Hearing from a Deaf artist
Art is a medium by which Montreal-based Deaf artist Sera Kassab expresses herself in a mostly hearing-centred world. Her artwork reveals stories about her life: her origins, through paintings of Lebanon; her challenges, represented by intricate jewelry; and her ambitions, revealed in a self-portrait of her dreaming.
In addition to being a freelance artist, Kassab is also a businesswoman and advocate. She shared her perspective about what it’s like navigating the world as a Deaf person.
Born in Lebanon, “my parents were heartbroken and completely lost” when they learned she was deaf. There were few resources, and teachers resented the additional work expected of them. “I felt like it was always the same story and the same problems,” shared Kassab in “Seek the World: An Amazing Deaf Artist” produced by the National Deaf News (February 2020).
Recognizing Kassab’s eagerness to learn, the family moved to Montreal so she could attend the English Montreal School Board’s (EMSB) Mackay Centre School, which specializes in deaf education, among other services. Learning American Sign Language (ASL) “gave me a sense of belonging to a community,” explained Kassab. “I grew up forced to do oral speech, which I absolutely hated…Mackay, in a way, saved my life with ASL.”
At F.A.C.E. High School of the EMSB, she was fortunate to meet a committed tutor and pursue her passion for art, instilled by her grandmother.
In an interview with the Deaf, what YouTube docu-series (April 2022), Kassab described her favourite (and recently sold) painting of a hand reaching upwards. “Hands are life,” she observed, particularly for Deaf individuals as they are often the main means for communicating.
To further refine her art skills, Kassab submitted a piece to Concordia University's Faculty of Fine Arts in 2010. “They took a chance on me,” she marveled. With assistance from the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities’ interpreters and note-takers, she perfected her talents in a variety of mediums.
Proving her skills to the hearing world is a daily effort. “I am constantly reminded of how uncomfortable hearing people are with me and other Deaf people,” commented Kassab. Individuals would respond with “shock and pity…and most importantly, awkwardness because they don't know what to do.”
As a board member and ASL teacher at Seeing Voices Montreal, an organization dedicated to bridging the gap between the hearing and the Deaf, Kassab is intent on challenging misconceptions and encouraging individuals to learn basic sign language. She quipped, “We have a saying in the Deaf community: ‘If I can figure out how to talk to you but you can't figure out how to talk to me, why do they call me disabled?’”
In 2014, Seeing Voices broached the daring idea of theatrical performances with both hearing and Deaf actors (and interpreters), making it a thoroughly immersive and inclusive experience. An actress in the inaugural play, Kassab moved to set design in subsequent productions. Particularly powerful was the 2015 presentation of The Little Mermaid where the humans on land were hearing while those living under the sea were Deaf.
Yet there are still difficulties on a daily basis. “As a Deaf artist…I constantly face shock and disbelief when [people] see my artwork,” shared Kassab. “[When people] ask me if I work full-time as an artist, the answer is no because employers don't know how to work with Deaf people…There are solutions to communicate together, but they don't want to, they don't care and they're afraid.”
While there has been greater awareness with the recent Oscar-winning film CODA (featuring a Deaf family) and the Deaf U Netflix reality show, “Things have not changed…I still see the same reactions.”
Kassab’s resilient and determined nature has helped her persevere and prove things are possible to doubters. In media interviews, she repeatedly used the sign for “courage:” pulling at her shoulders up and out, with her hands ending in fists. “Always keep on being brave,” reinforced Kassab.
“Don’t give up.”