Fatspatrol

Artist: Fatspatrol
Photographer: Electrify

A Conversation Between NIMF Curator Amber Santos and Muralist Fatspatrol

Just after she wrapped up her 2023 wrap mural at Lakeside Park, NIMF Curator Amber Santos joined Fatspatrol for a chat about her early career, her project in Nelson, the boldness of black lines, and everything in between. 

Are you a self-taught artist?

No, first I copied my brother and then I did my degree at the University of Toronto and I specialized in Arts and Culture with a major in Studio Arts. That wasn’t originally the plan; when my mom shipped me across the world for school she said “You have to do something related to business because that’s how you can sustain life in this world.” So I was like “Ok mom, I signed up for arts management, how’s that?” A bit of you, a bit of me, and everyone’s happy. But a year in, I dropped it. I hated it. I switched to humanities and arts.

And this was your first time in Toronto?

Yeah, I was 17.

So your brother went there first, and then you kind of followed?

I didn’t actually mean to end up at the same school as him, but I did. And I loved it! It was a beautiful studio program and it required you to do everything from book-making to installations, video, sculpture, and painting. I did my masters in London, in sociology. Which at the time made no sense, and when it was done it made total sense, because I wrote my dissertation on art in public spaces.

I grew up with a real emphasis on understanding the social relevance of what you do with your life. My grandparents were social workers; my grandmother was a sociologist, my grandfather was a doctor with the WHO for 45 years, and my mom was a teacher. So it was really important to consider impact. And I think that’s why when I started working in galleries I was like “Well, this is just for a very small group of people? And really not accessible or inclusive”.

So when I wrote that dissertation, it was really about understanding how art impacts people.

Were you painting murals already at that time?

A little! But I didn’t have the confidence to be an artist for a very long time. I thought I’d always be an arts administrator or a cultural worker. And I was for a really long time. I really struggled with “Oh, but I’m not a real artist like one of those people”. Especially when I was writing that dissertation and walking around London. There was Banksy, STIK, Herakut, ROA and I was like “Oh my god, these people are amazing, they’re the gods of street art!” It took a long time to get to a point where I had the self-conviction and self-assuredness to go “Oh wait, I’m an artist too”.

Were you developing this style back in those days? Or did that come later?

Always. I’ve always loved black. Since I was a kid, we always had these Indian block-printed bedspreads and tableware. It was always really bold; a lot of black and white. My mom always bought a lot of black and white textiles. When I was like 13, I started copying those patterns onto furniture in my bedroom, on my desk and everything.

Like with a Sharpie?

Yeah! And when I was 14, I started painting my bedroom walls when my mom was asleep. My parents were getting divorced, so luckily I took advantage of a real unstable moment to act out. I even tried to dye my bedroom carpet black. I bought like buckets and buckets of dye and just threw it everywhere! It was disgusting, it stank, and it never really dried. And then one day I just ripped it all out and I was like “Mom I like the concrete, let’s just live like this!” So yeah, I was a problematic teenager.

I was into black at 15, I wore a lot of black clothes and my grandparents would ask me “Why are you wearing so much black?” and I would say “I’m mourning my lost childhood” I was very dramatic. And poetic also!

Laughter

I love that! So this is all while growing up in Dubai?

Yeah. I spent all my summers in India as a kid, so I always had a really strong exposure to Indian culture, and there’s also a massive Indian population in Dubai so we were never really far from home.

I wasn’t trying to be dark with the black. I got a lot of that “Ugh, why are you so dark, why are you so evil? You’re depressed, you’re so goth”. And I just thought it was so strong and badass. When I was younger, my dad wore muscle T’s and worked with tools like a real badass and I just wanted to be rebellious and badass. That’s what black kind of represented—bold. I was lucky that I had a high school teacher who said “Yeah go for it” when I wanted to paint with black. Usually they’d be like, no, you can’t use pure black out of a tube, you have to make it with all these other colours and because “That’s how the Renaissance painters did it.” But I just bought this giant tube of black oil paint and was going to smear it everywhere, and she was like, “Cool, go for it”.

And I loved scale. I think because I was a really shy, really unsure, timid child and I always felt so small in the world, when I started painting really big things it was like “How’d like me now?”

It’s neat, looking back at this year, we had over 900 applicants. With that many, as a curator, you start to see a lot of repetition and a lot of the same stuff. When I was going through applications, anything original and unique would really pop out at me. It’s like “Whew I’ve looked at 500 things and I haven’t seen this yet” So, your style is really unique. Are there certain things in the shapes and lines that you developed over time, or how have you shaped that?

It’s not been a conscious thing, that’s why it’s always been really hard to explain. When I was 14, I discovered Jackson Pollock and was like “Oh, I can make art this way?” Like, not trying to represent an actual thing I’m looking at, just this sort of pure stream of consciousness. And that’s how I draw; when I sit down to draw something it starts with a scribble and it’s a very automatic, kind of pure process. And yeah, black lines. If I try to deconstruct it: writing Arabic calligraphy when I was younger, the way lines flow and connect, mark-making is a really important part of what I studied, and charcoal— I went through a charcoal phase.

So, here we are at Lakeside Park. When I look at your Instagram, this is a slightly different environment than a lot of the recent murals that you’ve done. Talk a little bit about the impact you are making and how the place you are painting shapes your work and process.

It’s interesting, because whenever I’m thinking about what I’m going to paint, I do a lot of research about that place and what the priorities of that community are, and then try to combine that with saying something that I care about. I think that’s a real sweet spot of trying to fulfill your own purposes, maintain your voice, and still speak for a community. And when I was doing the research for this one I was like “Dammit, it’s just a really beautiful place that likes pretty, natural things. How am I going to make a statement here?” And I did battle with that a little bit. I was like “There’s no space for me to say anything”. But I think sometimes that comes out of the process. Out of depicting wildlife and talking about our relationship with the natural world, I really thought a lot this week about what a privilege it is to have clean water and clean air. And to be able to live amongst wildlife and to be able to see the sky. I was also really thinking about the history of human movement and civilization; how we continue to build these relationships in the context of those movements.

But also, sometimes it’s not about me—my feelings and my angst. It’s made people really happy this week. And that in itself has given me such a different sense of purpose. Like the kids. Getting feedback from kids is the best thing ever, because they’ll tell you if they don’t like it. And when they walk by and they are like ‘You are doing a great job!” I’m like “Yes! I’ve made it!” I made the effort to paint things that people would recognize and are relevant to their environment and people have recognized that, which has been awesome. Sometimes we don’t need to go that deep and dark. I talk about darkness a lot in my life (you can ask my partner). Sometimes I wake up and I’m like “I just need you to let me go to the dark place!” So it was nice to be in the light this week, and to live lightly.

There was one day where I came by and you had your sunglasses on and your mask and your hat and you mentioned that the public has been really committed to having a conversation as you were working. Did any interesting conversations come up?

Gosh, there were so many conversations. I love the perseverance of people who will stand there and wait for you to answer a question that you can’t hear (because I was wearing headphones). I love talking to strangers; when I was kid I wanted to be a cab driver because I loved driving and talking to strangers. That’s something I still would like to do one day. There’s so much magic and hope in those interactions. I mean, it can be really sketchy as well but nothing sketchy happened here, which was amazing. But if they are positive, they do really reveal something good about the world and people.

What did you name the sturgeon in the mural?

I named him Spencer, after my friend Spencer, who is actually my partner’s friend, but I’ve kind of taken him for myself. And then my partner turned around and was like “Why, is it because he’s old and prehistoric?” And I said “No, that’s terrible!” But maybe.

Laughter

I haven’t made a lot of friends in Toronto; it’s been hard. So I value the friends I do make. So yeah, Spencer the sturgeon. Or whatever the kids want to call it; that’s fine too.

It’s funny though, I spent all week painting, and somehow it’s only those last three hours painting that sturgeon that really mattered. All the kids got so excited and I’m like “But what about the bear?”

The sturgeon really made it for me as well! We’re really grateful you were able to make it because you are so busy, and you travel a lot. It seems like you were able to have a relatively downtempo painting process here; not balanced off scaffolding or on a boom lift.

Yeah, it was nice to not be wearing a harness; harnesses are heavy. And hot. And uncomfortable! And people hit on you more when you wear a harness.

They fetishize it?

Yeah. Totally.

So anyway, it was nice to be on the ground. It was challenging because it was more distracting. A lot more distracting.

With the lake right there? “Oh, I think it’s swim time again?”

I had so many swims. I had like three swims a day! It turns out that this painting time was actually the breather that I needed. I don’t really rest at home; I work all the time.

What else do you have coming up?

I have a solo show in Toronto coming up in September. I haven’t shown work in a gallery in a really long time. It’s interesting that I kind of return to the gallery, because now in public space, it isn’t always about me and I wanted to make some work that was. It’s a show called The Humans and it opens on September 21, 2023. And then I have a skatepark project in October, which I love. I love working in parks and spaces that people move through and like being in. And then I’m going to go see my mom in Dubai in November, and then I’m going to turn 40!

Do you have any tips or advice for muralists that are emerging or trying to get more murals or trying to do more work in public space?

I always have this really intense feeling, not of regret, but of “Ohhhh I could have been so much further now if I’d started sooner.” Unfortunately, the catalyst that propelled me into taking chances and taking risks in my career was finding myself at a really low point in my life. I’d just come out of an abusive relationship; I hit rock bottom and I got to the point where I was like “I have nothing left to lose, so I’m just going to go for it ” And it’s unfortunate that that’s how humans work sometimes. Doing things with conviction is so important and trying to tap into that conviction in a world that constantly makes you doubt yourself— it’s really hard.

Especially when you are working with black! Skip the pen, grab the Sharpie and draw.

Well it’s forgiving! People are always so worried about murals being like “It’s this massive commitment!”. Well, paint over it! And if you make a mistake, paint over it! It’s literally the most forgiving thing. And that’s cathartic in itself; knowing that there’s something you can keep fixing and changing if you don’t like it.

Especially when you are working with spray paint hey? It dries fast and you can just keep on tweaking it. I’m excited to see what you are going to bring to your show. Is it on canvas or wood?

It’s mostly wood; wood and paper. And it’s everything from little paintings like the size of your palm, to six-foot paintings. I’m trying to write the statement for it right now and it’s quite hard. It’s funny because I painted birds, like solely, for seven years. I’m working on a book right now about that journey of birds over seven years. It was this journey out of that abusive relationship into this place of freedom, and birds as a symbol of that healing process. And then, during lockdown I was sitting in a box for four months by myself (before I met my partner). I was looking out the window at these birds and I was like “I’ve lived as a bird for seven years and now they are out there, and they are free and I’m stuck in here, and I have to come to terms with being human.” That’s where this body of work started.

It’s also partly about being tired of trying to fit into categories, and unfortunately that’s been a really big part of living in Canada and my Canadian experience. People constantly want to know where you are from, why your art looks like it does, and what box you are going to tick on an application. As a third-culture kid, I don’t have simple answers to those questions, and I don’t want to answer those questions. So The Humans was about depicting people in other terms: based on what lines signify, how we are so complex and layered, emotions, resilience, hope, and devastation. One of the paintings I still haven’t finished is called “The Dysfunctional Family Portrait”. So yeah, it’s about the human experience outside the categories we are constantly trying to tick boxes of. Sometimes I’m really tired of being a female artist, a female artist of colour, an immigrant artist, and a Middle Eastern artist. I understand the importance of representation but there’s a time and place for it, and it doesn’t have to be everywhere all the time.

It’s a very interesting time for that; as we are becoming more aware of the impacts of colonization, working with decolonization, and working with reconciliation. It’s so important to look back at the land where you are and honor the First Peoples of that area, but within that, we’ve become very land-based in certain geographical places that we’ve almost put our head down to the land. It’s such an interesting conversation with your work, because it has inspired people to think about Indigenous work from the West Coast and sorted of opened up that conversation of “We’re on a really giant planet with a lot of cultures and a lot of different ways of expression and creativity, and there are overlaps, connections, similarities, and differences” It just kind of opened that up. Of course, NIMF is an international festival; we welcome folks from other places to come and share their art. That was a really interesting conversation that came out of this.

It’s been a conversation since I landed in Canada five years ago, because people do tell me my work looks Aboriginal, Mayan, Indian tribal, or maybe Indigenous. I feel like if there is room for that conversation—which it doesn’t feel like there is at the moment—then finding those similarities in voices, ways of depiction, and expressions around the world in these pre-colonial ancient cultures speaks to something larger, which could be really awesome and beautiful. It’s a challenging conversation because in Canada at the moment it does feel like you are either Indigenous or not, but with such a large immigrant population you have these voices that are also coming from colonial histories, that in some ways share voices and ways of expressing.

Absolutely. Maybe because the moment is so tender, with 215+ and all of the residential schools it feels really… tender at the moment. Like you are saying, I think timing is a really big piece of it.

I’ve had really interesting conversations with Indigenous artists about those similarities and if we take that context out of it, it’s actually really wholesome and fascinating. Someone said to me, “You’re from India, which is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, so imagine how much of what we experience in the world is influenced by Indian culture”.

I’m excited for the population here in Nelson; I’m excited for there to be more art here, for everyone that’s here.

It’s funny because when I first coined the name “Fatspatrol”, the intention was to remove any possibility of knowing where I’m from. My real name is super religious and tells you pretty much what part of the world I’m from, what religion my parents are and what gender I am. Fatspatrol was for ambiguity but with time, I’ve come to learn how important representation is. I’m not necessarily trying to hide those things about myself; I’m just trying to take away your opportunity to see them before you see the art. The patrol part of the name comes from a car, so it’s really not that deep.

I’m glad you brought that up! I’ve been wondering about your artist name and forgot to ask that question.

My friends always call me Fats, because Fathima is really hard to say sometimes to people. And then patrol; I used to drive a car called a Nissan Patrol when I lived in Dubai and it was literally like my “fatmobile”. It was a really important character in my life at the time. I was in this really awful relationship and I used to get locked out of my house. It was my safe place; my place I ran to and the place that eventually got me out of that relationship. I was very sad when I sold it.

Someone else’s safe place now?

Yeah, I hope so. It’s also a beast in the desert. If you grow up in Dubai and you talk to kids about Nissan Patrols they’re like “Oh yeah; we know”. It’s a little shout to where I grew up.

You can find “It’s a Privilege” in Lakeside Park, on the changeroom building. 

Interviewer: Amber Santos – 2023

Editor: Ingrid Love

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