Out of the dire need to fill a cultural vacuum was born an event that would go on to be one of the biggest South Asian festivals in the GTA. When Asma Arshad Mahmood, a professional artist from Pakistan arrived with her family in Canada in 1999, for any cultural event, her growing children had to go to downtown Toronto. Considering they were planning to live in the suburb of Mississauga for the rest of their lives, this wasn’t an encouraging scenario. To address this, Mahmood and her husband started Mosaic, a free festival, celebrating the very best of South Asian culture. Generation Next recently had the opportunity to speak to Mahmood, who had been the Executive Director of Mosaic for several years and is also the founder of Canadian Community Arts Initiative (CCAI).
Given that South Asians forms a major chunk of Mississauga’s demography, it wasn’t too tough for Mosaic to become a torchbearer of the community’s cultural heritage. Over the years, some well-known names have added to the festival’s stature. Last year, the show gained an even more elevated status, as legendary Sufi singer, Sain Zahoor came all the way from Pakistan to perform. This year will be no different, assures Mahmood. “The line-up for this year is another blazing talent and extremely very well-known and sought after artist and it would be the first time that we can have him for a free concert in Mosaic festival,” she says.
Through the years, Mosaic has accomplished a lot, over and above giving representation to South Asian talents. One of these has been to engender volunteer participation in the community. More importantly, Mosaic has been instrumental in the development of the Celebration Square facility in Mississauga. As Mahmood explains, “Mosiac festival was the first event of its kind that took place and used this space. Then the city realized the potential of this place. The place had been there for 15 years, the city did not realize the potential of the place until Mosaic festival came along and used the amphitheatre which was never used before. We were in a way pioneers in using in that particular space and contributed to the project. We took initiatives to develop the facility which has now called Celebration Square and has got funding from the Ministry of industries and the City of Mississauga.”
Another major achievement of the festival is the creation of associated projects around Mosaic. Even while Mosaic is on, another festival takes place on the same days, at the same location, but at a different spot. Called Rock the Coliseum, which became the GTA’s largest free Independent music festival in 2008? This was started with a view to give some space to the musical interests of young people, including second-generation South Asian youth, such as Mahmood’s own children. Rock the Coliseum also has a strong visual arts component called the Underground Art sale.
CCAI has been also doing some novel as well as focused work in the field of visual arts. For example, “A Mississauga transit bus was donated to us. We got it converted into South Asian style of bus and painted by three South Asian artists, with an exhibition of truck art inside it,” says Mahmood.
Mosaic is primarily funded by sponsorships and grants. Over the years, the founder of the festival, Arshad Mahmood himself has raised over a million dollars, informs Mahmood. She feels festivals such as Mosaic are the only way to ensure Canada becomes a pluralistic society. And true to its name, the festival has been a common ground for different South Asian sub-communities to come and celebrate their sameness and differences.
Speaking on films, another dimension of Mosaic, Mahmood says, “We have a Mosaic film festival where we show cutting edge films. However, on the outdoor, on the main screen, we screen light Bollywood films that would capture everyone’s attention so that everybody relates to it.” The idea is to draw and involve as many community members as possible, which naturally entails a lot of planning. “We try to introduce new artists, but we bring in those artists that have can be enjoyed by a broad cross section of society instead of concentrating on only young, or only old people. We try to being all inclusive,” says Mahmood.
Personally, this dynamic cultural leader has always been drawn to visual arts. Prevented by epilepsy to attend formal art training in Pakistan, Mahmood overcame the obstacle by taking private classes from noted Pakistani artist, Mansoor Rahi. Soon, marriage took her to Latin America, and she held her first show in Columbia. She returned to Pakistan, where her first show opened to wide acclaim in 1994, only to be followed by several more exhibitions in her home country. Upon arriving in Canada in 1999, she received an art-residency opportunity at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO); Mahmood remains the only Pakistani artist to have a show at AGO. She has gone on to represent Canada internationally in a number of art festivals. She has her own business for promoting art-related events and is working towards bringing arts enthusiasts to cities such as Mississauga and Brampton.
As a South Asian who has found her niche in Canada, Mahmood maintains there’s a “glass ceiling” that an immigrant artist must break in order to function as a mainstream artist here. At the same time, she is appreciative of the overall support for art and culture in this country. She feels quite encouraged by what she calls a “fantastic revival of visual arts that is going on. People are realizing that there is a lot that cannot be said through any other way. In Pakistan, is a lot of patronage for fine arts has come up, which is one good thing to see,” says Mahmood.
At the core, Asma Arshad Mahmood is an art activist. That probably explains her journey—both personal and public. From overcoming her own health issues to creating a cultural space for the vibrant South Asian community in her new country, Mahmood has used art as a tool for constructive purposes. “Activism in art is not only important but necessary if you want art available to everybody, if you want to make art as part of the life of people, then it has to have some strong message, strong feelings associated with it. I believe that my art is extremely vocal,” she says. And it is this drive to take initiative that enables Mahmood the artist and Mahmood the cultural activist to traverse different worlds with the same ease.