lot of faces. Faces tell valuable stories, and have extraordinary lessons to teach.”

Diversity in Art

Animals and nature play important roles in Fanny’s murals. “They’re part of our communities, too. It’s important to celebrate both cultural diversity and biodiversity. The two are inseparable.”

Fanny’s talents and outlook earned her a bursary to become an artist-in-residence in the heart of British Columbia’s Gwaii Haanas Natural Reserve Park on Haïda Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Island, in the Haïda territory). “The island is a remnant of the Ice Age,” she says. “The largest black bear in the world lives there. There are enchanted forests, unimaginably savage nature – it’s a fairyland. You can hear the cries of eagles all day long. I’ve painted while seals came out of the water to watch us. Immense crows dance on rooftops. I’ve painted with young and old,” says this artist dedicated to protecting the natural patrimony of the native peoples.

In 2011, alongside Sophie Boivin, Fanny found herself among the Cree in the northern Quebec village of Wemindji, along the arctic waters of James Bay. With a large group, Fanny painted a mural. Young people shared their hopes; elders expressed their desire that the young Cree of the village keep true to their ancestral traditions. “The knowledge and wisdom of all native peoples, their connectedness to the land stretching back for millennia, are valuable no matter what your ancestry,” sighs an awestruck Fanny. “It’s incredible how art brought us to this community to share their stories and learn their wisdom.”

Fanny herself dreams of one day opening an art therapy studio in the mountains somewhere, next to the forest. Beyond that, “I hope I never lose my childlike sense of wonder,” she says. “I see the world as a snow-globe you shake to see the flakes glisten without knowing where they land. I’d like to se everyone meet and share their differences, their knowledge with respect. I want to continue to see beauty, nature, the magic of nature and, above all, hold on to my imagination, my creativity and my freedom.”

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