Ottawa photographer Faisa Omer was thrilled when the Ottawa Art Gallery bought some of her work to include in a new exhibition



The arts world's reckoning: How Ottawa's cultural instituti ons are responding to pressure for more diversity

As the pressure for change sweeps through the arts world, the city’s major players are stepping up to respond to the calls for action — beyond the work that’s already been taking place to include Indigenous artists.

Lynn Saxberg
Publishing date:
Mar 13, 2021

Photographer Faisa Omer was starting to get some recognition for her striking portraits of young men in her Ritchie Street neighbourhood last summer when she was invited to tune in to an online focus group for Black artists hosted by the Ottawa Art Gallery. 

The discussion was organized to explore racism in the arts and it got quite heated, Omer recalls. She waited until everyone had said their piece before piping up with a direct question. 

“Hey, I want to say something,” she said. “I’m Faisa and I just did a project about my community. When are you going to show my photos in your space?” 

Dead air. No one had an answer for her on the spot, though she soon realized they had been listening. About a month later, she received a message from one of the gallery’s curators saying they had checked out Omer’s work on Instagram and were considering including a few pieces in an upcoming show. 

“I was floored,” says the 29-year-old Somali-Canadian. “It worked.”

Sure enough, one wall of the gallery’s new group exhibition, Sheltered in Place: Portraits of Self, Family and Community, which opened Feb. 20 and runs until Aug. 15, features several of Omer’s portraits of her brother and his friends. Faces of Ritchie Street also includes quotes from the stories her subjects told her about their interactions with people in the city. One example came from a student whose teacher kept calling him by the wrong name. The excuse? “That’s because all Black people look the same.”

Back at the Ottawa Art Gallery, the board of directors passed a resolution last fall that condemns racism and discrimination, accompanied by a list of action items that includes a commitment to “forefront work by artists from marginalized communities.”

For a new artist like Omer, OAG curators felt she would benefit from the advice of an established Black artist and set her up with a mentor, Patrice James, a filmmaker who’s also executive director of the Independent Filmmakers Co-operative of Ottawa.

Omer’s journey from her photo studio in the basement of her family’s townhouse on Ritchie Street, part of Ottawa Communit y Housing’s Britannia Woods neighbourhood, to the walls of the Ottawa Art Gallery happened in record time, thanks to the gallery’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and systemic change. 

Despite their 20-year age difference, Omer and James discovered they shared certain characteristics, starting with an immigrant background. James’ mother came to Canada from Trinidad, while Omer’s parents were refugees from Somalia. Both families expected their children to do well in school, attend university and land a secure job, preferably in medicine or law, not photography or filmmaking.

The oldest of seven children, Omer has been able to balance her family’s expectations with her passion for photography. She has a master’s degree in neuroscience and works as a mental health counsellor for a school board in Edmonton as she completes a second master’s degree in counselling psychology. She also studied photography for a few months at Algonquin College. 

“I was kind of told to put away my passions because Somalia is a collective society instead of individualistic, so everyone has to help the family,” she explained, adding that she didn’t consider herself a photographer because she hadn’t finished the Algonquin course.