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Unveiling Ancestral Threads: Interview with Suritah Wignall

In a world marked by division and uncertainty, Suritah Wignall has embarked on a deeply personal voyage over the past few years—one that centres around uncovering the untold stories of her family's past and celebrating the enduring strength of the women who came before her. Join us as we delve into her remarkable journey of self-discovery, resilience, and the power of ancestral connections.

2023-09-18

Joana Alarcão

To begin, could you give a brief overview of your background and artistic journey?

I started painting at a very young age. I always had this love of drawing, it was just in me. My mom used to bind together books with blank pages for me to draw in because we didn't have enough money to purchase sketchbooks. She saw that I loved drawing so much that she would prepare almost 10 bound books at a time. I would fill them so quickly. I ended up going to art school in my teens and then I got accepted into The Ontario College of Art and Design. I really didn't like the program because I found the teachers and some of the students to be too intense, it wasn't what I had expected so I left after only a year. I decided that one way for me to get my art to the world was not only by participating in festivals but also by designing dressing rooms for musicians when they came to Toronto to perform. I did Fela Kuti, Alicia Keys, Floetry, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu who purchased one of my pieces and many more.


During a period of time, I was working with women who were survivors of violence facilitating art workshops. To get a better understanding of what these women were going through and not feeling fully trained, I went to college and studied Social Work for Women. For many years I was working in the community teaching art. In pursuit of my passion, I lived in Spain, studying flamenco singing and design. Just before the pandemic, I received a scholarship to study classical oil painting, I am currently studying at the Paul Richard James Atelier which has been an amazing experience so far. I am the type of individual where it is important for me to never stop learning and growing so I will be studying for the rest of my life. I am currently working on a series dedicated to Grandmothers.


Can you tell us about your experiences living in Seville, Spain, and how they shaped your art and personal growth?

My experiences in Spain were up and down. I was in a committed relationship and my now ex-husband at the time was very supportive of my work, he wanted me to be successful, and he would help me with art shows, and exhibits, and carry my art around as I moved from one event to the next. I lived in Spain for 6 years, Seville. What I love about Spain is the Spaniard's take on life. They really enjoy life and family is very important to them, nothing is more important than spending time with the people they love and taking in each moment. The architecture is phenomenal, the Moors left traces of themselves everywhere. The galleries and the museums are very inspirational. Barcelona is hands down my favourite city. Art is in the fabric of life in Barcelona, there is no getting away from it. My first week in Barcelona I was so overwhelmed, but in a positive way, there was just too much to do and see. The talent is incredible, The flamenco scene is fascinating, I studied flamenco singing for many years before moving to Spain and continued during my stay. I even received a grant from The Ontario Arts Council to train at the Christine Hereen Fundacion as well as with renowned flamenco singer, Lidia Montero. But the racism was at an all-time high for me. There were things that I experienced that were extremely heartbreaking, it was enough for me to not want to live in Seville again. I would visit Spain, but I will most likely never live there again. There are people there that I consider family, that made my experiences memorable



Blackmoon by Suritah Wignall. Image courtesy of Suritah Wignall.

What made you turn to painting and art as a source of comfort and grounding during challenging times?

Painting has always been a source of comfort for me, especially in my darkest of times. There were times when I felt that it was my only life skill. I didn't know how to cope with hard emotions, so I would paint, it didn't always make sense. Sometimes I would just throw paint on the canvas and mix different colors around, other times, I would turn my pain into a project just so I could make sense of what was going on at that moment. Now, I have learned many different forms of life skills to help me cope when life gets overwhelming. I still use my art as a source of healing, but it is my hope that anyone who enjoys my work can see it as a source of healing for themselves as well


How did delving into your family's history and connecting with your Nigerian and Afro-Caribbean roots inspire your artistic exploration?

My great-grandma was Syrian Jamaican. My great-grandfather was from Panama, my ancestors were from Nigeria. This information all comes from my aunties and uncles whom I have spoken with extensively about my family history, and our lineage. For the longest time, I never really felt like I belonged in Canada, even though I was born here, this place feels foreign to me. So, I decided to look into my family and our history. This opened up a floodgate for me in wanting to know more, how did the Syrians and Lebanese end up in the Islands? Why did my grandfather leave Panama? How did my Great Grandma feel during the early 1900s Jamaica? How did she feel about being the Matriarch of the family? We already know how my ancestors arrived from Nigeria. All these questions I ask and research. The more I research, the more creative I feel, for example, I am currently studying the Hausa language which is one of the three major dialects in Nigeria. I love the study of these new words, but also, the words look like art to me, so I have been figuring out ways in which I can incorporate them into my art. Some of my favourite words are:

Soyayya – Love

Shudiya – Blue (f)

Fasaha- Art


Well, lol, I have many favorite words, but this has been important to my journey because it connects me to the ones who have come before. It makes me feel like, I truly have a story to tell, I have a purpose. They have always been there, but my family reminds me every day of my purpose and my creative responsibility.



Suritah Wignall. Image courtesy of Suritah Wignall.

Could you share more about your current focus on painting grandmothers from the Diaspora and how it relates to your great-grandmother's story?

As I mentioned, my great-grandma was Syrian Jamaican. There is a focus on my grandmothers because I wanted to focus on the strength of the women in my lineage. Women are so powerful, so strong. I did not know any of my grandmothers, they all died before I could even get a chance to meet them. So I hold unto the stories that I hear of them. Some of the stories are powerful, some sorrowful. But even in the sorrow, there was such resilience because they lived in a time when it was much harder than now. I guess it's all relative. Slavery ended in Jamaica in 1838, my grandmother was born in the early 1900s, things were very difficult for her but she made it work. I think about that and it inspires me to fight on. So, I want to honour the women in my lineage through creating, it is my way of saying, I love you and Thank you!


In your paintings, you emphasize the beauty, strength, and legacy of African peoples. Can you elaborate on the significance of these themes in your work?

BLACK PEOPLE ARE FIRE, we are so fire. We are so resilient, we are beautiful, innovative -innovators, inventors, trendsetters, nonstop go-getters. I just want to reflect it in my work.

The more I learn about my history and the legacy of African Peoples all over the world, the more creative I feel. The more honoured I feel. Right now, I love studying African Mythology, art, Magic Realism, critical essays, poetry, textiles and culinary. Through my studies, the more I learn, I feel inspired to write tales, paint and illustrate

 


A new day by Suritah Wignall. Image courtesy of Suritah Wignall.

Can you tell us about the submitted work, entitled A New Day? What are the influences behind this painting?

A new Day, is just me reminding the little one within me, that hope is never lost. There is hope for a brighter tomorrow and that the youth are our future. I painted this painting a long time ago, it was a part of my Visible, Invisible series that I presented at A Space Gallery. That was my first professional group exhibition. 


How does your art contribute to conversations around self and social identity, particularly for individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds?

It is always a pleasure when people tell me their own interpretation of what my work means to them. And the interpretations are always different. For me, painting women and dark skin is very important. Why? Because it's a reflection of me. I walk this world as a Black Woman, so my viewpoints will 100% of the time be from that perspective. I paint for myself first and it is my hope that people enjoy it. If not, that's okay as well. There is way too much negativity in the media and social media about my people. There is way too much negativity in this world in general. I always think about how I can be a part of the beauty. What do I have to say? What can I share? How can my work make a positive impact? So working on the series about the grandmothers, not only inspires me to learn and honour my lineage. It is my hope that it inspires people to want to do the same because there is power in learning from our past. 


Visible/Invisible was also inspired by not being seen as a Black Woman and then sometimes being seen in a negative way. The images that I created for this series were putting a spotlight on our beauty and resilience. I am basically saying in my paintings that there is nothing wrong with being Black, we are not a mistake, it is our birthright to be here. Also, there is so much beauty in cultures and diversity, there is room for everyone if only we are able to look at each other and have those conversations. I am inspired by so many cultures, whether in literature, music, textiles, history or art. I not only love learning about my people, but I also love learning about people from around the world. I like to sometimes find how we are more linked than divided.



Forgotten beauty by Suritah Wignall. Image courtesy of Suritah Wignall.

Can you tell us about your community-based arts project working with Black Fathers and Children and how it has impacted the community?

Nakupenda Baba (I love you papa) in Swahili, is the title of the community project that I am currently working on. It's a project dedicated to Black Fathers and Children. Over the years I have worked mainly with women and youth, mostly in various cross-cultured communities across Canada and abroad. Women have been my focus to the point that I have a college degree in Social for Women. But I felt that there was this gap, there is an endless amount of resources for women here in Toronto, but there are few resources for men, specifically Black Men. I wanted to fill in that gap. The project will be a space for Black Men to create in a safe way with their kids. We will be doing a combination of online and in-person. This project is a mask-making project where participants will learn how to build and create masks using clay and paper mache as well, I will be teaching color theory, drawing and painting. Participants will also learn the art of theatre and creative writing. When completed, families will have a chance to present it to the community. Our hope is that this project will have a positive impact on the community, providing a space for Black Men to be, create and share with their kids.


Lastly, are there any books, artists, or platforms you would recommend to our readers?

Oh man, tough question because there are so many. I am truly inspired by writers right now, some of my favourite authors are Yasunari KawabataNizar KabbaniVictoria Santa CruzOctavia ButlerGabriel Garcia MarquezLangston Hughes, and Edgar Allan Poe. I love graphic novels so I just finished reading, Aster of Pan by Merwan who is a phenomenal French Illustrator. I'm a huge fan of Hayao MiyazakiCharly PalmerJean Auguste IngreAmrita Sher-Gil, and Natasha Cunningham. I am a fan of classical paintings, impressionism and world contemporary. I love Mythology, specifically African, Indigenous and Nordic and I also love reading really good film scripts. My two favourite films that I can watch over and over again and that everyone should check out are, Russian Ark and Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus).


Know more about the artist here.

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Over the last couple of years learning about the history of my family and the strength of the women in  my lineage have been the most important thing for me. For me it has been an anchoring, something to  lean on in a time in our society when things feel more divided than ever.


For 6 years between 2014 – 2019, I was living in the South of Spain, Seville. I was married, studying  flamenco singing, studying fine arts and design, travelling and exhibiting my work. Life was filled with ups and downs. My ex husband was from Czech Republic and I from Toronto, we just clicked, until we didn't. There were many issues that divided our relationship, but the main one was the amount of  racism I experienced living in the South. It was soul crushing. What kept me there in Seville were a  few things, my marriage at the time, the arts and the many friends I had made, who continue to be my  friends until this day. The sense of freedom Spaniards view on life was also inspiring, everything was,  “no pasa na” (don't worry about it), Disfruta Ahora Suritah (Enjoy now Suritah) , tranquilla, tranquilla  (calm, calm) and my favourite, todo bien (everything's good). But I, a dark skin woman of Afro  Caribbean descent would catch a lot of peoples eye in the most negative way. I’ve had Banana peels  thrown at me, I’ve been denied service in restaurants and bars, I’ve been told to go back to Africa, Ive  been called ugly, I’ve been laughed at, mocked, made fun. And this was constant. There would be  nights where I would just cry and my Ex at the time would do everything to try and comfort me. It was  difficult, So, one day, after the finalization of our separation, I decided to leave. For my mental health, I needed to go. It was bitter sweet and really hard because I had not been home, in Toronto, for 6 years.  So I didnt know what I was going home to.


When I arrived back in Toronto, I was so happy to see so many diverse faces, very different from the  South of Spain. I was happy to be home. I thought things would be better and I wouldn't experience  such heavy heartache like in Spain. But, I was wrong. Things were definitely more intense because I came back a year before the pandemic. Everything was on the rise; rent, food, the cost of living, things  felt more divided and individuals felt more cold. Racism was definitely at an all time high as well. It  took a toll on my mental health. I needed something to anchor me and so I leaned into the one thing  that always felt like home and never disappointed. My love of painting and my love of Art. But I  wanted to understand, understand my path, my journey. So, I started with my family, the love of my  great grandmother, her story, my grandfathers in my lineage; their stories. I began talking to family  members, researching, writing, and then painting. I also began studying different Nigerian dialects. My  great grandmother was Syrian, Jamaican. My great grandfather rowed his boat over to Jamaica from  Panama, which makes my moms side of the family, Afro- Panamanian, Syrian, Jamaica with our  ancestors being brought over from Nigeria. This is what has been told to me by my family. I've also  nbeen studying Hausa which is a beautiful Nigerian Dialect. Right now I am painting grandmothers  from the Diaspora, inspired by my Great grandma. I mean, what is more comforting than the love of a Grandma?


Has this healed everything. No. But it has brought me some ease and put me on this quest. Because the  more I know about my past and my lineage, the more rooted I feel. It is the beautiful, complicated  journey.

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