Published August 22nd, 2023 by Rose-Marie Athiley
The Minneapolis-based Somali collective provides support for up-and-coming artists and a space for fostering community connections.
The birth of the Somali artist collective, Soomaal House of Art, arose from the need of the Somali-Minnesotan community, like any other, to create and engage with art that reflects and documents their lived experiences and history.
Founders Mohamud Mumin, Khadijah Muse, and Kaamil A. Haider, all artists themselves, bring lived experiences to their work.
“Whenever I was approached for opportunities, it felt like I was being tokenized… to check some box,” says Mumin. “We were each facing systemic barriers, so it begs the question: If you are the artist who is producing the work, why can’t you be the one to show it? That was the crucible.”
According to a 2022 APM Research Lab article, “72% of Minnesotans indicate that the state’s cultural amenities reflect their heritage and culture either 'very well' or 'somewhat well.' Results vary significantly by race and ethnicity, however, with three-quarters of White Minnesotans (77%) indicating that the state’s cultural amenities reflect their heritage and culture well, compared with less than half of all BIPOC Minnesotans (46%).”
As a newer part of the historical narrative of Minnesota, the Somali community faces the challenge of not being reflected in the state's cultural archives. Mumin, Muse, and Haider wanted to create a platform for Somali artists to address this disparity, allowing artists to showcase their work on their terms “instead of waiting for a benevolent gatekeeper” to do it for them, says Mumin.
Attendees at I Wonder, 2023. Photo courtesy of Soomaal House of Art.
When talking about the work of Soomaal House, Mumin describes it as collective space-making.
“Space for [Somali] artists to be themselves, to create, to be inspired to make and show,” he says. “And space for the community to see themselves reflected back, [and engage with] art that reflects back to them their reality, hopes, and dreams.”
Since their founding in 2014, artists and makers have been the core of their work, over time Soomaal has evolved into more than an art space.
“Initially, we were like … we’re artists, let's do what we know best, creating and showing art and interacting with artists. But it turned out, the community also had an ask for us … a place to gather and capitalize on the network that Soomaal has,'' says Mumin. “Yes, we’re a contemporary art space, but also it's much more than that. [We have] a symbiotic relationship with the community.”
This interdependence came to the forefront in 2020 when access to third spaces became limited if not completely inaccessible. The term third space was coined by Ray Oldenburg in the early 1990s and it refers to the familiar public places of gathering and socializing (e.g. coffee shops, parks, community centers).
In 2018, after more than four years of exhibitions in mosques, community centers, yoga studios, and other third spaces, the art collective acquired a physical space on the edge of the Seward neighborhood. Mumin says it’s “a place that feels natural … all of these areas [Cedar-Riverside, Phillips, and Elliot Park] are close and have the highest density of Somalis [in Minnesota]. Soomaal’s location allowed it to continue serving its community during the pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, everything was closed and we didn’t have any alternatives to bringing people together. [Then the] uprising happened, yet people still wanted to come to the space…initially [we thought] people just wanted to hang out,” says Mumin. “But we realized the space meant something to the community when [they] were still asking about programming … so we began outdoor programming and we screened films with no ulterior motive other than getting people together and that was powerful… It was much needed.”
A speaker at Ilaa Maanta/Since Today Series, 2020. Photo courtesy of Soomaal House of Art.
Soomaal has become a popular event space as non-arts organizations see the community they’ve cultivated as an asset to their missions. For example, they have partnered with Niyyah Recovery Initiative which works to provide culturally responsive recovery support to East African immigrants.
Along with Soomaal House’s exhibitions, these community events serve as a space of activation for artists of all ages and experiences.
“Even to this day,” Mumin says, “every time we have an exhibition, we have one or two young people who [say] 'I’m doing art, I consider myself an artist but I didn’t know where to go or that there were other Somali artists in the city.'”
These artists often go on to participate in Soomaal House’s residencies, fellowships, and workshops. While most of Soomaal’s artist programs target young adults, this summer witnessed the I Wonder exhibition program for youth, welcoming children aged 4-11. The inspiration came from the daughter of Muse’s friend Faduma who expressed the desire to create. Mumin says she was often at events in the gallery and one day said “I want to make art and put it up there, I want to do what you guys are doing.”
I Wonder invited gallery visitors to “experience the magic that unfolds when unbounded creativity takes center stage.” This exhibition stands as a testament to Soomaal House’s commitment to meeting the evolving needs of its community.
Artists at I Wonder, 2023. Photo by Soomaal House of Art. Left to Right: Zoya, Iman, Safa, Jannah, Jena, Shamhaad. Front: Ziyan. Photo courtesy of Soomaal House of Art.
Looking ahead, Mumin hopes for Soomaal to be an art institution that prevents the injustices of organizations that came before.
“We want to be the art institution of the future, today there's a lot of inequities and injustices plaguing the US and the world,” says Mumin. “The status quo can no longer hold things together. And so if we want a just and equitable world, we have to build the institutions that can sustain us.”
In the near future, Soomaal would like to acquire a more spacious venue for exhibitions, knowledge building, and archiving. Mumin likens Soomaal to a hermit crab outgrowing its shell.
The number of artists in the collective continues to grow, and, with that, the demand for dedicated areas for contemplation and creation has also grown. Since the initial goals of the existing space were focused on exhibitions and gatherings, it has become somewhat confined.
Mumin also worries that the size of the space might limit artists’ creative scope in terms of the size of their art. He says that Soomaal's vision includes enhanced archival capabilities, ample room for artists to document their work, and improved storage facilities.
Soomaal House of Art's journey is propelling them toward a spatial transformation, but until then, Soomaal will continue operating from its current location on Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis.
Their current exhibition, Blooming Lotus Flower, “examines the intricate web of connections among women.” Multidisciplinary artist and poet, Khadija Charif employs photographs, poetry, installation, and audio to examine the concepts of Somali womanhood and sisterhood. ◼︎
Attendees at Ilaa Maanta/Since Today Series, 2020. Photo courtesy of Soomaal House of Art.
Banner image from Diinsi Abuur, on view at The Bows in Mohkínstsis (Calgary, Alberta). Image courtesy of the Soomaal House of Art website.
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