Never Was Average

Never Was Average founders Hanna Che and Harry Julmice. Photo by Schaël Marcéus

Never Was Average and the art of change

We spoke to the founders of the organization that curated Montreal’s Black Lives Matter street mural.

When a Black Lives Matter street mural (La vie des noir.e.s compte) was painted on Ste-Catherine E. in mid-July, a lot of people heard about the local organization behind it — Never Was Average — for the first time. I am one of those people. Co-founded as a retail boutique in 2013 by Montreal-born entrepreneurs Hanna Che and Harry Julmice, the NWA mandate was soon reimagined and the duo shifted their energy towards other creative outlets and socio-political causes. 

“We came to the realization that our community needed some representation,” Julmice said. “What we wanted to do is to build a platform, an organization that would help empower the community and strive for social change. Since we’ve always been into creativity, we thought that art would be a great way to create these different projects, to raise awareness and get the public involved and develop a relationship with the community. What we mostly do is design and curate conversations, art exhibitions and other events. We try to produce as much content as possible to uplift our community.”

Along with offering personal development workshops for youth, showcasing LGBTQ2 artists of colour with the Amour Is Love series and hosting a range of art and community events, Never Was Average curated a huge interactive space for the Museum of Fine Arts’ Picasso exhibition in 2018, and has been co-hosting a series of panels with the MMFA (which will continue on Sept. 12). But their most high-profile project to date has been the Black Lives Matter street mural, which was the brainchild of Carla Beauvais, executive director of the Black excellence foundation and awards event Fondation/Gala Dynastie.

“We’d been working with Carla for about six months, and following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, after seeing all the different cities and the states doing street murals, it was important to Carla to make sure that Montreal was part of the conversation as well. She basically approached us because we’re part of the art world and we have strong ties with local artists within the community, so it only made sense that she involved us. We were responsible for curating and producing the whole project.”

Never Was Average
Black Lives Matter / La vie des noir.e.s compte street mural curated by Never Was Average, conceived by Carla Beauvais. Photo by @safesolvent

The artists who participated in the mural are Marc-Alain Félix, Lana Denina, TEEN ADULT, Niti Marcelle Mueth, Michaëlle Sergile & Yarijey design, D. Mathieu Cassendo, Kando, MALICIOUZ, SIMO, AXL, G L O W Z I, MÏNS (Made in Shaïna), Eelise Ndri, Anastasia Erickson / aeri, Franco E., Awa Banmana and Marie-Denise Douyon.

“The project wasn’t initiated by the city,” says Julmice, clarifying a misconception around the origin of the project that arose due to the city of Montreal’s endorsement of the street mural — Mayor Valérie Plante was photographed visiting the site and posing with some of the artists. “Of course you need a permit and for that you have to go through the city. The city approved the project and they wanted to be involved so they decided to finance part of the project.”

As for the artistic direction, he explains that Never Was Average was pretty hands-off, giving the artists carte blanche for their respective sections (letters) of the mural.

“We gave the artists some guidelines. Nipsey K came up with a design, the layout, the canvas and then it was up to each artist to come in and do their thing and share their message and come up with their own artwork. Some of them had an idea before (they arrived), but once you get on the site that’s when you really know what you want to do. For most of them, it was really on the spot.”

When asked about the issues at the core of the Black Lives Matter movement — particularly at the local level, and in light of the report on systemic racism in Montreal that was released in mid-June — Julmice says that addressing these political and societal issues and achieving equality is at the core of what Never Was Average is about. There’s a lot of work to be done, not just as a community, but as a society.

“First of all, we should really address the issue firsthand,” he says. “It’s a systemic issue. We need to revisit some of the practices that are toxic, from the bottom all the way to the top. It’s not just in one particular space or area, it’s in every area in our society, whether it’s housing, education, especially the workplace. We need to make sure that everybody has the same opportunity and everybody’s playing on an even field. It’s been four or five years since (Never Was Average has) been actively having this conversation, but this has been an ongoing issue since the beginning of an age. This is a time when people really need to understand that it needs to stop today, and actions need to be taken today.”

Hanna Che and Harry Julmice of Never Was Average pre-pandemic

Having worked in various artistic milieus in the city, Julmice has experienced his share of racism in Montreal’s art scene.

“Of course, every black person has experienced a situation where they were taken advantage of. We get our ideas and our work stolen all the time. It’s gotten to a point where we need to make sure that we sign NDA’s and protect ourselves legally. It’s not an easy space to navigate. There’s a lot of cultural appropriation that’s happening every single day. We don’t get the credits that we deserve, we don’t get paid for the work that we actually put in. I get requests all the time asking me to do this, do that, without even offering compensation and I know for a fact I’m not the only one dealing with this.”

Prior to the mural project, Never Was Average participated in some of the Black Lives Matter marches and rallies that happened in Montreal, a (distanced) meeting point for the Black and Indigenous community and their allies after months of lockdown. But as an organization, they had remained as active as possible throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Like every company, every organization, we took a huge hit,” Julmice says. “About 80 per cent of what we do, we do it in person, so since we weren’t able to be together physically, thanks to the internet we transitioned everything virtually. We’re still hosting conversations on a biweekly basis, we’re still in touch with our community on the day to day to support them through this hardship. We thought that it was really important to continue doing the work and providing spaces for people, especially at a time when we weren’t allowed to go outside and see family members and friends. The only way to get a human connection was through a Zoom call, so it was important to provide that for our community.

“Everything that we do, we always make sure to do it on a positive note,” he adds. “That’s our approach to everything.” ■

For more about Never Was Average, please visit their website.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit our Arts section.