– Jennie Hurwood
“We are like mosaics of cultural influences, made up of the places we’ve visited and the people we’ve met. There are no straight lines,” says Lisan Chng, mosaic artist and creator of the MosaicJam projects in Rimouski.
The idea behind MosaicJam has been developing gradually over the past four years. In 2010 Lisan, a native of Singapore, worked with a group of Chinese students to create a mosaic for an exhibition. She says that it was during this project that she discovered how much she enjoyed sharing her passion in a practical way.
The following year Lisan approached Accueil et integration B.S.L. (AIBSL) to create a project bringing together members of the immigrant population of Rimouski to create a mosaic that would be displayed at the Rimouski Intercultural Festival. However, the result was far more than just a beautiful mosaic: the project brought people of diverse cultures and languages together to achieve a common vision, “that was what really launched me into MosaicJam,” explains Lisan.
The 2012 project, called “Tree of Life”, brought together 12 immigrant women over a period of 12 weeks for regular workshops and work sessions, at the end of which lasting friendships had formed. The depth of the communication surprised Lisan as in the group there were people who only spoke English, people who only spoke French, people who spoke both English and French and people who were multilingual but whose common language with others in the group was either English or French. “Language was not even an issue,” says Lisan, “we were creating art and when there’s work to be done, people just dive into it.”
Lisan tells of two participants in particular who overcame what might otherwise be seen as a language barrier. During the second collaboration with AIBSL, the “Treasures of the Ocean” project in 2013, an English-speaking participant from Trinidad and Tobago partnered with a newly arrived French-speaker from Gabon. “They spoke little of the other’s language when the project started but they gravitated towards one another, seeing an additional learning opportunity present itself,” Lisan explains. As well as creating a work of art, the sessions became a language exchange and a lasting friendship was formed. “I found it really great that the project brought these young women together. After it finished, they stayed close and it was through the woman from Trinidad and Tobago that the woman from Gabon found a new job in Rimouski.”
The nature of the project, in which each participant created a ceramic cultural symbol to be incorporated into the mosaic, led to the participants discussing their choices and what they meant to them. “Through the creative process, we got to know each other on an intimate level,” explains Lisan. In planning the project Lisan consciously created space for these deeper discussions to occur: “I realised that although these people have a lot of similar experiences, they didn’t have a common meeting place where they could get to know each other. The project created that space.” Each work session began with some time to share thoughts and feelings about the project, leading naturally into discussions of identity as the participants chose how they represented themselves in the mosaic.
This “safe space” for cultural and identity discussions has become a signature element of the MosaicJam process. In Lisan’s most recently completed project, creating pieces for an exhibition for the Chinese New Year, two of the participants had been born in China but adopted by Rimouski families and felt that they knew little about their birth culture. Lisan explains: “Sometimes it is hard to say who you are. For these young women to say: ‘I’m adopted, I’m Chinese and I’m Québécoise’ it was the realisation and freedom to say ‘and’.” Lisan is keen to note, however, that this project was open to anyone interested in Chinese culture and a number of native Rimouskois took part, not only in the creation of the mosaics but also in the discussions of identity: “It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve lived in the same place, or what language you speak, given the opportunity, everyone can question their identity because no one fits into a neat little box.”
The exhibition was opened in February at the Université de Québec à Rimouski (UQAR) and is now on display at UQAR in Lévis until the end of May. Lisan won a bursary for the project, awarded by Culture pour tous under their Cultural Mediation program which promotes the “process of building bridges between the cultural and social realms.” Lisan explains that up to now, all MosaicJam’s projects have been grant-funded and have been in collaboration with a particular partner. So far, for the creation and exposition of the projects she has worked with AIBSL, the Ville de Rimouski, schools, the Association des étudiants et chercheurs chinois (AECC) and the Centre culturel oriental (CCO).
She explains that she is now looking to formalise MosaicJam as a social enterprise that will combine workshops and teaching with community projects, bringing people together through art. As for the name, Lisan explains: “I am an immigrant with a multicultural background so I would like MosaicJam to bring people together from different backgrounds, to be inspired by others in the group and to spontaneously create – like when musicians with different instruments or styles improvise or ‘jam’ together.”
Lisan’s next project will take her out of the Bas-Saint-Laurent and back to her native Singapore for three months as she embarks on her most ambitious mosaic project yet: “Over twelve weeks, 300 people will contribute towards a 120 square foot mural.” The project, called “Project Hope”, is for a hospital and will involve hospital staff, patients, their families, volunteers, students and members of the public. Fifty participants will be what Lisan calls “core participants” who will share their personal stories of hope and will be trained to show drop-in participants the basic techniques. It has taken a year to plan, but for Lisan it was vital to take this time to create the structure that would not only get the work done but once again create the space for discussion and exchange.
An intergenerational and intercultural project is lined up for her return to Rimouski. The project will bring together adopted youth from different countries and partner them with an adult from their country of origin. The idea behind this project is for the youth to learn about the country where they were born from someone who grew up there. The hope is that this will open up discussions around identity and culture while the participants create works of art which will be more meaningful as a result of the conversations.
While MosaicJam projects have particularly worked with the immigrant community, Lisan hopes that the project will grow and she would like the opportunity to bring other groups of people together: “I am definitely interested in creating a project that works to bridge the local English-speaking communities to the wider French-speaking community. I feel that art is the perfect medium for this because it speaks to you without words.”
You can follow the progress of Project Hope and future MosaicJam projects on the new website and Facebook page: