Art programs have an impact on communities in Scarborough & beyond

Art programs have an impact on communities in Scarborough & beyond.

Shafia Shaikh shares her journey as an artist and her upcoming works with Mural Routes and City of Toronto’s Cultural Hotspot Program.

As an advocate for creative development and everything Scarborough, I’ve always believed that arts can be crucial to help build underserved neighbourhoods.


In the neighbourhoods where art is not always seen as necessary because survival takes more of a precedent, a few outliers are changing the narrative to show that the arts can be a powerful tool for change.


This summer, we caught up with mural artist Shafia Shaikh to talk to her about her journey as an artist from Scarborough and her latest public artworks, “In Our Nature,” in partnership with Mural Routes and the Cultural Hotspot Program.


Image by Ferdinand Orlain / Scarborough Made Press 2021


SN: Shafia, tell me about your connection to Scarborough

I came here when I was eight years old, and prior to that, my family moved around a lot. I was born in India but moved to Saudi Arabia and then to Uganda. We bounced back and forth quite a bit. After coming to Scarborough, we settled in the same house and haven’t moved since, so Scarborough has been my home for a really long time. I always joke about how Scarborough is so much my home that I would like to be buried here one day when it is my time. When I was young, I wanted to leave Scarborough. I was always trying to go downtown to hang out, to work or escape as much as I could from Scarborough. Now I’m trying to come back here and do more.


SN: I feel that the need to leave Scarborough has been a common story for emerging artists growing up here.

We had to leave to develop and broaden our horizons to see the beauty here. I think you don’t appreciate why Scarborough is the way it is when you’re in it, and you assume that there are no resources here because that’s how Scarborough is. But after leaving and growing up, you realize there’s not a lot of resources allocated to a place that is basically its own little city; Scarborough is massive. The funding and opportunities aren’t always here because I believe it is not valued the same way as the downtown core.


The work that makes the downtown core so great is not really created by people born and raised there. It’s the people from the outside that have brought that culture in. Interestingly, people assume that the culture is there because that has always existed there. But it really comes from the outer rim, from Regent Park, from Scarborough, from Parkdale. I feel like that’s where the best pockets of the city are. That’s where Toronto’s diversity exists.


Image by Ferdinand Orlain / Scarborough Made Press 2021


SN: Facts! That’s a compelling reflection, and everything you said really hits home for me. I want to ask you how did you get your start in the arts?

When I was in high school n Scarborough at 16, I did this youth training mentorship program with Mural routes, the co-partner for this current project. The training was in partnership with Youth Link, and it provided young people and with employment opportunities. I was one of those youth at the time, and the employment opportunity I got was mural making with Jim Bravo, a very well-known artist in the city. I was a mentee for a mural that he made in Scarborough, along with four other racialized artists. That experience shaped my perspective of public art, what community work looks like, and how it can feel. When I found that the standard career path was really unfulfilling, I turned to the opportunities that made me feel more fulfilled. Mural Routes was doing this free training program for mural arts career development. I did that program in 2017, and after graduating, that propelled me into making more murals and street art.


Image by Ferdinand Orlain / Scarborough Made Press 2021


SN: I see that your work has a strong focus on community & Women of Colour. How did that come about?

I quickly learned that these spaces were mostly white and mostly men. Every opportunity was largely taken by the same group of artists again and again. If you look at artwork created in pockets like Chinatown and Little India, they are not created by brown or Asian artists. That was really frustrating, and I realized that I couldn’t just be doing random art. I saw that there was a gap in space access and resources. I wanted to bridge that gap, so I’ve focused my work around women of colour. Since then, this kind of expanded into other underrepresented communities, like non-binary, trans women, indigenous, black women and people who don’t have the same opportunity or space to create art.


I formulated a name to do this under, and I went with the E.W.o.C. project, an acronym for Equity for Women of Color. All my projects have been under that name, and it started with street art, but it turned into public art projects, installations, youth workshops, and street art from time to time. It’s grown quite a bit.


SN: I appreciate the journey and the focus on underrepresented communities. What’s been the inspiration for this current project that you are working on with Mural Routes.

I had always thought about a project that focused on racialized community workers, artists and mentors, specifically in Scarborough or the east end of the city. I really did not like how we recognize people in their work after they have passed. There are people who are doing incredible work now that need recognition. So when this opportunity came to create a public art project for the Year of Public Art, I knew that I wanted to spotlight women doing important work right now. So I looked at women who are currently doing work in the city in different capacities. I wanted to have a variety of role models to spotlight, and we picked five that resonate with what felt relevant for this time. These portraits of women appear to emerge from the ground, and a layer of greenery is added to them, which erodes over time. By the end, it exposes the faces of these women coming out of green spaces. The project is called “In Our Nature” because many racialized people don’t have the same access to green spaces, even though traditionally, a lot of these communities come from cultures where they are strongly tied and rooted in nature.


Image by Ferdinand Orlain / Scarborough Made Press 2021


SN: This year, the Scarborough Made project is exploring the theme of resilience. I wanted to ask you where do you see resilience in Scarborough?

There is this perseverance in a lot of people, especially the people who carry our communities, which a lot of the time are women or underrepresented groups. Historically, Black women have paved the way for a lot of us to do the work that we do now.

I see resilience in every person I know from Scarborough, and it’s not something you read when you meet them, but eventually, you meet their family, talk to them a little more, and it’s there. Scarborough can be a difficult journey filled with joy and a lot of love.


It wasn’t an easy experience for the people I knew and grew up with, including my family. I see resilience in my family. I see it in my friends. I see it in random people when I meet and find out that they are from Scarborough. We start talking, and you get to feel that connection because they’ve had a very similar experience. It’s a beautiful thing to have these experiences and perspectives. It really helps you connect with other people and communities that are similar.


Image by Ferdinand Orlain / Scarborough Made Press 2021


SN: Where will we be able to see “In Our Nature” go up?

“In Our Nature” will be housed at the Toronto Zoo, right outside the gate, so you don’t need to pay to access the installation. It will be up from September 2021 into the start of the new year. After that, we hope to have it travel to different green spaces, hopefully across the city, but largely in Scarborough, so that other people can engage in that work. It will be accompanied by signs that tell people who these incredible women are, what kind of work they do, and how you can support them.


SN: What’s something you hope to accomplish through the work that you are doing in Scarborough?

I think it’s already very apparent that we have our own subculture in arts. There are just so many different types of artists that are thriving and doing that work here. They’re just not acknowledged in the same way. I noticed that there isn’t a lot of space for other artists who are women-identifying. Whether they were women of colour, Muslim or queer, there’s not a lot of space for them to create work and thrive. When I first started, I thought I would find an organization or a collective of women who are doing what I wanted to be doing, and I would tag along with them, and that’s it. I’d call it a day.


Because I could not find that, I had to try and create those spaces, and I don’t think they exist now either. I think it’s the young people that will come two generations from now will have this. We’re building the foundation now by planting those seeds. We’ll have to see what happens and where it goes.


Image by Ferdinand Orlain / Scarborough Made Press 2021


Shafia Shaikh’s latest work through Mural Routes and her focus through the E.W.o.C. project illustrates how the community is being built in Scarborough through the arts. It’s a powerful message to see stories that represent the communities you live come to exist on the walls or in the nature around you. It’s even more powerful to note that artists from these communities are helping champion this work.


Through the supports of programs and mentorship opportunities from community arts organizations like Mural Routes and City programs like Cultural Hotspot, we may start to see how investment into the arts can have a trickle-down effect on community resilience. Artists will come back home to build their communities if the opportunities exist. The bigger question remains around how we make the work sustainable for artists to stay here.


Scarborough is a hotspot for the arts and culture, but it hasn’t always received the support and recognition needed for artists to thrive here. Programs like Cultural Hotspot with the City of Toronto do a good job of supporting community arts projects outside the downtown core. It provides a potential solution that addresses the lack of resources and support for artists in underserved neighbourhoods by speaking directly to them.


To continue building neighbourhoods outside the downtown core, we also need to keep engaging local artists and enable them with the tools to empower their communities from Scarborough & beyond.



Scarborough Made is a social impact art project documenting stories in Toronto’s East.


Drop by the Toronto Zoo to see the “In Our Nature” project in partnership with the City of Toronto Cultural Hotspot Signature Project in partnership with Mural Routes, the E.W.O.C. Project, the Community Arts Guild and the Toronto Zoo.


Press Interview & Article: Sid Naidu (SN)

Sid Naidu is a documentary photographer, international development advocate, and Co-Founder at the Scarborough Made Project.


Photography by: Ferdinand Orlain

Ferdinand Orlain Scarborough Made youth artists supported through partnership funding with City of Toronto’s Cultural Hotspot Signature Project.


Scarborough Made Press Feature | September 2021