Suzanne Ragheb - Bringing Art to Ottawa's Muslim CommunityWritten by Aicha Lasfar
While it is home to many brilliant artists, Ottawa is mostly known as a working city and not necessarily for its art scene. Hoping to change the future of art in her city, and perhaps the world, one Muslim woman has a few initiatives up her sleeve.
Suzanne Ragheb is an American-born Canadian of Palestinian decent. While born in Denver, Colorado and moving around as a child, her family eventually settled in Canada; a place which Suzanne calls “My home, my country, my everything.”
“I’m also patriotic about being Palestinian” she adds, “But that’s more of a cultural thing. There’s no knowledge in terms of ever visiting there. There’s a lot of sadness from that aspect.”
Suzanne comes from a family of artists. Her aunt, based in Toronto, creates three dimensional portraits in a folkloric Palestinian style, while her uncles are painters and calligraphers.She attributes her love of art to her family who fostered an appreciation for it early on.
“I come from a musical family as well,” Suzanne elaborates. “The art aspect comes from within the family […] As a child I always drew, I was always the student in class who couldn’t finish her projects on time because the other students would ask me to help with their projects.”
Despite being a helpful peer, Suzanne eventually got her share of growing pains at school. Being a young Muslim woman in Canada during the 90’s was not easy and she eventually found herself being severely bullied for her sudden decision to start wearing hijab in grade 8.
“I was bullied in school,” she shared, “I was reprimanded by my family members, except for my mom, of course. It was really difficult. For all of grade 8, I was extremely bullied at school. I went from being popular to a complete outcast. The bullying didn’t just stop at school even going out I was exposed to harassment. Hijab was not a common thing back then."
Like many artists, Suzanne took her painful experiences and turned them into something beautiful and used her art as a form of expression.
“I immersed myself into my art,” she explains. “That’s how I let out my emotions, my feelings, my anger, my sadness. I just kept pouring it out more into my artwork. I started spending more time in high school during lunch and after school in the art class studio.”
For Suzanne, it was not so much about turning lemons into lemonade or using art only as a means to unleash built-up emotions; for her, art is a way of life.
“Art is in me, it’s in my blood it’s in everything […] it’s like eating. If I don’t create or if I don’t do art, you feel like there’s a part of you that you’re not using. It’s like I need that in my life.”
When it came time to apply to post-secondary education, Suzanne knew she wanted to go into an artistic field, but which one? She settled on Architecture at Carleton University, as it seemed like a more practical program.
“Amazing program, I enjoyed it thoroughly,” she recalls. “It taught me to pay more attention to detail and to be more articulate and to be more intricate in my work and disciplined. You come out really strong with these skills: discipline, intricate work, and patience, a lot of patience,” she emphasized.
The skill set Suzanne acquired in university allowed her to fine-tune her art and bring it to a new level. The precision required in the architecture program translated into her personal art in ways she did not necessarily expect.
“I went from creating artwork let’s say in a couple of hours, to now, a week. It’s very meticulous and detailed. You pay attention to everything.”
After graduating from Carleton, Suzanne travelled to Kuwait for work opportunities. Her experiences there opened doors in which she could not have predicted.
“I decided to move to the Gulf to pursue more options. I stayed there for nine years. For the first couple of years, I worked as an architect. Then after that, I ended up getting an opportunity to work as a head of an arts department at a private school.”
Suzanne did not expect to ever become a teacher or work in a school. She had her heart set on architecture, but it was her mother who felt Suzanne should give education a chance.
“I never ever thought I would teach,” admits Suzanne. “Teaching was a definite no for me. My mother is an English teacher, so watching her marking and correcting and writing up exams and she’s always bringing her work home…I always told myself that wasn’t for me.”
But after much persuasionfrom her mother, Suzanne agreed to give it a chance and, according to her, it was a move that changed her life.
“Subhana’Allah (Glory be to God), when I began to see what I was capable of doing through my students, and when I was able to see how one student started off not being able to draw anything to completing whole paintings by the middle of the year, I knew. ‘This is it.’”
Suzanne never wandered back into architecture after that. She had found her calling in education and remained a teacher at heart. However, she did not stay in Kuwait forever as her home country of Canada began calling back to her.
Suzanne eventually made her way back to Ottawa where she focused more on getting her foot into the art scene there.
She explains that making one’s self recognized is a proactive process which involves a lot of networking and applications.
“You reach out to people through networking. I have a friend, an active artist named Hamid Ayoub, a Sudanese artist. I connected with him and he helped me get some exhibits through his connections. The artists within Ottawa, they all connect each other and this is how it works.”
Suzanne’s work has been featured in several galleries throughout the city, including at the Experimental Farm, the DeSerres Gallery, City Hall, and the Atrium Gallery at Centrepointe.
In the meantime, Suzanne went back to work as a teacher. Her first position upon her return to Ottawa was as a high school art teacher for Tarbiyah Learning in Ottawa's West End. It was at this location that she was commissioned to paint a big mural, showcasing the school’s motto of “Engage, Love, Inspire”. She also painted a mural in the MAC Youth Centre on Grenon Avenue where she currently facilitates art workshops for youth. She also participates in competitions, one being the World Trade Memorial Competition in New York.
One of Suzanne’s main goals is to establish an art program based out of Muslim community centres or associations open to youth from all backgrounds and faiths.
“For the youth, it’s something very beneficial,” she says. Suzanne explains that the city of Ottawa has a few good quality art programs run out of community centres, but she has never seen any other Muslims attend them. “A lot of people get recognized through these art centres. What I’m trying to do Insha’Allah (God willing) is to establish the same kind of art centre to be able to put the Muslim youth out there in the art scenes, because we’re non-existent.”
“The MAC community centre already has so many programs,” she continues. “But there’s no art. So I’m doing that right now […] I am trying to establish competitions within the art program there. Youth and kids compete, and if their artwork is chosen and if they win, they get recognized. We might give them [a prize] like money, just something to motivate them artistically and put them out there to get recognized. I’m trying to establish the same kind of standards for art programs here in Ottawa in our own community centres.”
In addition to her work at the MAC Centre, Suzanne also facilitates “Paint Nights” in Ottawa. It’s a socializing event where people are encouraged to come and try their hand at painting. The objective is to try and copy what the artist is doing in real time on one’s own canvas and the participants get to take their work home at the end of the evening.
The idea for Paint Night came to Suzanne after she was approached by Paint Night Ottawa to facilitate a session at a local pub. “I was hired to work for paint nights that they have in Ottawa. My first assignment was to go to a pub and teach and promote as much alcohol as possible. So I declined and said “I’m sorry I can’t promote alcohol” , but I liked the idea very much.”
“Seeing as the art scene in our community is not very active,” Suzanne elaborated, “I decided to take it upon myself to create it for our community, and that’s what I’ve been doing. There’s a cafe called Cafe SemSem and I’ve been hosting paint nights with them and it’s a family friendly event. I try to offer a flat rate for it, I provide all the supplies. I do an art lesson with them, it’s just fun. It’s an informal art session. It’s more of a socializing event really.”
Suzanne makes sure to mention that the event is open to men, women, and children 12 years and older. Profits from the events go towards donations. “This is strictly why I did this event because I wanted to give back. Whether it’s selling my artwork or [running] this event, the purpose behind what I do is to give back to those who need it,” Suzanne explained.
Getting people to recognize the importance of artistic expression is very important to Suzanne. She has a lot of advice to share with aspiring artists, “Keep drawing and keep enhancing your artistic skills,” she insists. “Don’t stop. Even I continuously take art classes […] Keep learning, persevere, be patient; don’t give up. I’ve seen a lot of people who gave up doing artwork because [they’d say] ‘Oh, you don’t make money’ or ‘Oh, it’s hard’! Yes it’s hard, but you have to keep going. Keep going if it’s something that you’re passionate about, it’s not the kind of profession that you’re going to make it overnight. Keep going and it will eventually come. Have faith in Allah and that’s it. And hard work.”
As for students, Suzanne would like them to know that taking art classes could make or break their career, depending on what path they intent to follow.
“What I try to do in these art classes to get the kids interested is to tell them, ‘Okay, whoever wants to be an architect or interior designer or a graphic designer, you have to enhance your artistic skills in order for you to get into these programs. Because to get into these programs you need to provide a portfolio. And if you don't have a strong portfolio, even if you have 90’s, you’re not going to get in, and that’s a fact.”
Suzanne is well aware that art classes are often treated with less seriousness as other subjects, so she is determined to put in extra effort to showcase the practicality of studying art.
“What I try to do is to incorporate these subjects design wise into the art projects, so that the students would feel like they’re doing something that they’re benefiting from. It’s not just like, ‘Oh let’s paint, let’s draw’. This kind of artwork is called structured artwork. They’re building, they make things; they get in there. It’s very practical.”
When it comes to parents and fellow educators, Suzanne really wishes they would acknowledge the importance of art programs for their students and children and for everyone in general.
“Our community should stop putting down art and looking at it like a ‘fun’ subject. Yes, it’s [a] fun subject when you’re in grade 4 or 5 or 6, but once you get to higher grades, especially at [the] university level, it’s put towards good use and it is used to create. Without art, we would not have everything that we have today,” she says with conviction.
“Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty. Art is an essential part of our life, and it’s very important that kids do learn in order for them to think creatively and come up with new [ideas], especially for our community,” she adds.
As for herself and her future as an artist, Suzanne is optimistic. Along with hoping to one day teach fine arts at a university level, she has even bigger dreams yet.
“I would definitely like to become more recognized internationally. As a child growing up, I told myself I want to be the first hijabi to be recognized for something. Especially when you’re consistently negated or treated like you’re nothing unfortunately.”
“Right now, I am at a point where I don’t want anything to stop me,” Suzanne says. “I’m going to pursue this all the way and see where it takes me. Insha’Allah Khair (God willing, goodness), everything comes from God. I didn’t get here by myself, it’s all His plan. We’ll see what happens.”
But Suzanne is not done –not yet. Like most artists, she naturally hopes for recognition but she also hopes that the world can recognize the importance of art in and of itself and the good that it can bring to all.
“It’s very essential. Unfortunately our community looks at art [simply] as painting pretty flowers and people. But you need that creative side for kids to invent things. To invent something is art. It’s an idea, it’s drawn unto paper, it’s functional and there you have it; it’s created.”
“You have to get cultured,” Suzanne concludes. “If you don’t get cultured you’re going to be an extremely ignorant human being. This should be my last quote, ‘Get Cultured!’”.
You can discover Suzanne’s art on her website here
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