Photo: Alex Tran

There’s an online video I love that describes microaggressions as mosquito bites. Annoying. Itchy. Insignificant. But with one prick after another, things change. Frustrating. Enduring. Overwhelming. I imagine a body covered in those bites. The more bites you have, the harder it is to ignore the itch. The more you scratch, the more you berate yourself. The mosquito metaphor is perfect because of what these bites do; they cause you to make even bigger marks on yourself and to hate yourself for it.

For the CelebrateHer project, I wanted to create some kind of ointment. I collaborated with playwright Erin Lindsay and Imago Theatre’s Artistic Director Micheline Chevrier to create an immersive installation, featuring 12 large-scale portraits of badass women and an accompanying audio play of these women telling their stories. “It’s amazing to see a room full of huge paintings of just women taking up space,” a visitor told me. Our everyday heroines stood there, stoic without a smile, larger-than-life, unapologetic, staring you down, saying, “I belong here. This is my space.” No double standards. No critique of wearing too little or too much. No hypersexualization or comments about looking bitchy or aggressive. No unrealistic wardrobes or feedback about looking sluggish or unpolished. No guy asking you to smile more. No mosquito bites.

When I asked the room full of audience members to write down the hardest question they could think of about what they had just experienced, I got some piercing inquiries. I vowed to spend some time with each question. There were some expected questions about the process. How long did each portrait take? How did I decide on the background? What’s next? Some were honestly curious about why a man might paint a series of feminist portraits. Why do you care? How do we normalize the celebration of women? There were the expected and welcomed skeptical questions about my intention. What was I really trying to do? Did I reinforce what I was trying to combat? Did I succeed in centering the women’s stories rather than my own? I had thought about most of these questions while initially conceptualizing the project.

“Question: While working and making these artworks, are you at the same time healing your personal wounds?” Well, shit.

I’m thinking hard about this question. I’m digging deep. At first, I’m dismissive. The whole point is to celebrate the women, both the specific women and women, in general. Revel in the diverse ways women inspire us every day. Paint them in a respectful light. Hold them up to say, “We see you for everything that you are.” It’s not about me. I’ve pushed and pulled and resisted the ways I might seep into the centre. Celebrate. Her.

But who is doing the celebrating? Yes, me, among others. There is an inextricable part of the artist in the art. Cynics will say that everything we do is about us. Actions build and confirm identities. We all push the world closer to where we think it should be. And I think, like so many others, listening and empathizing has been fuel to my activist fire. I think when we hear stories of injustice, if we can fully empathize, if we internalize the frustrations of others, we feel a phantom mosquito bite.

So why not heal ourselves too?

  • Awarded as the “Artist For Peace 2018” by the Quebec-based artist collective “Les artistes pour la paix,” Aquil Virani is a visual artist who integrates public participation into his socially-conscious art projects. As curator Celine Le Merlus 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 Virani’s work.” Learn more at

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