Aquil Virani, Artist, Painter, Filmmaker, Graphic Design, and Installation
1) What is your profession and what are the specific dimensions of your work?
I’m a visual artist and graphic designer. I make a living as a graphic artist and communications professional, paying rent in Tkaronto (Toronto), scraping, and clawing for time to make personally fulfilling art projects. My art projects often involve community art-making processes where I ask the public to reflect and participate in some way, often centred around important questions related to understanding each other, building empathy, and the way my communit(ies) are represented.
2) How did you come to this type of career?
Since childhood, I’ve always wanted to spend time making art. I picked fulfillment, knowing of the financial precarity that might accompany a “passion career”. I tell many curious parents and young artists that I mentor that “following your motivation” can be a strategic consideration when choosing careers; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And it can be exhausting to wrestle with your motivation in a career you don’t love. Because I knew this at a fairly young age, I got an academic bachelor’s degree and worked at a large cosmetics company out of university to build a savings cushion for the many rainy days of an artist’s career. I love communicating important ideas and the diverse demands requested of artists today.
Portrait of Bochra Manai for CelebrateHer Project
3) Tell us something about your process of study and formal and/or informal education and the nature of your degrees and/or training. When, where, and how did you become educated and qualified to do what you do?
I’m a “self-taught” artist, though I consider myself more of a colourful mosaic of the wonderful people I have met in my life and from whom I have learned. I loved art class in high school and knew it would be a lifelong passion. I completed a BA at McGill University in Philosophy and Marketing with the intention of building a Plan B of applicable skills to supplement my art career. (My undergraduate degree included courses taught by Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson.) My first graphic design clients were student groups and initiatives. I also put on my own art shows during my undergrad, promoting them as the “first solo art shows” in McGill’s (student) history. My artistic skills – painting, graphic design, filmmaking – resulted from an “autodidact” approach. My lived experience qualifies me to make my work. I try to hold a balanced appreciation of learning from others (most of whom are smarter than I am) with a healthy skepticism for the elitism and disconnection that often emerges in educational institutions. I try to keep a “student” mindset alive as I get a bit older. I try to listen.
4) What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome to achieve the success that you now experience? What challenges have your experienced and how have you overcome them? What goals do you have left to accomplish?
I’m an artist living in a family and various communit(ies) that don’t always value the contribution of artists to society. The ethics of “seva” (or “service”) gnaw at my conscience daily. I ask myself “Am I doing enough?” and “Would I be of better service as a health professional or a high school teacher?” There’s a certain pressure, both explicit and unspoken, to build on the sacrifices of my immigrant parents; anything less than a doctor, lawyer or engineer can seem like failure if you don’t wipe off your glasses or change your lens.
The greatest challenge to many artists (me included) is the financial precarity and lack of safety net that comes with a creative career. As an artist, I’ve found it challenging to navigate my career without an “art school network” or a clear roadmap. I’ve been called an “outsider artist” (by those who think of themselves as being “on the inside”) even if I don’t feel that way personally. It’s a blessing-and-a-curse to define “success” for myself.
Aquil Virani speaking at an NCCM event in 2019
5) Did you have any role models or mentors either in your domains of entrepreneurship, work, research, and creation or outside of them? Who were they and how were they instrumental in shaping you as a person and as a professional?
Like many, I cobbled together a team of inspirations throughout my childhood. I looked to the aunties and uncles at mosque for their daily discipline and their sense of seva (or “service”). I looked up to hockey players, mostly from the Vancouver Canucks, for their sense of determined and strategic hard work and stoicism. I appreciated artists that could make work that engaged various audiences on multiple levels and contributed to social change movements – artists like Kent Monkman, Syrus Marcus Ware, and Patsy Van Roost. For my 30th birthday a few years ago, I wrote thirty letters of gratitude to people I felt I hadn’t thanked enough. The Doc Project from CBC produced a radio documentary about the project titled “Thirty.”
30 Letter Project
6) What does your daily work routine look like? Where is your place of business/production and how do you stay focused and productive?
I work from home in a one-bedroom apartment where I live with my partner. I use a lot of handwritten lists, often adding time estimates next to each task (“5” or “30” minutes, for example). I often have columns of tasks categorized as “revenue (generating),” “personal projects,” and “errands.” I like to see everything at one glance, so I write in a condensed way on these to-do lists. I often ask myself, “What do I absolutely need to get done today?”
7) What are your guiding principles? What informs how you do your work and how you engage with your co-workers, clients, customers, or consumers?
I think “how you do anything is how you do everything.” So, every project or task is an opportunity to “do the right thing” and live your life as you envision it. That means lifting others up as opportunities come to you. That means paying people and supporting them as much as you can, even if your own livelihood is precarious. That means being a good human and seeing the humanity in others. I try to pick artistic projects that have an impact. I want to see how they might contribute to a broader movement.
50 Years of Migration exhibition at Aga Khan Museum
8) What are you working on now and when and how will it be shared?
I have lots of art projects on the go, big and small. In collaboration with the Aga Khan Council for Canada, I developed a community storytelling exhibition with my Ismaili Muslim community in Canada titled “50 Years of Migration” that is currently touring in community spaces across the country. I’m also working on several series of artwork related to my identity, whether a collection of narrative paintings in suitcases that implicate communities of colour in the colonial narrative or a series of portraits of Muslim Canadian writers depicted amongst their own creative words. I’m plugging away at a book idea, titled “Book of Seeds,” where I share project ideas and explore the economy of art-making for working people and “the rest of us.”
9) What are you proudest of in your career?
I am delighted and relieved when I can identify or create opportunities that align my artistic impulses with initiatives or causes that clearly serve the community. I wrestle often with the seeming self-indulgence of art-making in the face of pressing societal injustices. When those two desires – to create, and to serve – align, I am very happy.
There are specific projects or accomplishments that I’m proud of – projects like CelebrateHer or commemorative portraits of victims of the Quebec City Mosque Attack – but I’m proudest of simply starting. Fans and friends often remind me of the courage it takes to follow a creative career instead of the security and comfort of a salaried job. Some folks never “take the plunge” and so, in a way, my biggest achievement has been giving it a try.
Collaborative artworks presented during artist residency at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia
10) What are you proudest of in your life?
I’m proud of choosing a career – despite financial sacrifice and comfort – that has brought me fulfillment. I’m proud of making humble contributions to organizations, collectives, and causes that I care about. I’m probably proudest of finding ways, throughout my life, to see and nourish the creative spirit of people I meet.
11) What fiction or non-fiction book should be essential reading? (provide full citation and weblink)
This is a hard question – it feels impossible. One blog post I often refer friends to is “The Tail End” at Wait But Why (2015). If I had to recommend a printed publication, I might say Living Hyphen magazine, a community of storytellers, poets, and creatives that explore the experiences of hyphenated Canadians.
Film Still from collaborative film, “Our World is made of the stories we tell ourselves,” presented at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia
12) What TV show or film should be essential viewing? (provide full citation and weblink)
There are so many films and shows to suggest. I’m also conscious of recommending “cultural products” behind paywalls. I might suggest “The Story of Stuff” available free on YouTube by The Story of Stuff Project (2007). From the project’s official website: “The Story of Stuff, originally released in December 2007, is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world.”
13) How do you relax and take care of yourself?
I used to go for outdoor walks frequently. I find joy in simple leisure time, relaxing after dinner or chatting with friends. As a freelancer my work can creep into all hours of my day, so I try to keep somewhat regular working hours. I treasure simple delights. For example, I have this tiny hand-sanitizer spray bottle that I got for free from a spa once – scented with lavender – that I use sparingly as a little treat.
Portrait of Rachel Zellars for CelebrateHer Project
14) What’s next?
I am finding a patient rhythm as I enter the “mid-career” chapter of my art-making. I am trying to be a good partner and a good friend. I am reminding myself that self-imposed pressure is silly and the small wins along the way are important. Maybe what’s next is a new connection? Say hello at aquil.ca or email@example.com
Awarded as the “Artist For Peace” by the Quebec-based artist collective “Les artistes pour la paix,” Aquil Virani’s collaborative art projects combine painting, drawing, filmmaking, writing, graphic design, installation, and participatory art processes. Last year, he served as the first ever national artist-in-residence at the Canadian Museum of Immigration. It is Virani’s culturally diverse upbringing that informs his focus on social issues. He was born in Vancouver to two immigrant parents. His Catholic mother was an early childhood educator from northern France and his Ismaili Muslim father was a chartered accountant of Indian descent, originally born in Tanzania. As curator Celine Le Merlus of the Stewart Hall Art Gallery explains, “his approach, which aims not simply to assert a personal point of view on a pressing social issue, but also to facilitate opportunities for others to express themselves freely – to speak and be heard – is characteristic of all of Aquil’s work.” Virani’s work has been supported financially by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council, and the City of Ottawa, in addition to the Silk Road Institute, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, the International Centre of Art for Social Change, TakingITGlobal, and the Government of Canada among many others.