As a Muslim-American student, artist, and activist, Rosalie Swana works toward informing others about the harsh realities facing too many Muslims in the United States. One such example, her art show in December, Media Overload: Islamophobia of Muslims in the Media, tackled themes of identity and misrepresentation. As a classmate and friend of Rosalie’s, I had the pleasure of discussing her background, process, and recent exhibition. In our short meeting, I was able to feel the passion that she has for her work, and understand the connections between her personal identity and the grander question of how to address the issue of media discrimination against Muslim Americans.
Interviewer Kia: I loved looking at the art from your exhibition! Would you mind explaining the themes you had in mind when putting together the show?
Rosalie Swana: Well, the goal of the opening was to show how the media misportrays Muslim Americans. There are so many stereotypes about Muslims that have been fed to Americans by so-called “news” networks. For years, the media has made money off of Islamophobia.
K: Are there any messages that you want viewers to take away from your show and art?
RS: I want my viewers to just be able to see it [the Media’s treatment of Muslims] from another person’s perspective. I am not asking viewers to agree with my message; I only hope that they will listen before making up their minds.
K: What is the motivation behind this specific message?
RS: Islamophobia in the media doesn’t just make me hurt because I am Muslim. Islamophobia upsets me so much because Muslims are not seen as Americans. We are seen as foreign; seen as animals and barbarians.
K: Of all of the works in your exhibit, do you have a piece, or pieces, of which you are most proud?
RS: I would say I am most proud of my pieces “American Enough?” and “Narcy”. I felt extremely connected with these two pieces; really put myself into them, and they were very personal.
K: What inspired this piece(s)?
RS: The inspiration for “Narcy” came from the political Iraqi-Canadian rapper the Narcicyst. A pencil drawing of him was one piece that was sold. A lot of his music has inspired me to discuss topics that most people are covering up, and to do it through an art form. He has inspired my artwork along with who I am as a person, and helped me express my feelings through something so beautiful.
As for “American Enough”, this piece has a story. I was on the train with one of my close friends who wears the hijab. Two men got on and started to just stare at her. Soon after they were yelling things like: “Go back to your country”; “Take off that rag“; “Burn in hell“; “They shouldn’t let scum like you come into my country“; “People like you need to go back home.” As we left the train we turned to them and said: “This is our country just as much as it is yours. Our religion should not make us any less American.” That night I went home and painted a portrait of her titled “American Enough?” I put the word “label” across her eyes. I then drew her heart with words reading “made me bleed red white and blue.”
K: Very interesting. I’m wondering if you can expand a little more on your personal connections to your work?
RS: With most of my work there is always a personal connection. When I paint I am usually happy or frustrated. I started painting because I felt like no one was listening to me and no one cared. I wanted someone to just listen before they rejected my opinion. If I put what I felt in a painting, it would be harder for people to ignore. We can talk over each other’s opinion but we find it harder to ignore them when they are put in front of us.
K: Are there any overall themes that you’d like the reader to take away from this post about you, your art, or Islamophobia in general?
RS: All I see on these media networks are non Muslims speaking on Islam, saying how toxic the religion is. Most of these people have never read the Qur’an. You can not condemn an entire religion because of a few followers. It is up with the followers of that religion to interpret it. You cannot blame every follower for one’s mistake. We all interpret religion differently, some interpretations may be barbaric. But we cannot let those few barbaric followers blind people from the true meaning of Islam.
Rosalie is a current 11th grade student at Science Leadership Academy, exploring Islamic identity and Islamophobia while inspiring her peers and the greater community.
– Kia DaSilva – Intern at Al-Bustan
Class of 2017, Science Leadership Academy