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Somali-American artists mount ‘huge’ show in Minneapolis’ West Bank neighborhood

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By Alicia Eler

Minneapolis-based Soomaal House of Art collective kicks off its second group exhibition this weekend with an ambitious show spanning three venues in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. “Receptacle” opens Saturday at Chase House Community Room (1530 S. 6th St., 2nd floor, Mpls.) with a spoken word performance by poet Muna Abdulahi. The exhibition is concurrently on view at Masjid Dar Al-Hijrah/ICSA (504 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.) and Masjid Shaafici Cultural Center (400 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.) through Aug. 5.

Curated by Minneapolis photographer Mohamud Mumin, “Receptacle” features the work of 13 Somali-American artists: Aziz Osman, Abdi Roble, Ali Halane, Famo Musa, Hodan Essa, Kaamil Haider, Khadijah Myse, Mohamed Hersi, Dr. Mohamed Samatar, Suhair Barod, Tariq Tarey, and the curator himself, Mohamad Mumin. Half are from Minnesota and the others from locations around the U.S. The show is substantially larger than the group’s inaugural exhibition, 2016’s “Anomalous Expansion,” which featured just six Somali-American artists, all from Minnesota. We caught up with Mumin to ask about the show, the work and the meaning behind mounting an art exhibition at a mosque. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why is the show named “Receptacle”? What is the meaning behind that?

A: It’s sort of like, we were thinking about building off of last year’s exhibition, “Anomalous Expansion,” I suppose we wanted to think about the space a lot more. And to have this experience being more than just people coming in, looking at artwork, but to be more engaging, to engage with the artist. As you can see from our programs, we have something going on every week with our artists. So we were thinking about in a sense, the space itself, thinking about also the receptacle being the thing that you put things into – if you were thinking about a container, each artist being able to contribute, chip in their ideas through their work into these receptacles, and in the process the audience can also take something away from it being that it is the first time something like this has been done in the West Bank by Somali artists.

Q: What was the inspiration for the show?

A: The inspiration for the show also goes hand-in-hand for the inspiration of the collective, the idea being moving from this space where you are presenting content and not having a say in terms of what it needs to be and where it needs to go. The artists in this show have had institutional shows, too. So for this show we wanted to be in control – we wanted to center the narrative. We know this work more than anybody else and we know the community, so we wanted to only depend on ourselves rather than be at the mercy of institutions where sometimes the space is limited and pre-determined and the theme is set. We wanted to move away from that.

For the collective and these exhibitions, that’s what it came down to. And funding. For the first show, “Anomalous Expression,” it was more like, [making it happen] by any means necessary, but it’s morphed into its own thing now. People were asking after that first show, when is the next one? When can we see? How it came about was that, we needed to build on the momentum and engage. So building the audience also goes hand in hand with the show’s conceptual framework, and teaching in some ways — I always like to say that we wear many hats, one of them is to make critical work, and at the same time teach. So we are constantly – and mostly in our own communities first, and then outward.

Q: So what is the work like?

A: We have photography, painting, ceramics, film, photography, installation, you name it. In the show we have 13 artists from different parts of the country, all over the U.S. The previous show had six artists, all from Minnesota, and this one we have seven from Minnesota, and the rest are from out of state, from Columbus, Ohio, to North Carolina, Atlanta, San Diego. They range from established to emerging artists. Most of the work is also site-specific, functioning in the walls in the spaces. We work with what we’ve got [on site] rather than go for the clean white walls.

Above: Ali Halane (Sedalia, Missouri) – bronze pottery

Q: What are some of the specific themes in the exhibition?

A: From my initial conversations with most of the artists, last year the theme was more religious undertones, the sublime, in terms of Islamic art, but this year it is mostly about engaging with the space, activating the exhibition space, and artwork about culture, heritage and family.

For instance, Mohamud Hersi will be doing a live finishing of his live painting [on Saturday, July 15 from 12-5 p.m.], to a film being screened on Saturday, July 21 by filmmaker Tariq Tarey called Nasro’s Journey, to Abdi Roble, who is a photographer but also a community archivist, and he will bring in some of his archives – not his personal work, but also some of the postcards and stuff he collected over the years.

Finally, when I started getting the work it came down to looking at culture and heritage, things that are grounded in family. So each artist is connected to his own family, things that are coming out – for instance Ali Halane, who has a ceramic vase made out of bronze, and some that are made out of clay, which is the dominant material for ceramics that come out of Somalia.

One of the photographers, Tariq Tarey, co-founder of the Somali Documentary Project, is based out of Columbus, Ohio, he’s looking some of his studio work and his documentation of Somali refugees. So each artist has a little bit of flavor so they stand alone, but overall it’s culture, heritage, family. For Tarey, it’s the ethics for him of studio and also documentary style, but also what does that mean when you are photographing your own people?

Q: What was the decision to have the exhibition in three different spaces?

A: Again it goes back to the overall theme, about the space, the location, the title of the exhibition. We wanted to have the entire West Bank – it’s huge. We wanted it to be connected in different locations. There’s also another motive, to bring people to different spaces, for instance the mosque, but also continuing forth with the previous idea – having artwork in a mosque location. We can’t say it’s the first time now, because now it’s the second time. So people will be able to see this space, the mosque. And also the mosque, you know getting connected with younger folks, with art sometimes, and you see some distinction . . . there are some politics in that sense. But we wanted to use a mosque as a public space, though it’s private and intimate in the sense of religiosity and the kind of ritual, individual practice that happens. When you are looking at it as more of a public space, beyond being just a space for Muslims but for everybody.

Q: Are there any other similarities between this show and the first show, “Anomalous Expansion”? I know that you’re using the mosque in this show like the last one, and the same Minnesota artists are in this show. This show has twice as many artists in it, and they’re also from other parts of the country. Any other similarities, differences?

A: Aside from the similarities in terms of the art is the practice – this year we have ceramics, photography, film that will be screened, there will be a play, staged reading, a visual art experience, we wanted to also bring in other artists that are doing different things. And also expanding on the growing art space for Somali American artists is one thing, globally and nationally. We want to do local, then national, and then hopefully people who we are connecting to through social media overseas, how can they contribute aside from the logistical nightmare that is shipping artwork, I think that will be our next site for years to come.

Not only the general public, but the artists themselves were asking us: ‘Are you sure you want to have art in the mosque?’ Now new artists are asking the same questions, and then they’re like, ‘okay we’ll see what happens.’ I think there’s more acceptance now. When we went to the mosque here, in Minneapolis, they were like ‘yeah check out what we did last year.’ So that kind of bought us some credit.

Above: Kaamil Haider’s installation shot of his public art work at Somali Independence Day block party on Lake street, Minneapolis — Somali Youth League monument, 2017. Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The exhibition was funded in part by a $10,000 grant from Midway Contemporary, which described the 2017 “Receptacle” exhibition as “an extension of the first Anomalous Expansion exhibition’s mission to explore the significance of the sacred space, the Masjid, as both a public and private sphere and serve as an alternative art location that affords artists secure footing in their community,” with the mission of “fostering artistic experimentation in exploring Somali Muslim American identity within the supportive environment of the Mosque and exposing many Somalis to art as routinely as possible.”

In addition to the exhibition itself, there’s an array of programming. This text is excerpted from the “Receptacle” press materials:

Friday, July 14, 2017 / 6–8pm

Abdi Roble, documentary photographer and community archivist, will present a lecture on his ongoing archival experience and facilitate image capture via scanning for the audience throughout the evening in collaboration with Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries and the Minnesota Digital Library.

Saturday, July 15, 2017 / 12–5pm

Painter Mohamed Hersi will bring his studio out into the open to finish his last piece for the exhibition.

Saturday, July 15, 2017 / 6–8pm

Reception program with moderated panel discussion with the artists.

Saturday, July 21, 2017 / 6–7:30pm

Filmmaker Tariq Tarey’s Nasro’s Journey will be screened with Q&A after the showing.

Saturday, July 29, 2017 / 6–7:30pm

Staged Reading of Axmed Cartan

DOCUMENTARY FILMS

Aamir Khan: The snake charmer – Witness

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Aamir Khan is one of the most popular and influential Bollywood actors in India today. He became a star of Hindi cinema in the 1980s, and his greatest commercial successes have been the highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time.

Yet in 2012, Khan’s career took an unexpected turn. Together with a childhood friend, he created a TV series called Satyamev Jayate which became the first prime time TV show in India to expose the country’s most critical social issues – from rape to female foeticide and dowry killings.

Aamir Khan was used to portraying macho men on a quest for vengeance and belongs to an industry accused of denigrating women and encouraging sexual violence.

But now, the 48 year old actor with Peter Pan charm risks his career by challenging men to re-examine their attitudes and behavior towards women, confronting the spiraling wave of gender-based violence in India and defying age-old stereotypes.

The snake charmer follows Khan on a journey through India’s TV and Bollywood film industry, as he attempts to change the way Indians perceive and treat women.

From the set of Satyamev Jayate, the film follows Aamir Khan backstage to his new Bollywood blockbuster Dangal.

Khan’s quest ultimately opens a window into a country in crisis and into the changes it is undergoing.

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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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