Arts & Culture

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

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

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