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Black Lives Matter mural disappears behind downtown Calgary development

The mural The Guide and Protector created debate even before its first brush stroke in 2020.

“It was quite a controversial mural at the time and I remember we were battling a lot of different perspectives,” recalled project manager Priya Ramesh. “This wall came in the rise of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement and it was done by a Black artist in Calgary, which at the time wasn’t really happening as much.”

The privately-funded artwork on a large wall in Calgary’s Chinatown was artist Jae Sterling’s first mural, and despite ongoing backlash and safety concerns the work was completed.

“We had to get security 24/7 to work on this site because you just didn’t know how people were reacting, how people were feeling,” Ramesh said.

Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong said at the time he was hearing a couple of issues from people in the community.

“The first issue: ‘Is the artwork representative of the Chinatown history, heritage, culture?’” Wong said. “The second issue was around a lack of consultation.”

Nearly four years later, a lack of communication continues to plague the artwork, but for a different reason.

Construction is currently underway on an apartment building on the lot adjacent to the mural.

“It is a little bit wild to see it so covered up so drastically, without even a gap between the two buildings,” Ramesh said.

According to the developer’s website, the 52-unit rental apartment with retail space was approved by the city in 2022.

“The building owner who gave the permission [for the mural] initially said ‘Yeah, we’ve got a five-year agreement and if the neighbour puts a building up, they put a building up,’” Wong said.

However, Pink Flamingo, the organization that programed Sterling’s mural, said early on there was interest in turning the lot into a community hub.

“When the mural first got underway, discussions were happening to make the adjacent lot into a multi-functional space,” Pink Flamingo co-founder Allison Dunn said. “We were going to raise $800,000 to maintain the park and we got pretty far with it, and then discussions broke down.”

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Calgary architecture firm SPECTACLE Bureau was involved in creating the vision for the public space which would have been used for day-to-day activities as well as for special events.

“Students from the University of Calgary were assisting us with the design of the project, and we had even built permanent mahjong tables and furniture to use in the space,” Dunne said.

In a statement to Global News, the City of Calgary said while murals are vibrant and appeal to the public, in most cases they are considered temporary.

“Typically, property owners volunteer their buildings as a canvas but can change or remove artwork on their building, demolish their building, or make changes that would alter any exterior artwork,” the statement reads. “Murals have become part of the dynamic and constantly changing face of our city, but are not protected from construction on adjacent sites.

“In this instance, the City of Calgary approved a development permit allowing the adjacent landowner to develop a new residential and retail building on their property.”

While Dunne said she was made aware of the development project, Ramesh said she wished there had been a larger discussion so plans could be made to celebrate the mural before it was obscured.

“Public art is fickle, it’s transient, it’s always changing,” Ramesh said. “They always kind of have the inevitability of disappearing or evolving with the city.”

“Obviously I wish it could have lasted a little bit longer. I would have liked to have seen this mural in Calgary for about 10 years.”

Ramesh is also involved with art and production house Foreignerz and Calgary’s Beltline Urban Murals Project (BUMP) Festival which reimagines public spaces and highlights street art. She believes despite Calgarian’s complicated relationship with public art, it can thrive in Calgary.

“It’s evolving and the appetite for public art in Calgary is suddenly very big,” Ramesh said. “There’s a new generation of artists in this city. They’re moving, they’re shaking, they’re doing big things.

“I feel like Calgary could be an incredible public art city, but everyone has to want that.”

In a statement, Sterling said he’s grateful he was able to bring The Guide and Protector to Calgary during a time of social and political change, and that the mural will live on forever.

“Art is powerful and can be the spark that opens a portal to all sorts of dialogue and conversation, much like this mural did,” the statement reads.

“While all public art has the inevitable future of disappearing or evolving through time, I hope this mural allowed people to re-imagine the future of this city and create more opportunities for new voices in Canada.”

Global News reached out to the developer to see if any part of the mural would be visible to the public or if there was a discussion about incorporating it into the building’s design, however they did not respond to our requests.

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