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First Somali-American art show at Minneapolis Institute of Art spans three generations

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Artist Ifrah Mansour was crouched on the floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, arranging an enormous headscarf. For days she had been working on her video/installation “Can I Touch It,” a reference to the annoying phrase that people utter after they have already violated someone by touching their pregnant belly, head scarf, tattoo or hair, in Mansour’s case.

Yards long, the red, gold and yellow-striped scarf narrates the piece both physically and metaphorically. It begins on the floor, encircling a video screen that shows Mansour wrapping her head with the scarf. Then it twists around the torso and head of a mannequin before curling across the floor and onto a gallery wall, partly obscuring a monitor that displays a giant eye.

It was hard to tell where the piece begins and where it ends, which was exactly the point.

Mansour is the youngest of three Somali-American artists who make up the cross-generational show “I Am Somali,” the Minneapolis museum’s first exhibition of contemporary Somalian art. Organized by Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, the museum’s curator of African art, “I Am Somali” draws its title from a poem of that name by Abdulkadir Hersi Siyad (1945-2005).

While Mansour uses performance, video and installation, the work of more mature artists Hassan Nor and Aziz Osman is two-dimensional — Nor displays eight drawings on poster board, while Osman is represented by five paintings.

The exhibition came together as disparately as the work included in it, yet it all speaks to the Somali diaspora and their cross-cultural experiences as refugees.

Nor is a self-taught artist now in his 80s who began drawing nearly 60 years ago back in Jubaland, the region in southern Somalia where he grew up. He came to Minneapolis in 2002; none of his work survived the trip but he continued to draw. Grootaers first came across his work last summer at the Third Place Gallery, a space run by photographer Wing Young Huie, where Nor had his first indoor gallery exhibition. Nor draws from memory; many of his works depict traditional life in Somalia and the countryside, where people are hanging out, drinking tea, amid camels and other livestock.

The show also includes traditional objects from daily life in Somalia — milk containers, a pair of sandals, a camel bell, a Qur’an stand — displayed in the middle of the gallery. “I wanted to show a few of these objects that would otherwise be lost in these drawings,” said Grootaers, who collaborated with the Somali Museum of Minnesota on the display.

On the wall across from Nor’s work, viewers will come across Osman’s lush paintings, such as “Jandheer Dance,” a traditional group dance, and “Moving,” where two people walk with very large camels and a small herd of white goats. In more abstract pieces such as “Exodus I” and “Exodus 2,” we see a layering of multicolored and various shapes all packed in together, going somewhere — a reference to leaving Somalia.

Osman, who is in his 60s, received formal training in Florence, Italy, and had been living in Europe for 15 years or so before he returned to Somalia in 1989, shortly before the civil war broke out. He fled to the United States in 1991 as part of the first wave of refugees.

Osman recently showed his paintings in “Receptacle,” a group exhibition of Somali artists organized by the Twin Cities collective Soomaal House of Art. But Grootaers first came across Osman in 2011, while preparing the reinstallation of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s African galleries.

“We organized a number of what we called ‘open dialogue’ evenings — for teachers, youth and community members — where we got input from people from Africa. Aziz was among those attendees. I didn’t connect with him then to show his art — he did speak about the museum and what role the museum would play in showing local art.” Not long after that, he came across Osman’s work at the Somali Museum of Minnesota.

The distinctive use of various media is important in this show. While museumgoers can see Somali culture and heritage represented in the work of Osman and Nor, Mansour literally invites the viewer into her more visceral, cross-cultural experiences.

She describes “Can I Touch It” as being about “the story of privacy. It’s this simple act of the world engaging you, to get to know you a little bit more — but that engagement being one that is ‘What is it?’ which often isn’t healthy.”

Her work forces the viewer to share the space that Mansour inhabits, rather than allowing them just to look. As with the scarf, the piece envelops the viewer.

“I want the viewer to be in it,” she said, “because it takes two to make the act.”

The hope is that by putting this exhibition in a prominent public institution, both Somali and non-Somali visitors will get a chance to learn and engage. It’s also exciting for Somali visitors to see their own culture represented in an encyclopedic museum, and in a show that reflects a female artist, too.

“There was a herd of Somali people that were here the other day and they poked their eye in because there is a sexy camel out there,” said Mansour. “So it will be really good for them to see a feminine corner, as well.”

Arts & Culture

‘For My Ayeeyo’: Two young women learn Somali poetry from a distance

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Somalia is often called a land of poets, a place where everything from teenage romance to legal disputes has been recorded and passed down through poems. As conflict and drought have driven hundreds of thousands of Somalis from that homeland, the poetry has travelled with them. But here in the U.S., Somali-American poets must find new words and metaphors to describe their new environment.

Hamdi Mohamed

Amal Hussein and Hamdi Mohamed have a lot in common. Both were born in Kenya, where their parents had fled as refugees, and both came to Boston when they were just a few years old. They’re both 23 years old, they’re both poets — and equally important for this story — both their grandmothers are poets. This video shows a style of Somali poetry called gabay that both their grandmothers perform. As you can hear, the poem is as musical as it is lyrical.

But there’s one crucial difference in the two women’s stories. Hamdi grew up with her ayeeyo (grandmother) in the house, whispering poems in her ears. Amal has only known her ayeeyo on the phone — she stayed behind in Somalia when the rest of the family fled. Nevertheless, it is the distant words and stories of her grandmother that inspire Amal to take on the challenge of writing her own gabay.

Amal Hussein

From the Poet’s Notebook

In the story, we hear excerpts of several poems. Here is the full text for two of them, both written by Hamdi Mohamed. The first is written for her grandmother — “ayeeyo” in Somali — who lived for many years with Hamdi’s family in Boston, but has since returned to East Africa. The second is about water, and the fact that in Boston, people are quick to complain about the rain, even as Somalia endures years of drought.

For My Ayeeyo
by Hamdi Mohamed

Worn brown hands claps black prayer beads
A golden chest, a haven for dust
And memories
You whisper behind a veil
Wrapping proverbs like gifts
It is the festival of ‘Eid

I sat between your brown thighs
You twisted my thick hair
Into rows
To remind you of home, you say
You miss weaving baskets
For the harvest
The way the rain smelled like perfume
And clung to the skin like fresh honey
You say Hamdi, our skin and bones
Always know where they came from
Don’t forget you kin

Your eyes are pearls
Molten silver
Even the cataracts
Can’t subtract from you

At the airport
My hands crushed yours
I was the spoiled child
In every supermarket
Crying for something I couldn’t have

Still you didn’t scold me and
Shushed my mother
You were the strong oak tree
Under whose leaves I sought refuge in
It is winter now,
The leaves are almost gone
The rest are brown and worn
I wish they would stay

I feel heavy Ayeeyo
When we speak on the telephone
My memories of your hands are fading
Henna we used to wear black and red
Now gone
Make a prayer Ayeeyo,
With your black prayer beads,
God is closer to you than I

I am coming soon Ayeeyo
Listen for my skin and bones
They always know
Where they came from

Lifeblood
by Hamdi Mohamed

I watch as the raindrops glaze off
Rain clothes, rain boots stomp out the water
Collective indifference
No one listens
To the sounds of rebirth
As the rain makes a new earth
Flowers gather dew like diamonds
The hushed silence
Between the pitter patter of rain
This sound is sweeter than any music
The fluid movements bringing
Grass and tulips

Back home,
Trees wither and wisp away
Bones protruding
Shepherds wailing for the rain
I can’t complain of water
The taste of hunger is much sharper
When lives depend on the grass
When lives depend on the herd
It’s absurd
My people carry weak collars,
bony hands clutching
Blood soaked dollars

How much is water worth?
How much would you pay for wet dirt?
Oil rainbows on sidewalks
The sound of rain on your rooftop?
How much is life worth?
Can you gather your lifeblood in your hands?
Watch as the heartbeats devolve, deteriorate into dust
How much water will be brushed away?
Like it ain’t the fabric of our bodies
Like it ain’t the fuel of our cells
Like water ain’t worth a damn thing anymore

I pray for months of monsoons
For hailstorm of water droplets
Soaking into the earth
Soaking onto their faces
May god grace us
With rain

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Arts & Culture

Kenyan-Somali, black, Muslim and Canadian: new doc explores Canada’s hyphenated identities

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Short documentary ‘Hyphen-Nation’ by 22-year-old Torontonian puts five black women in conversation

A new documentary by a 22-year-old Toronto filmmaker is analyzing what is means to be an immigrant in Canada.

Directed and produced by Samah Ali, Hyphen-Nation features a 14-minute conversation between five women of colour that is inspired by her own cultural experience.

The women discuss how their cultural heritage influences their identities as Canadians and immigrants.

“The whole conversation is what’s your hyphen?” explained Ali, calling her debut film a “nuanced” discussion about what black Canadian identities look like.

“And that’s what opens it up to so many people to identify with because whether it’s themselves or their family members who have an immigration story, everybody typically has a hyphen.”

The women are asked if they identify with being black Canadians.

Ali explains this is both liberating and tragic. She identifies as a Kenyan-Somali woman, along with a Muslim woman and a black woman.

“I don’t know if I identify strongly as a Canadian, but definitely when I leave Canada I identify as a Canadian,” she said despite being born and raised in Toronto.

“The other parts of my identity, the ones that are more visible, the ones that I practice everyday are definitely the ones that are on the forefront of my mind. Compared to my Canadianness, it’s something that I’m not really aware of until I have my passport and I’m travelling to other countries.”
Sojin Chun, programmer for Regent Park Film Festival, says the short documentary captures the theme of the festival.

“We really want to show different narratives that you wouldn’t normally see through other means, through the mainstream media,” she said.

The three day event is free and showcases the work of women of colour which reflects Toronto’s east end neighbourhood.

“We really make sure we represent all the cultures that are present in Regent Park,” said Chun.

Ali explains this is why she wanted Hyphen-Nation to premiere at the film festival.

“I want this film to foster a greater community, not only in Canada, but also worldwide.”

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Arts & Culture

The Othering of Neighbourhoods by Mustafa Ahmed (Walrus Talks)

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