Mixed-media artist Arjun Lal is deep in thought, their expressive brown eyes surveying the Halifax Common as if the perfect word they're searching for will be found in the grass. Sitting beneath a squat tree, they are sharing the story of how their art has evolved.
"I grew up in the Halifax-Dartmouth area and went to NSCAD. A lot of my exposure is from this area, and what I know of other emerging artists is mostly from this area. And then, last year, I went to Berlin for a few months and I had never been in such a queer space before," Lal says.
"It took my breath away. I don't want to say utopia, because that's not real, but it was just incredible: How diverse, how large that audience was and how international it was. I felt like people were not afraid to go to extremes and go pretty out there in terms of queer content."
Lal unpacks being an artist in Berlin versus in Halifax. "I think about my audience and who my audience is and how I can connect with them—and that does sort of dictate how far I can go in terms of what is too explicit, or what is too extreme," they say. "'What's too queer?' is a question I ask myself sometimes. It's not a fun question to have to ask, but it's the reality that I'm in at this moment," Lal continues, after another searching silence.
Exploring that edge of acceptability, the amount of non-heteronormity Halifax is willing to swallow, has led Lal to their most successful work: The LGBTQQIP2SAA+ Flag they designed that towers over the escalators outside the baggage hall of Halifax Stanfield International Airport. An unfurling colour spectrum with a dreamcatcher and a question mark superimposed on top (to represent 2-Spirit and questioning individuals), the flag was a way to reclaim pride imagery from a heteronormative gaze.
"I've been learning more and more about being subversive, and figuring out ways to adapt to the space that I'm in and then have messages within that work to create amounts of space that can sort of shift the mind a little bit," Lal says. "But I've also been noticing that those little amounts of queer content have been becoming bigger and bigger."
This transformation is apparent when looking at Lal's upcoming showcase at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, QUEER WORKS (running August 6-10). Diving headfirst into fetish culture, queer pleasure and various gender identities, Lal says it'll include the piece they are most proud of to date, a tea set called "Pee Party" inspired by an interview they conducted with a urine fetishist.
As for what inspires them to keep creating both for and despite an audience that's not quite ready for them?
"Often, some sort of problem inspires me. I feel this connection between art and a tool for positive change or social change, so when there's something going on that seems problematic, sometimes that inspires me to see if I can bridge something or create awareness or just talk about it visually, maybe in a way that hasn't been done before," Lal offers. "That can open new perspectives and maybe resolve something—that's the dream, to maybe resolve something."