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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.”

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Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri named young people’s laureate for London

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THE GUARDIAN — The 24-year-old Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri, who has been chosen as the new young people’s laureate for London, is hoping to spend her year in the role convincing young people “to see poetry as part of their every day, rather than in some dusty tome, or academic niche interest”.

Mehri, who has a background in biochemical science and wrote the poetry chapbook sugah. lump. prayer, has been shortlisted for this year’s Brunel African poetry prize and won last year’s Out-Spoken Page poetry prize. As laureate, Mehri hopes to encourage young people to voice their concerns and experiences through poetry.

The poet, from Kilburn in north-west London, was selected for the role by a panel of arts organisations and poets, and is, according to Spread the Word’s chair of trustees Rishi Dastidar, “an inspired choice” and a “poet to watch”.

“For young people to have an artist who is an ambassador for them, who brings their concerns, struggles and joys to those in authority, and the wider world, is vital,” Dastidar said. “Her poetry is precise and powerful, and rich with images that are haunting. She is not afraid to tackle the biggest of subjects, which, combined with her talent, is going to give the role a renewed sense of purpose and visibility.”
Mehri said she was exposed to oral forms of poetry by her family when growing up, but only began writing for publication around four years ago. “Over time I honed, or found, my voice, and that allowed me to feel comfortable, finding the poetic voice I felt was most suited to me. Obviously at the beginning you’re very much inspired by your influences,” she said. “I think the poetry I write is interested in questions or ideas around disruption or movement, whether it’s movement of people or places, movement between different ideas, between how things change over different generations, and in themes of migration and urban spaces.”

During her time in the role, Mehri will be looking to amplify the voices of Londoners aged between 13 and 25, “to let them lead conversations, to be as inspired by them as hopefully they can be inspired by me”. She will work with writer-development agency Spread the Word on youth-focused residencies across London, head a tour to six outer London boroughs, and co-host a special project for young London poets called The Young People’s Poetry Lab.

According to research from the National Literacy Trust, 84% of teachers who participated in a poetry programme for disadvantaged children in London schools over a five-year period said their writing skills had improved.

Outgoing young people’s laureate for London, Caleb Femi, said that “poetry has the potential to play a vital part in self-expression and artistic enjoyment in the lives of young people”.

“We need a dedicated person who can assist in integrating the joys of poetry into the everydayness of young Londoners,” he added. “We are extremely lucky to have a talented and dedicated poet such as Momtaza Mehri appointed as the new young people’s laureate for London. Her tenure is sure to be an extraordinary one.”

Mehri said that she wanted to: “Reach everybody, to allow people to see poetry as part of everyday living in London, and all the different poetry traditions that people bring to London.”

“I am very much aware of the fact that I came out of a very different poetic tradition, and what that’s brought to my writing of the English language. So I want to be aware of the fact that people are carrying different poetic influences, whether they consider themselves poets or not,” she said.

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‘I grew up in a refugee camp, now I’m on the cover of Vogue’

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BELFAST TELEGRAPH — Halima Aden is used to firsts. She was St Cloud, Minnesota’s first Muslim homecoming queen, and St Cloud State University’s first hijab-wearing student senator. She was the first hijab-wearing contestant to compete in Miss Minnesota USA — she wore a burkini in the swimsuit round — and the first to be signed to a major agency, IMG, the industry colossus that also represents Miranda Kerr, Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne.

And last week the 20-year-old became the first hijab-wearing model to appear on the cover of British Vogue. “It’s taken 102 years for there to be a hijabi model on the cover,” Aden says. “People are very proud of this moment.” Indeed, by the time the issue appeared on news stands last Friday, the cover had already gone viral.

Alongside Aden, a Somali model born in a Kenyan refugee camp, appeared other faces rarely seen on the cover of a mainstream, European fashion magazine — the mainstream European fashion magazine — including South Sudanese Adut Akech, Indian Radhika Nair, Korean Yoon Young Bae and mixed-race, plus-size Paloma Elsesser. “I think the cover really was true diversity,” Aden says. “Not a matter of ticking boxes but really people from different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, all thriving in an industry that has brought us together.”

Officially she works in this industry: she has walked Milan Fashion Week catwalks for MaxMara and Alberta Ferretti, and for Yeezy, Kanye West’s fashion line, in New York. She has appeared on the front cover of Vogue Arabia.

Unofficially she is also a full-time ambassador for her faith, and for the hijab. This is inevitable, as Aden observes, matter-of-factly. “I’m the first high-fashion hijab-wearing model. Automatically, I know there are a lot of girls looking at me. I need to be a good role model, a good representative of my faith, a good ambassador to my community.”

Being this in the hyper-visual, exposed and exposing world of fashion does, though, invite scrutiny — from within and outside her community.

Aden admits she recently cleansed her Instagram (where she has 577k followers). “I really wanted to explore a new look,” she explains.

“But I noticed that my younger followers were messaging me and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t stuff I can wear. You’re the only person in fashion that I can look to, and you’re wearing stuff I can’t wear’. When I noticed that, I was like: ‘OK, it’s true’. I was still covered head to toe but I was trying out shorter dresses with knee-high boots. Those pictures got 60,000 likes but I wanted to stay true to my original followers. There are a million other models who can rock the same outfit but there’s not anyone besides me who can say, ‘I’m going to wear modest fashion’. I owe it to these little girls.”

Aden was born in Kakuma camp, in Kenya, in 1997. “I grew up in a refugee camp — there weren’t really many highlights,” she deadpans.

“I remember having malaria what felt like every other week. I remember scorpion bites and my mum having to apply Colgate toothpaste. It had a cooling effect.” She shrugs off any sense of victimhood. “I remember a lot of good things. When you don’t know ‘the other’, you tend to appreciate life.”

When she was seven her family went in pursuit of this ‘other’ life: Aden, her mother and younger brother were granted refuge in St Louis, Minnesota. “It was such a big deal,” she says. “A lot of Africans have the misconception that in America money grows on trees. But the neighbourhood we were in was very impoverished. You heard gunshots at night. The school I went to didn’t have an English language learners’ programme so I just went to school and listened and went home.”

After six months her mother moved the family to St Cloud on a word of mouth tip. There, teachers “would always help me, after school, during my lunch hour”. Her English is natural, her accent American.

“My mum made this quick call,” says Aden. “’I raised these kids, I went through hell and back for them, and I don’t want to risk them ending up in gangs, or in prison, or not getting a proper education’. It was really brave. African mums — I’m telling you,” she laughs.

Being crowned her school’s homecoming queen was “a big deal”.

“I’d never seen kids who are Muslim up for that, so I didn’t even think it was a possibility.”

And indeed, symbolically, it resonates: a prom is the gala event for the all-American teen experience, and she is a young Somali-American wearing a hijab.

She’s diplomatic about racial politics in contemporary, supercharged America. “Because Muslims are such a small number — one per cent in America — a lot of Americans never get to interact personally with a Muslim person.

“If you see horrible stories day in and day out on TV, you’re going to have this deep psychological fear of Muslims. It’s not right but that’s the hardest thing to show people — we’re not all the same. But fear is also human nature.”

She entered Miss Minnesota USA partly because there were scholarships up for grabs, but: “I also wanted to show other women in my home state that I didn’t conform in order to fit in. I wore a bathing suit — but it was a burkini.”

What happened next is one of those star-crossed fashion coincidences: Carine Roitfeld, former French Vogue editor, saw the pictures of her at Miss Minnesota USA and asked her to appear on the cover of CR Fashion Book, her new project and an influential countercultural industry tome. Roitfeld’s endorsement led to the IMG contract, which led to everything else.

Still, Aden was “shocked” to get the call from British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. “I met him at the British Fashion Awards in December. He was like: ‘I know we’re going to work together’. But I never imagined it being a cover story.”

For her portrait inside the magazine, Halima’s aesthetic is arch fashion: she slouches and pouts, staring down the camera in a mohair cape and woollen trousers — both Dior — and Altuzarra cowboy boots. She says it is “one of the biggest blessings that has come in my career” — though her favourite moment of the two-day shoot was off-set, shooting the breeze with fellow cover star Adut Akech.

It transpired the pair had been born in the same refugee camp. “We had a moment like The Parent Trap: ‘How old are you? What do your parents look like?’ And it was our first time meeting. Just imagine — these two girls from this camp, reunited for the first time on the cover of British Vogue. I can’t make that up.”

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