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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

Africa

Warlord’s fighters become movie stars as Ugandan cinema booms

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BLOOMBERG — Opio was 16 when he was abducted by a Bible-quoting warlord and forced into a militia notorious for massacres and sexual slavery. Two decades on, he again took up a rifle — this time playing one of his former comrades in an award-winning Ugandan movie.

As the cameras rolled, he and other actors stormed a village set, shot at civilians and were ambushed at a river crossing. It was all for ‘The Devil’s Chest,’ one of two feature films about Joseph Kony and his rebel Lord’s Resistance Army that was made on location in northern Uganda last year and stirred some painful memories.

“I felt it all coming back, the frustrations, the helplessness and how sometimes I would feel that I just wanted to die,” said Opio, who’s now 38 and spent seven years in the LRA before fleeing and accepting a state-sponsored amnesty. “But at the end of it all, I knew it was just a movie — I had already left that real life in the past.”

Uganda, too, has moved on from the chaos sown by Kony’s militia, which may have been responsible for 100,000 deaths in central and eastern Africa in the past three decades. There’s been an investment in oil exploration and infrastructure in the north, which the LRA terrorized until 2005, while the capital, Kampala, is touted as a hot new nightlife spot. Now at peace — and still under the iron rule of President Yoweri Museveni — U.S. ally Uganda is a regional heavyweight, sending troops to Somalia and South Sudan.

The country isn’t a complete stranger to Hollywood: ‘The Last King of Scotland’ recreated the despotic 1970s rule of President Idi Amin, while Lupita Nyong’o played the mother of a chess prodigy in Disney’s ‘Queen of Katwe,’ which takes its title from a Kampala neighbourhood. Recent years, though, have brought a surge in locally funded films. Museveni’s drive to remain in office may have curbed political expression, but it hasn’t dampened creativity in an economy that’s almost quadrupled in size since he took power in 1986.

At least 700 Ugandan features and short films have played at festivals in the past five years, according to Ruth Kibuuka, content development manager at the Uganda Communications Commission, the industry regulator. While quality was initially “wanting,” it has “greatly improved,” partly due to technical training, she said.
There’s still a long way before Uganda challenges Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry that produces movies at a rate second only to India’s. That’s despite the efforts of Nabwana Isaac Godfrey. The founder of Wakaliwood, a studio that turns out scrappy, fast-paced action movies from a Kampala slum, he says he’s directed about 60 since 2005 — at less than $300 each.
Driving Passion

“The industry is growing at a very good speed and it’s passion that is driving it,” said Godfrey. His most famous production,‘Who Killed Captain Alex?,’ showcases the crude computer-generated effects and over-the-top violence that’s won him a cult following outside Uganda.

For director Hassan Mageye, ‘Devil’s Chest’ commemorates the insurgency’s victims while showing that people have moved on. It won best feature at Uganda’s main film festival in September but hasn’t yet been widely released. He estimated about 90 percent of the 400-strong cast were affected by Kony’s rebellion, including some ex-fighters.

Roger Masaba, who portrayed Kony, said he was advised by some of the cast who’d met the real man. The 47-year-old said he was surprised not everyone off the set in the north expressed dislike for the warlord. While he was in costume, some even thought he was Kony.

Kony, who’s been indicted by the International Criminal Court and still on the run, went on to plague South Sudan and the Central African Republic with a much-diminished militia. His former fighters in Uganda were mostly granted amnesty by the government, which has provided counseling and outlawed discrimination against them.

There’s a strong local appetite for stories about Uganda’s past, according to Steve Ayeny, the director of ‘Kony: Order From Above,’ another feature about the rebels and their captives filmed at a northern army base. He said about half his 445 actors and extras were former insurgents.

Reenacting the lynchings and burning of villages “was not easy,” said Ayeny, who had friends killed during the period his film portrays. “Because they were the truth, we just had to deal with it and say, ya, let’s move on.”

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MINNESOTA: Gustavus professor, student to show documentary on Somali-Americans

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Southern Minn — The hopes and experiences of several Somali-Americans are shown in “(Mid)west of Somalia,” a documentary by a professor-student team at Gustavus Adolphus College.

The film will be shown in its first local public showing at 7 p.m. March 1 at St. Peter High School Performing Arts Center.

Communications studies professor Martin Lang said it was project he embarked on, knowing there was more to the Somali-American story than the reports about terrorism recruitment or conflicts with new neighbors.

“As I’ve lived here in St. Peter for a dozen years now, I’ve come to know more and more of the population in St. Peter and the Somali population in particular,” he said. “I’ve come to know diverse sides of them. It was such a contrast with what I had learned and had known about Somali immigrants smashed up against the people I was meeting and I knew I can’t be the only one surprised at what is below the surface here.”

He and student Noah O’Ryan did the bulk of filming in the summer of 2016.

They talked with Somali-American community leaders as well as people they knew personally, and those connections helped them network more widely. The documentary subjects are all at least part-time students with at least part-time jobs. They primarily live in Mankato or St. Peter; a few are from Faribault.

Lang said they didn’t set out for the film to focus on people pursuing education. He suspects that is a product of the location and so many young Somali-Americans are seeking to do their best.

“Education is a really high priority for Somali families, especially for the first generation,” he said. “The millennial generation feels a really strong responsibility to do right by the family’s sacrifice.”

Lang said Somali-Americans are like many Minnesotans. They value education, want their hard work and effort respected and intend to be “fully fledged, contributing members of our communities in a variety of ways,” he said.

Hanan Mohamud is a senior at Gustavus Adolphus College from Faribault. She is pursuing a psychology degree and wants to be a physician’s assistant. She’s one of the Somali-Americans profiled in the documentary.

She was approached by Lang about being in the film a few years after she was in his public discourse class. She agreed to be involved because “It was empowering and I had a lot to say.” She also connected him to two others.

Mohamud said she agreed, in part, to combat demeaning stereotypes.

“Most people honestly have no idea,” she said. “They think we’re living off welfare and whatnot. A lot of us go to school and only came to the country to get an education.”

Education is something that can’t be taken away and can help their home country. She said the documentary shows what she and others have experienced in the U.S., along with their aspirations and their priorities.

“It’s a very good film,” Mohamud said. “There’s some humor in it and, obviously, there are serious parts. It looked well put-together and he made sure the voices of people he was filming were well heard.”

Some of the documentary’s subjects will be part of a panel with Lang after the showing. The documentary, which runs about 35 minutes, has been shown a few times to small groups, but this is the first large public viewing.

The showing comes as part of the first Thursday film series by the Nicollet County Historical Society and Community and Family Education. It is also sponsored by the college, city Department of Leisure and Recreation Services and Senior Center.

“I think this is an important film because it tells the story of people who live, work, and attend school in this area,” Community and Family Education Director Tami Skinner said. “I hope that it will generate conversations in the community which will lead people to reach out to their new neighbors.”

Lang said he hopes it spurs understanding and conversation.

“The bigger picture for me is communication and dialog and in sort of a difficult political time, dialog is so much harder than it used to be,” he said. “It’s so important for all of us to be able to talk and pay attention to each other at least a little bit. I want to inspire conversation across divides that keep us apart.”

I think this is an important film because it tells the story of people who live, work, and attend school in this area. I hope that it will generate conversations in the community which will lead people to reach out to their new neighbors.

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Arts & Culture

This Somali Culture Zine Looks Amazing

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Photo by Ikram Mohamed via 1991

Safy Hallan Farah’s ‘1991’ zine will feature beautiful images and writing culled from the brightest young minds across the Somali diaspora.

Safy Hallan Farah didn’t think there were enough images of Somali people in media, so she took things into her own hands. In the summer of 2017, she conceived of the 1991 zine to “create the images” she wanted to see in the world. Farah, a writer who’s been in published in The New York Times, Vogue, Nylon and Paper, will release the first issue of 1991 later this year. She co-founded 1991 with Mia Nguyen—”even though she’s Vietnamese, she’s really passionate about the project,” Harrah explained—and is working on the zine with former VICE writer Sarah Hagi, model Miski Muse, Hadiya Shirea, and other Somali writers and artists.

“1991 is a Somali culture zine,” Farah told me in an email. “The name comes from how 1991 was the year the civil war broke out in Somalia, ushering a new beginning for Somalis everywhere. My collaborators and I would like to curate and edit work that plays with time and memory. From collage art that explores forgotten vestiges to writing by modern storytellers, 1991 will be at once a time capsule and an exploration of a Somali futurism that reconciles with the tumult of its past all while highlighting the creativity, style, resilience, and tenacity of Somali youth across the diaspora.”

Safy Hallan Farah | Photo by Nancy Musingguzi
VICE caught up with Safy over the phone to talk about her inspirations, growing up Somali-American in Minnesota, and Somali futurism.

Safy Hallan Farah | Photo by Nancy Musingguzi

VICE: Why did you title the zine 1991?
Safy Hallan Farah: I didn’t want people to project onto the name. I also didn’t want to marginalize the project by giving it an obscure Somali word as the name. And I like numerals. When things are in order, they tend to come first. 1991 is a palindrome, so it’s very stylistically interesting to look at. I was keen on not having something look ugly on the magazine because I think some words are ugly, some words won’t look beautiful to the wrong audience, and we want to cultivate a diasporic audience that isn’t necessarily Somali. Having it be called 1991 would be an interesting way to get a message across and have people ask us [about it instead of asking], “What does that word mean?” They’ll ask, “What is the significance of 1991?”

What is the significance of 1991?
We had this dictator named Siad Barre and he was ousted by people who were really mad at him, for good reasons because he sucked a lot. Then a civil war broke out, and that’s why there are so many displaced Somali refugees in countries like the United States, England, Australia, and pretty much everywhere. Somalis are everywhere.

Why is it important for you to have a zine that represents Somali voices?
It’s about [Somali] images. There aren’t images of Somali people that I want out there in the world. A magazine project can help create the images I want to see. Something I’m always thinking is, “Where are the Somali photographers who shoot in the particular styles that I happen to gravitate toward?” Through 1991, I’ve been able to connect with really amazing photographers I didn’t know existed and models. I’m interested in putting more diverse images out there of Somali people, particularly women and youths.

Tell me a little about your personal journey. How did you reach the point where you decided to create 1991 and felt the need to boost the voices of other Somali writers and artists?
I always felt like it was in my best interest to keep my head down and do my work and not create anything of my own, and keep doing what I have been doing, which is publishing articles at different publications, mostly because I felt like I didn’t necessarily know if it was the right time in my life to helm a project like that. I was inspired by my friend Kinsi Abdulleh who runs an organization in London called NUMBI Arts. She started this amazing Somali zine in 2010 called Scarf and she gave me a bunch of issues when I met her in Wales in 2015. Had I not been introduced to her work, I would not be doing this kind of project. It really got me thinking about creating community and creating spaces for Somali people and through just thinking about that over the course of the last three, four years, it’s gotten to the point where I am now, where I can focus on a project like [ 1991].

Image by Ikran Abdille via 1991

Can you tell us about your upbringing as a Somali-American in Minnesota, your relationship with your ethnic identity throughout your life, and how it led you to creating this zine?
Fun fact: I didn’t really speak Somali until I was nine. That’s because I only spoke Somali as a kid and my parents didn’t teach me English, but they taught me how to read [in English] before I was four. When I started kindergarten, I actually realized, “Oh shit, people speak English, I’m a weirdo, I don’t know how to communicate with anyone.” So I learned English really quickly, and I graduated from ESL class after the first couple months of first grade, and then I didn’t speak Somali for years. I completely disassociated from speaking Somali. This is something that happens with a lot of immigrant kids. When I moved to Minneapolis [from San Jose] when I was nine-years-old, I learned Somali because Minneapolis has a huge Somali population. I was going to pretty much all-black, all-Somali schools, and then I learned how to speak and write in Somali. Now I speak pretty fluent Somali. I think my relationship with my culture changed when I started being around more Somali people.

Why did you gravitate toward the medium of collage?
There are going to be a lot of written pieces, but I just like the idea of having that DIY aesthetic that a lot of zines have with collage. But also being design-minded. I really love Apartmento Magazine and The Gentlewoman. I want to strike a balance between good design and DIY.

You’ve mentioned “Somali futurism” in your description of the project. Can you explain what that is?
I remember when I was a senior in high school—most of my friends were Somali and most of my classmates were Somali—and everyone would be like, “Well, I’m gonna study this because then I get to go back to Somalia and do this.” Everyone would say stuff like that. Even though a good chunk of those kids weren’t actually born in Somalia, but everyone was always thinking of Somalia’s future and what’s next for us and what we can do for Somalia. What really interests me is what kind of voices will emerge in the diaspora that will push toward more progressive politics, more interesting sounds and textures and visuals. I’m more interested in the ideas that are going to go back to Somalia, rather than the people and the jobs.

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