A photo of Melanee Murray-Hunt
Melanee Murray-Hunt | Photo: Greg Gerla

Melanee Murray-Hunt

Month of the Artist celebrates the valuable contributions artists make to Alberta

Melanee Murray-Hunt

Melanee Murray-Hunt is an actor, writer, filmmaker, and producer. Onscreen credits include appearances on the APTN show Tribal, and the feature film Jasmine Road. She directed and wrote the show for UNGANISHA at the Grand Theatre as well as the Our Canada, Our Story play along with youth creators.

A film she directed, The Trial of Miss Mudimbe, has had various nominations including best film among others. Her film Race Anonymous has won awards for best drama and best produced screenplay. Her most recent script, The Invincible Trayvon Martin, was shortlisted for the CINefam nominations for Telefilm’s Talent To Watch and was shortlisted for the From Our Dark Side genre competition.

Learn more at melaneemurrayhunt.weebly.com.

How do you describe yourself as an artist?

Playful, imaginative, politicized, and quirky with stabs at fearlessness. Politically quirky? Quirkily poltiicized. Eclectic.

I think that I see the elevated, transcendent, comedic, and poignant side of things that people tend to:

  1. Treat with undue reverence, or;
  2. Ignore altogether.

I see the humor, magic and transcendence in painful things without being oblivious to the pain.

I learned early on that people who are dealing with a lot of stuff are still people, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying their way through things that I think a lot of folks would think required heroism or perfection. I also see a lot of the magic in life. The weirdness of life, the odd coincidences and synchronicities—and I embrace all of that in my work.

When I was working on the Our Canada, Our Story project, it occurred to me that young people, teenagers live in a different place. Kids that age are still raw, still too young to have that compassion for the multiplicity of histories that make adults reconcile themselves with this fractured reality. So, I created a place in the show called The Land Where People Tell The Truth. It’s a place where the teens in the story go that their parents just cannot get to. Maybe like Narnia without the lion and with Black, Indigenous, and Asian kids (I wished that Narnia had been like that).

Thus, I do not think that magical things or places are fantasies or escapism, but rather a way to confront the truth, and that extraordinary circumstances and events can actually be more truthful and scathingly honest than the numbed out reality we ascribe to “everyday life.” However, I do not think magic or hyper-reality as I like to call it can exist truthfully without confronting the harshness of real life.

In my film Race Anonymous, about a racist construction worker’s reckoning with his own racism, I crafted his dialogue from racially oblivious (and painful) things I heard people actually say. As well as behaviors they actually performed. I also do not write necessarily to the dominant culture. I think BIPOC folks, and Black folks in particular, need some forms of “grounded escapism.” I guess I am eclectic because I like to take the dangerous, tormenting events—like the things that have culminated in the Black Lives Matter movement, and give them an extra dimension of what people call “fantasy” or speculative fiction.

Honestly, as a Black person, I need that. I need escapism with a twist. I think Western culture has reinforced itself with myths, stories, and movies that literally are like a collective pat on the back. I think for me, it’s a matter of survival and transcendence to take current events and give them a hyper real, speculative fiction, Afro-futurist twist. I don’t want to forget reality, but helping me seeing in a new light provides perspective, distance, and the excitement of the magical “what if.”

What does living a creative life mean to you?

Living a creative life means remembering who I am beyond the conventions and context of whatever physical, geographical place in which my corporal body exists in the moment. Right now, my body lives in Calgary, Alberta. But my being has been in many places. Not just physically but mentally and spiritually. I have never limited myself to people who are like me, at least externally. I try with people who are different from me.

It’s easy, for me and everyone else, to self isolate with people who are similar, especially superficially. But I think that superficials obliviate what is exciting about people internally.

I also spent a lot of time reading and that reading has led me to different places geographically, into different social groups and paradigms. My gratitude for those experiences is exponential.

I also think living a creative life is bringing the world to where I am and not necessarily trying to keep up with the world as it is. The world will tell you that this is what happiness is, this is what peace is, this is what goodness is. “This” is usually conforming to some principle concerning itself with materialism and conformity. I also think living a creative life means trusting myself, even when everything and everyone around tells me to trust them or whatever system people think is working on their behalf.

I also think, really, it’s having as much fun as possible. By fun, I don’t necessarily mean recreation. I mean seeing the story and plot twist in things people try to numb out on. Everyday has a weird and fascinating aspect for me. I mean, think about it. We’re alive on this planet, in this time, at this point in history. It’s a very wild, intense, and unique moment.

What do you love about Calgary and what is one place you go to find inspiration in Calgary?

We just moved on the other side of the river, and I love it. We used to live in Kensington/Hillhurst, and I used to think that being a few feet from every coffee shop imaginable was the only way to feel alive! However, I love many things about where I live now in Mt. Pleasant. Most of that has to do with architecture and geography. And it really isn’t that far from where I lived before, so go figure.

I walked down to McHugh Bluff and the vision there is simply spectacular. I used to huff and puff up those stairs at the curling club trying to get fit when I lived in Kensington/Hillhurst, but I never hung out at the top of the stairs and saw how beautiful the view was. Yesterday, I walked from there to Chinatown and then back up Centre Street, and Northwest Calgary and I was struck with two things:

  1. The absolute breathtaking beauty of the city from that height, and;
  2. How Calgary seemed so much more diverse than it ever has.

And I love eclectic places, diversity, new experiences and people.

I also love my new neighborhood. All of the houses look like something out of a story book. On any given day you can hear me squealing about the absolute adorableness of every street I turned on. I am a little obsessed with the correct use and aesthetics of small spaces so I really like how people have kept the charm and intimacy of the small homes while updating them and making them livable and functional. I realized something about myself—I value the illusion of spaciousness much more than a lot of misused space. It’s been a nice change.

But… the biggest thing I love about Calgary are the activists/artists with whom I am working right now. They are a diverse group of people who work tirelessly to create change and have done so in what has seemed, at times, like an emotional/social desert. They have stuck it out here through resistance and retaliation and have made Calgary a lot more fun and engaging.

These folks really inspire me.

If you could do one thing this year to make Calgary a better place to live, what would it be?

Hmm… I think I would make a series of movies that became mega sellers about Calgary’s marginalized communities. As I mentioned, Calgary is a powerfully dynamic, eclectic diverse place. Somehow this gets lost in our portrayal to ourselves. I think it’s been this taboo to mention that I am American born and raised. But every place in America and Europe and Canada that I have found interesting was an amalgam of people born both in that place and somewhere else.

I think the play Angels in America illuminated beautifully how human nomadism is this powerful, interesting phenomenon. For some reason, people are attached to a fantasy of stagnation in Calgary. Maybe it’s the implacable steadfastness of the mountains. But those mountains surround migration, change, adaptation.

We Homo sapiens are actually always on the move. Movement is what causes us to create, invent, inspire, and transform. Calgary is interesting to me because of its eclecticism and its odd juxtapositions. I remember coming into the YYC airport and seeing these older cowboys with 10-gallon hats standing a row apart from women in beautiful colored hijab. Some Calgarians seem to find this odious, but I think it’s beautiful and rare and unique and compelling. I am a “novelty” junkie. I took some sort of silly online test about personalities (which I thoroughly believed and bought into a hundred percent) and it rated me as the kind of person who liked those image games where you look at thousand different things altogether and try to make sense of it. I love how differences come together and create this whole- this earth, this experience we are having as human beings.

I think a series of films and plays written by so called marginalized people about and for marginalized people would help Calgarians realize how interesting, diverse and dynamic they are.

What piece of advice would you give to an emerging artist?

Don’t let the gatekeepers get you down. And after that I would say, Make your own gate. Or rather, make your own whatever it is that is existing behind your own gate.

When I moved to New York, there was a mythos in the air that, while it may or may not have been based in objective reality, was a great psychological boost for an emerging artist. The archetype of the daring, subversive creative redefining the form defines many the lore of many artists, from Van Gogh to However, I found that when I tried to contextualize my experiences as a black person in Calgary, I was met with a lot of disapproval from people who had become, probably unbeknownst to themselves, the gatekeepers of various artistic platforms.

I saw marginalized artists being subject to a form of creative gaslighting, when they talked about, in their work, their experiences with racism or other forms of marginalization. I saw them questioning themselves in odd ways, “Am I being a victim when I talk about this racially charged experience?”

They did that because they were interrogated by people higher up on the social hierarchy. Imagine if Dickens or the Bronte sisters or George Orwell had interrogated themselves in such a manner about whatever societal horror they were confronting in their work. We would never have Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist or 1984 or so much work if people policed their own impulses to talk about the pain of the outsider, the troubled, the dissident.

The marginalized artists I met here were self policing when talking about their authentic, lived experiences and were often told that these experiences were not interesting or relevant to the comfortable, homogeneous audience members that consumed art in this community. However, this mode of thinking was contrary to everything I was ever taught or learned about being an artist. I guess when I faced the gatekeepers it was not too daunting. I was enrolled in an arts high school at 14, and the tacit understanding was that it was our job, as both social insiders and outsiders, people living and observing in these odd, undefined spaces—to note, in as creative way as possible, that the emperor had no clothes.

Calgary seemed to be replete with artistic gatekeepers with an ethos contrary to what inspired the Monets, the Morrisons, the Atwoods of the world.

Keep asking the hard, uncomfortable questions, keep exposing the difficult, unbearable truths.

However, I decided that I would make my own gate and whatever it was behind it. That started with the first BIPOC/Black focused theatre company in Calgary, Ellipsis Tree Collective. After launching that, I decided to go solo. In every way possible. I created my own solo show, which I turned into a short film. I continued to make short films and do my own thing. I knew I was not going to get past the gatekeepers, and I didn’t care. I think you have to ask yourself as an artist, especially a marginalized artists—what am I doing here? By here I mean the planet itself. Am I here to people please or to make a difference, to reach people in their hearts? Is it about the people saying no or the people who need to hear what you have to say?

I keep thinking about the little Black girls like I was—the Black child of a single parent trying to get by in a really tough city in a really tough world.

Basically, it was made explicit to me that I had to, in Calgary, as a black artist, sell my experiences to an imaginary, resistant, comfortable audience from the dominant culture. I think coming from other places—having lived in New York and LA and come of age with some really, fabulous and legendary racialized artists born, like I was, to the barriers inherent in our historically anti-Black society, that I had nothing really to lose but my own integrity. So, I was ready when community advocacy groups, such as ActionDignity reached out to me. I knew that the gatekeepers weren’t important—the racialized, marginalized kids I was serving were.

Recently I have had the pleasure of working with Woezo Africa Music & Dance Theatre led by a colleague willing to not only build her own gate, but the community, the magical creative world residing behind it. So, to emerging artists of all hues and backgrounds—make your own gate, and whatever it is behind it.

What are you currently working on?

I am officially now in pre-production for a short film The Invincible Trayvon Martin (working title).

It’s a project that I have been working on in various iterations since about 2012, so I am really excited to get it done. I am working on a few other projects with other really dynamic artists and producers in town, including working with Woezo Africa again on various projects. To be honest, I am usually working on about five different projects at any given time, so with the exception of my shoot in October, it’s really hard to pin down the “current thing.”


About Alberta’s Month of the Artist

September is the Month of the Artist in Alberta, an annual celebration of artists and the value they bring to the province, both socially and economically.

Dedicated by the Government of Alberta, the Month of the Artist is a way to say thank you for making the province a better place to live.

Calgary Arts Development is pleased to share the stories of artists who choose to live and work in Calgary.

Have a story to share? Email us at news@calgaryartsdevelopment.com.

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