Creating space for Somali artists to thrive

As hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Somalia over the last 30 years, Minnesota, and the Twin Cities in particular, was quickly established as a welcoming place with ample work opportunities for resettling refugees, and word of mouth spread. Minnesota is now home to the largest Somali-American population in the country, with over 50,000 people in total reporting Somali ancestry.

But despite the large concentration of people with Somali heritage, there was no Somali-focused communal art space. There is the Somali Museum of Minnesota, the only museum dedicated to Somali culture in the world, which preserves and educates the public on traditional Somali arts and culture. But as for a dedicated artists’ space where contemporary Somali artists create and display their work, engage with the public, collaborate and learn from one another, share resources, advocate for and advance their art and their futures as artists, and otherwise build capacity—nothing like that existed.

From “Spearwave,” the monthly exhibition and gathering at Soomaal House Gallery, 2019.

Which is why Kaamil Haider and his friends, Mohamud Mumin and Zahra Muse, co-founded the Soomaal House of Art in St. Paul, an artists collective supporting a growing number of emerging and established Somali artists living in Minnesota and beyond.

“We started thinking about it in 2014 or 2015 and had our first exhibit in 2016,” he recalls. “We had no funding but we did have community support. We held our first exhibit at a local mosque in St. Paul. Our community hadn’t seen anything like that before—merging art and religion in that way.”

The Soomaal House of Art has had their own physical space in the Twin Cities for just over a year now; prior to that, their shows had been held in community centers, mosques, libraries, schools—”Wherever we could find space that allowed us to show.”

“We still are engaging the community and have art in places where fine art is normally not found,” Haider says. “When you have fine art museums not engaging the community, they might as well be on a different continent. We really try to make sure art is seen by all in the community and that they don’t have to travel to it.”

From Kaamil Haider’s Soo Bood, Bood / Come Jump, Jump, 2019, a multi-channel video installation produced for the Soomaal Fellowship.

Their goal with Soomaal House of Art is to provide artistic community and support for Somali artists through program exhibitions and fellowships, hosting local, national, and international artists of Somali heritage. They provide studio space, studio critiques, artistic community, mentorships for younger Somali artists, and exhibition space with educational programming.

Prior to the formation of Soomaal House of Art, local Somali artists had been exhibiting in different venues, but, Haider says, “This was the first time we had all of us exhibiting together, next to each other, so we could uplift each other and uplift other [Somali] people who were thinking about becoming artists, so they can see folks who look like them and who share the same heritage and cultural background. This gives you the power and inspiration to also do something and further inspires you.”

In addition to being the organizers behind Soomaal House of Art, the founders of the organization are also exhibiting artists themselves. “All of us leading this collective have the luxury to create the things we really would like to see,” he says.

Haider graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in graphic design. As a visual artist and graphic designer, he examines the power of memory, heritage, and archives in relation to his own personal experience and stories and that of his community—the Somali community in diaspora in Minnesota.

“Somalis in Minnesota have gone through a lot of transformations recently; that’s why we’re here,” he says. “We are in diaspora. Through my work I’m asking, what is the path of knowledge for Somalis in diaspora? How do you connect with your heritage in your new home, and give it a new form of expression?”

“The Stamps of Somalia” by Kaamil Haider, 2017.

He says his graphic design work and visual art mimic each other. “My design practice comes from researching the Somali aesthetic and finding new forms of expression through experimentation. I do the same thing with my individual art, but the visual art that I do is much more about memory, heritage, rituals, and connection.”

Haider is a 2019/20 Springboard for the Arts’ 20/20 Artist Fellow and 2019/20 MCADJerome Foundation Fellow for Early Career Artists. These grants are enabling him to leverage his time to continue focusing on his artistic practice, conduct research for his work, purchase equipment, and educate himself on funding sources in order to seek out future sources of funding.

At the same time, Haider is also helping other emerging artists to have a place to express themselves and show their work through his work with Soomaal House of Art.

“I think this is the first time you can see a collective of Somali artists exhibiting together,” he says. To the best of any of their knowledge, he says, no other such arts organization—focused entirely on creating opportunities for Somali artists to produce and exhibit work—exists in the United States…or anywhere else.

From “Spearwave,” the monthly exhibition and gathering at Soomaal House Gallery, 2019.

All of the monthly and annual shows produced by Soomaal House of Art are group-based, save for the individual shows highlighting the Soomaal Fellows, a fellowship initiative of the Soomaal House of Art in partnership with Augsburg University, which launched with the 2019 cohort. Haider was part of this inaugural cohort, which served as a sort of trial-and-error test run for the fellowship program.

“Our idea was if anybody offers you an opportunity, you take it, then grow it to turn it into a situation that you like,” he explains. With this fellowship, two artists are selected and the university pays each a stipend of $500 and also gives them full access to their resources, including the university’s studios, supplies, technical assistance, and opportunities for engagement with students and faculty. The fellowship also includes a solo exhibit at Augsburg University’s Gage Family Art Gallery and Christensen Center Art Gallery.

“We did our first one last year, which was a trial I was part of. Afterwards we regrouped to make it better,” Haider says. There are two more annual fellowships already planned with Augsburg. Soomaal also collaborate with other organizations like the Rochester Art Center to further increase opportunities for their artists to gain access to resources and exhibit their work.

From “Spearwave,” the monthly exhibition and gathering at Soomaal House Gallery, 2019.

The Soomaal House of Art is still a fledgling organization. They are not yet a nonprofit, though that is in the works. They have some fiscal sponsors but because they are not formally established as a nonprofit, they are ineligible for many organizational grants and cannot seek donations. In the long term, Haider explains, Soomaal would like to be formalized as a nonprofit, continue collecting artwork—they have already begun building their own collection of Somali contemporary art from the artists they’ve exhibited—and eventually own the space they inhabit.

“We want the ownership of land and to have a physical space that we own,” Haider says. “We really want to transition into an actual institution that, bottom-up, could really benefit artists of Somali descent, and other artists as well. Right now we can only do so much. We want to open our space to other communities as well, but right now we don’t have the time commitment or resources to do that. At some point we want to grow to owning the space and having more programs. We have a lot of ambition and ideas for the future.”

All photos courtesy of Soomaal House of Art and the artist.

Applications for the 2020 20/20 Artist Fellowship for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and Native artists of all practices, disciplines, and career stages residing or working in Minnesota will open later this month. Check the website for complete details.

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I like collaboration. I think that’s where a lot of ideas come from.

(2) How do you start a project?
Research and research and research. You want to take the time to do your research before you commit yourself to a project.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
I think if you immerse yourself into your artwork, then I think it [the personal values and beliefs you bring to the project] shows automatically without even having to say it.

(4) How do you define success?
There’s a small thing that kept happening at every exhibit: We had idea of what each exhibit would look like, but as a participating artist who is also organizing it you’re often rushing it. At the point in time when people come through the doors, there are things we did not even think about or anticipate that come up, which is the most beautiful thing ever because we didn’t have that control and it ends up so much more beautiful as a result. You can only do so much research and due diligence; at the end of the day, it’s the people that come and see this art and engage with you that puts you over the top that you couldn’t plan. The reception and the feedback—it completely changes everything. That’s why we love connecting the artwork to the people: you can have artwork hanging on the wall but if the people don’t see it, it has no merit or value.

(5) How do you fund your work?
Start with what you have first. If there was a table we didn’t use that much in the room, we can disassemble and use that. As artists, we’ll always find a way to create the work, but it’s not always the way you want it. Hence why funding helps. But starting with what you have [in your network of family and friends] rather than what’s given to you [in grants]—people always have something you don’t have that they don’t want and you might need. Also don’t allow yourself to put obstacles up to your work because of funding or space; there is always a way.