By Taylor Rocca (Thompson Rivers University)
KAMLOOPS (CUP) — Sooraya Graham is a normal student at Thompson Rivers University. She goes to class and does her assignments, just like any of her classmates. But she never realized that with her most recent assignment she would start such a controversial cultural discussion that ultimately saw her art being damaged and improperly removed from a class display.
Coming from northern B.C., Graham is a Canadian Muslim and a fourth-year fine arts student. Like many other artists, all she wanted to do was foster discussion using her artwork.
With the events that have transpired since she first displayed her work, Graham has people talking not only at TRU, but also throughout Kamloops. “People think I am so foreign, so different and they can’t relate to me somehow,” Graham said. “But at the same time, I’m just like an every-other-day Canadian girl. I do the same things, I wear the same things just underneath [the veil].”
Graham’s art depicts a Muslim woman holding a bra. The woman in the piece is wearing a niqab, the traditional veil or cloth that many Muslim women adorn to cover their face.
“With my artwork, I was trying to create a discussion point for Muslim women, for veiled women, and to kind of show light of how we are just normal women,” Graham said. “I wanted to have an image that displayed something that every woman could relate to.”
Graham completed the class assignment, and with the help of professor Ernie Kroeger, she displayed her work alongside other classmates’ assignments within the fine arts department on TRU campus. Shortly after the work was put on display, it came to Graham’s attention that the piece had been removed from the wall upon which it was hung.
“We’re always told that our voice is important and that we can say something with our art,” Graham said. “It is shocking when someone tries to silence that.”
After contacting the chair of the fine arts department, Lloyd Bennett, Graham was informed that a business card had been left behind in place of the art. The card belonged to a staff member at TRU World, and she was shocked at that revelation. “I did not expect to hear that,” Graham said. “I thought maybe [it was] someone who would not understand [the artwork] versus someone who is expected to show a different type of behaviour.”
According to TRU administration, the artwork was not taken down in an official capacity. “There was an individual that was offended and she took the artwork down,” said Christopher Seguin, vice-president of advancement for TRU. “That TRU World staff member was acting on an individual basis.”
The artwork was eventually returned to Graham, though not unconditionally.
“The person [who removed the art] had gotten in contact with Lloyd and they had my image,” Graham said. “They weren’t willing to give it to me if I was going to put it back on the wall. They were holding it hostage, I guess you could say.”
In an ironic twist, this development was right in line with the motivation that Graham had when she was initially inspired to create the piece. “With art, there is always going to be a little controversy,” Graham said. “You can dislike it, you can argue about it, but to physically get in contact with an art piece and rip it down and destroy it, that is such an invasion of my personal space as an artist — to have someone censor what I can do.”
According to Seguin, it was more miscommunication than censorship that resulted in Graham’s work being removed from the wall. “In no way did TRU at any point want to censor an artistic piece of work,” Seguin said. “We honestly thought it was a poster being tagged up on a board that we had to investigate.”
The only question involved with that assertion is that Graham’s artwork is much larger than the size of a standard U.S. letter-sized poster and was hung as a part of a class display of visual arts assignments. The question remains as to how it could be mistaken for a poster to begin with. The TRU World staff member responsible for removing the artwork was unavailable for comment.
Graham wears the niqab as a personal choice. She believes that some people in Canada have the misconception that women who wear the niqab are somehow oppressed or forced into doing so. That is a part of what motivates her art. “In a lot of Western media, you often see the veiled woman as oppressed, or as a fundamentalist, or this pacifistic woman,” Graham said. “And that’s not the case. I think it’s something that needs to be broken as a stereotype.”
The wearing of the niqab started as a Bedouin tradition, originally being more of an upper class, Middle Eastern tradition as opposed to just an Islamic tradition. In general, the niqab is not enforced — it is merely a choice, part of what Graham wanted to shed light on. “I am a huge activist for niqabi rights. I think it should be a choice for any individual,” Graham said. “I don’t think women should be forced to wear the veil, but I don’t think women should be forced not to wear the veil either.
“I’m just saddened that individuals decided that they did not like this discussion and that they did not want to participate in this discussion,” Graham said. “They wanted to take it right off the table, or the wall.”
Graham explained she uses her art to try to give a voice to the Muslim woman. “That’s part of being Canadian; it’s to create a discussion point. If we stopped talking about things just because we don’t like it or it makes us feel uncomfortable, we would get nowhere,” she said. “This is such a multicultural country and I had pride seeing that veiled woman up on the wall because it did create discussion in my classes, and I was able to explain more about the veil and the history of the veil.”
As of April 2, Graham’s artwork had been returned to the display in the TRU Art Gallery.