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As they see it

November 21, 2008


Art exhibit featuring documentary photos taken by Somali youth.

The current exhibit at the Andersen Library Gallery features a video coordinated by the Minnesota Historical Society and documentary photos taken by Somali youth in the Twin Cities.

Photo: Rick Moore

Exhibits chronicle the life of Somali residents in the Twin Cities

By Rick Moore

As Minnesota's population continues to grow and become even more diverse, one particular group of new immigrants has become inextricably woven in our collective tapestry.

The stories of how and why Somali immigrants arrived here—along with their lifestyle and many of their customs—may still be foreign to many Minnesotans. But a series of exhibits and programs at the U are offering a glimpse at Somali life in America and, in particular, the Twin Cities.

"As I See It: Images from the Lives of Twin Cities Youth," is on display in the Andersen Library Gallery on the West Bank of the Twin Cities campus through December 9. The exhibit brings together documentary photos and other work from students at the Ubah Medical Academy, the Sheridan Neighborhood youth group Sheridan Shooting Stars, and video projects coordinated by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Later in November and December, additional project work will be displayed on the second and third floors of Andersen Library.

And next summer the Weisman Art Museum, in partnership with Arts Midwest, will bring to Minneapolis the highly-anticipated exhibition "Stories of the Somali Diaspora: Photographs by Abdi Roble." It will be on display June 20-September 13, 2009.

As Doug Rutledge points out in The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away (a book featuring many of Roble's photographs), the Somali community in the Twin Cities is large and thriving. Nearly 100,000 Somalis live in the Twin Cities, and there are approximately 600 Somali businesses in the area, including dozens housed in three Somali malls.

The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood near the West Bank is the center of the community, but Somalis live all around the metro area including in the suburbs. There is also a culturally sensitive education option for children. The Twin Cities International School, Minnesota International Middle School, and Ubah Medical Academy are the elementary, middle, and high schools that cater to Somalis.

The "As I See It" exhibit is from the perspective of Somali youth in the Twin Cities, a group faced with the joint challenges of adapting to the customs of a new country while preserving its own cultural and religious heritage.

The photos are of people, places, and topics that hold special meaning for the youth, including family members and friends, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the Franklin Library, traditional items of dress, the practices of prayer and ablution (washing), and Somali businesses, including the malls.

Says a caption next to one of the mall pictures: "The Somali mall acts as a market, a place where services are conducted, and a communication center where the news travels like sound. The Somali mall is a place where tribal and religious leaders solve disputes and make important decisions."

Somali poets perform
Hear "Poetry of the Somali Diaspora," a special performance by young Somali poets, on Thursday, November 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. in Room 120 of Elmer Andersen Library on the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota.

The poetry starts at 6 p.m. and there will be an open mic at 7 p.m. Refreshments will be served, and there will be tours of the "As I See It" exhibition in the Andersen Library Gallery. The event is free and open to the public.

At one end of a wall of photos, a television plays a 45-minute video titled "Two Homes One Dream: The Somalis in Minnesota," a 2004 production by the Somali Skyline Tower History Project in conjunction with the Minnesota Historical Society.

One segment of the video, "What's With the Hijab?," features Somali young women discussing the hijab—or headscarf—and why they choose to wear it or, in some cases, not wear it.

Some of the girls speak of wanting to honor their families, and one says, "Every time I wear it, I feel close to God." But others point out the discomfort they feel when non-Somalis judge them or joke about how they must not have any hair beneath the hijab.

"If you want to learn about me, come up to me in a nice way," suggests one girl. "If you're willing to learn from us, we're willing to teach you why we wear the hijab."

The exhibit contains an area for youngsters, featuring tiny chairs and Somali children's books. It also features an area with a prayer rug and a copy of the Qu'ran.

Additional events during the coming year will include educator training programs, a public performance of poetry by local Somali young adults (see sidebar), and work to highlight community businesses and organizations.