Salomée Souag on Art for Revolution, Collaborating with her City and Elevating Black Voices

Salomée Souag (@chromae.s) — or Chroma, as her artist name goes — uses her practice to share crucial messages on social, environmental and racial justice. Pertinent, poignant and vital, Salomée’s large-scale wheat pasted murals have been lining Portland’s streets with urgency; aiming to connect and lift the voices of BIPOC communities and to promote radical change… We spoke with the artist to learn more about her recent projects, using street art to evoke energy, empathy and change, and beyond.

Firstly, can you introduce yourself in your own words and tell us a bit about your work/aesthetics/aims and ethos? How did you get to where you are today?

My name is Salomée, pronounced Sal-o-may, and my artist name is Chroma. My roots are Peruvian and Algerian. My first language is French. My home country is Switzerland. I’m a multi-layered woman, an immigrant, an artist, a fighter, a survivor, and I am here to take up space. I am a designer, artist, muralist and whatever else I want to be. I don’t want to identify with only one title, that is thinking too small. I want to work on everything as a creative and use my perspective on all mediums. 

I started in design and worked in many creative studios but it never felt quite right; I realised I could not have a desk job and work a 9-5. Advertising goes against a lot of what I stand for, it’s part of the same corrupt system we need to dismantle. As an immigrant and woman of colour it’s hard to take that leap of faith and believe in your dream, to believe in yourself. I carry the suffering of my ancestors and proudly realise the dreams they could never achieve… But I chose my passion over a stable and put together future. I chose to do what I love and this is only the beginning. 

Now, I work on community murals to connect with the BIPOC youth and show them that their voices are worthy and essential. I also focus on art for the revolution, I put my heart and soul into everything I touch — they all matter equally, they all have one thing in common; to take up space unapologetically through the lens of social justice, racial justice, environmental justice. 

Can you give an overview of the process of creating your Portland Black Lives Matter mural?

After the death of George Floyd, a lot of windows were broken at pioneer square in the centre of Portland due to the protests. We had many boarded up windows and artists saw this as an opportunity to tell a story. I think its beautiful… we created magic from the damage. A lot of street artists started to add pieces and I noticed that there were almost no woman artists there. So, I decided to grab whatever paint I had left over and add my piece to this living and breathing vigil. It wasn’t legal but no one messed with me when I was painting. A lot of people brought their kids to show them visually what was happening in the world right now; to educate them. So many people walked that street when I was painting down there, I took the energy of the people with me in every brush stroke… This space became a way for people to educate each other, morn the lives lost, celebrate and honour the lives lost to police brutality or white supremacy. It was a safe space to see revolutionary art. 

What role can design play in social and political change/movements in your opinion? And what do you think/hope it may be able to do in future?

I create to evoke any feeling, it can be a bad reaction or a good reaction. All I want is some type of reaction. Our world is so numb to pain, numb to feelings. That’s when we start to lose our humanity. My job as a creative is to make people feel empathy, to see themselves in the story I am telling through messaging, photography and bold design elements. I do hope to always inspire; inspire others to create more, to wake people out of their comfort zone and remind them it’s on us to do the work… inspire to change our normal. I want to elevate Black voices and experiences in a way that honours these stories, these everyday heroes… But I also want to make people who are staying silent understand that they are the problem but also the solution. We all need each other now more than ever.

You commented on your Instagram post for the mural, ‘The city is a canvas, it’s an exhibition of its own. No need for galleries, this is the future’ — how did you begin working with wheat pasting in cities + what led you there? What do you feel is beneficial about working like this?

I started for many reasons. I started when they started to call us anarchists for using graffiti to express ourselves. I wanted to show that street art can be beautiful and should be respected. I think even a small tag and messaging that takes two seconds is as worthy as a mural that takes a week. I also aim to uplift marginalised voices and elevate their stories, while at the same time making it impossible for anyone to move on and go back to normal. This is a revolution and not just a moment. 

As someone who wasn’t able to go to many art galleries and shows, I think free public art is crucial and is the future for younger generations. The art also interacts with its surroundings and you have to learn to detach yourself and let it take on its own narrative — even if people rip it apart of write over it, the world needs to see that and the way the city interacts with it, the way people respond. It’s a protest of its own. 

For the murals, you seem to mainly use bold sans fonts. Can you tell us a bit about the type selections/treatments?

Art for the revolution needs to be unapologetic and bold, it needs to scream in your face but also be informative and focus on making sure people take this message with them and want to share it to educate. I also like to play with very formal fonts to break the boundaries of what you would assume street art to be, to show it can be effective, impactful, and change perspectives. I also want to show diversity, when you talk about a revolution you have to bring in all the perspectives and types of oppression, you have to bring in different identities and personalities, that should be shown in the typography. 

How has working collaboratively impacted the way you work? I liked your comment that street art becomes a collaboration with city… can you expand on this a bit? Do you expect your work might be altered or taken down? How does working with these limitations affect the way you work?

Wheat pasting is not legal, when you’re out there working on these projects overnight you learn very much about the city; how it breathes, how it interacts with your energy. Protest art is very different than anything I have done before, it’s very unexpected and chaotic. There is a lot of energy around at the protests, you have to work with the people around you and what feels right at the time. You have to learn on the go and the experience is different every time. You have to move quickly with wheat pasting and spray painting, it’s not the same as a commissioned mural, but they are equally important. When I am working on pieces that come to life on the spot, such as posters or signs, you can see people interact with your pieces right in front of you and each interaction is so unique. This is my oxygen now, creating art for the revolution, art for change. This type of design has the ability to make a protester feel worthy, feel like they are heard. It brings power to the people. Power to the creatives, power to the youth, power to women, power to the LGBTQ+ community, to all people on the right side of history. 

Wheat pasting large-scale murals means you’re starting with separate pieces of paper to then assemble. What does this process of assembling work look like for you and how do you go about composing murals?

I mainly work with whatever I have available,  I like working with limitations… it pushes you to challenge yourself. I just print 11×17 sheets of paper and put them together on the spot, this is the part of my life that can be chaotic and messy because street art is and I dont want to change that process. You have to find locations where there is a lot of foot traffic so the more people are able to see the installation. After you have the location and the piece ready, you build a team and go crazy. 

What do you look to for inspiration?

For me, inspiration is literally everywhere. But for these projects specifically, inspiration came from within the stories of black, brown and Indigenous people and their stories. I believe art has the ability to change the world and we shouldn’t undermine street artists and their visions. Art and design are able to change perspectives, even if it is one wall at a time or one poster at a time — one message at a time. With street art we are able to work with empathy, make people feel something and this can be good or bad. To evoke a reaction is all thats needed — to provoke. We can make others question their actions or thoughts, we can make them see they are the problem but also the solution. Expression is a weapon for change, we the creatives can fight all that is of hatred in the world. The system want us to be oppressed and complacent, to not question everything. With art we are able to fight against that by bringing all perspectives to the surface, we create culture, we are the culture. And we create a culture that pushes for equality, justice, love, and liberation for black and brown people. 

Thank you, Salomée, it’s been such a pleasure… To see more from Salomée/Chroma, follow her on Instagram. And, to support Salomée’s vital work, you can find her Patreon here. Lastly, when we asked if there was anything else she’d like to add, the artist shared these words… 

We’ve been told to stay silent

To blend in 

To sit down and listen

To not take up too much space

Play a role 

Our time is now, 

Time to be loud, 

Bold

Unapologetic about taking up space. 

We are here to reclaim what’s ours. 

This city needs us more than ever before. 

Our voice, our vision has power. 

It holds the power of a thousand ancestors and warriors. 

This is art for the revolution, art for change. It brings power to the people. Power to the creatives, power to the youth. 

It is more than a mural or a painting, each space is a deep story, a struggle, a history, a celebration, a fight. 

This is our fight for justice, for equality, for black and brown liberation 

Growing up, we didn’t see us as the people who inspired. 

Erase racist views. 

War in itself, telling our stories. 

We have to make our own narrative.

We have to be the inspiration, the pioneers, and creators. 

Change culture. 

This is an expression against oppression. 

We have so many more stories to tell,

We are the future. 

We are the hope. 

We are the culture.

This is the real Portland.

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