Local artists shape Ottawa’s cultural identity through public art program

Art is often imagined alive behind gallery walls. However, through a public art program in Ottawa, many local artists submit their works in hopes of integrating them into more common public spaces.

local artist Mana Rouholaminiit is to be | born | to be | born is currently on display at Corridor 45|75 of the Rideau LRT station. His work is part of one of three public galleries managed by the City of Ottawa Public Art Program.

Rouholamini said she has always been interested in the concepts of language and meaning, which are major themes in her work. When she sat down to create to be | born | to be | bornRouholamini said she faced a new challenge: designing art for a public space.

“There was this urge to think not only about work but also about space,” Rouholamini said.

She added that creating her art for a space that people walk through caused her to rethink her artistic approach.

“How can I get people’s attention? As a person who walks in a city, we all have this relationship with where we walk,” Rouholamini said.

Mana Rouholamini is the artist behind the ongoing art exhibition “Be | born | to be | born’ at the Rideau St. Light Rail Transit (LRT) station in Ottawa, Ont. The exhibition is presented from November 2021 to March 2022. [Photo provided by Mana Rouholamini]

Although Rouholamini has spent a great deal of time creating her work and shaping its meaning, she has stated that she believes its meaning is shaped by how people interact with it.

“It’s the people passing by that give it meaning,” Rouholamini said. “Nor are people necessarily aware that they are making sense of this space.”

According to Meaghan Haugian, public art officer with the City of Ottawa, to be | born | to be | born redefines the meaning of the space it occupies.

“I think having the art in LRT stations helps enrich your experience. And break that kind of monotony from our daily commutes,” Haugian said. “For me, it’s a question of quality of life.

Before artists can exhibit their work in Ottawa’s public art galleries, they must submit an exhibition proposal to the Public Art Program, which is then reviewed by a committee of local curators, art professionals art and artists.

Although Haugian is not a member of the committee, she said the selection process was difficult.

“The proposals were only a few pages long, but you look at the pictures and think about it,” Haugian said. “It’s difficult because there are so many artists in the [Ottawa] community.”

Haugian added that putting art in public spaces allows galleries to showcase the diversity of local talent in Ottawa. She said this was particularly important given how difficult it is for artists to access exhibits.

“I know there are a lot of artists and not enough galleries in the city,” Haugian said. “So to have the opportunity to do that is exciting.”

According to Yves Laberge, sociologist and part-time art professor at the University of Ottawa, opinions are divided on the importance of public art.

“Some people would say it’s the least important thing in our society,” Laberge said. “Others will say no, it is through the culture of art that we can recognize who we are as a society.

Laberge said public art is essential to nation building, but it is only effective if the public actively seeks to understand the artwork on display.

“You have to have explanations because the work in itself is not enough to communicate all the message imagined by the artist”, declared Laberge.

Whether or not public art requires an explanation to achieve its purpose, it continues to contribute to Ottawa’s cultural identity, according to Rouholamini.

“I have the impression that the city is a living being, it is not static. And for that living being, there are a lot of things you need,” Rouholamini said. “An interesting city cannot exist without culture.”

Image selected by David Barbour via Mana Rouholamini.

Kayleen C. Rice