Given that Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali community in the United States, it shouldn’t have taken this long for Mia to mount its first exhibition of artwork by contemporary Somali artists. When “I Am Somali” opens on Saturday, three artists will finally get the exposure they deserve in a show featuring their drawings, paintings, and film.
Aziz Osman is one of those artists. Born in northern Somalia, the painter, sculptor, and ceramic artist grew up in the country’s capital, Mogadishu. He began making art as young as eight years old.
In 1968, he moved to Florence, Italy, to study architecture. There, his passion for painting came alive, inciting further formal study at the Florence Academy of Fine Arts.
Heavily influenced by European painters of the 1700s and 1800s, “I tried to assimilate, I tried to absorb as much as I could," he says. "I used to go at least two days a week to the museums. It completely changed my paintings and how to use the color.”
That color is a defining feature of Osman’s artwork, which focuses on quotidian yet heartwarming scenes of life in Somalia, including busy markets, a beach in Merca, and the Jubba River. The oil and acrylic paintings incorporate the flora, fauna, and architecture typical of Somalia, as well as intimate scenes of women preparing for tea time and an elderly couple sitting together in the sun. The pastoral paintings are extremely detailed, right down to the intricate patterns that decorate women’s clothing.
After graduation in 1975, Osman began exhibiting his artwork, traveling to places like Paris, Madrid, and Casablanca. But by the late 1980s, he was homesick. So he returned to Somalia, where his large family lived. After only one year back on his home turf, turmoil began: protests, uprising, and civil war broke out.
He and his wife sought political asylum. In 1991, they arrived in the United States. Eventually, they made the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis their home. As part of the first wave of Somalis to resettle in the city, there wasn’t much of a community yet. Still, "it was not bad, the life,” he says.
Moving to the U.S. meant Osman had to leave what he refers to as his “real job,” architecture, behind. He worked odd jobs, and taught at elementary schools in Edina and Apple Valley. Throughout this time, he continued painting landscapes, portraits, and abstract works. However, he found it difficult to find places that would exhibit his work -- despite being critically acclaimed.
“We tried a long time ago -- 1995, 1997, 2002 -- [to have an exhibition at the Mia]. I don’t know why they didn’t want it. I remember one time they invited the Somali community to the Institute. I was there. They [looked at my artwork and] said, ‘Hmm. We will contact you.’ They never contacted us. The only person really who was interested was Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers.”
Indeed, it is Grootaers, the curator of African art at Mia, who got behind this exhibition. It will feature the drawings of the self-taught artist Hassan Nor, as well as a multimedia installation of film, audio, fabric, and willow branches by multidisciplinary artist Ifrah Mansour. Together, these works examine homeland nostalgia, migration, identity, and microaggressions towards Muslim women and people of color. The artists’ ages range from the 80s (Nor) to the 30s (Mansour).
“Here in Minneapolis, in the Somali community, they think that my paintings are not good. But I think the next generation is opening their minds," he says.
Perhaps this is in part because of the Islamic tradition in Somalia which favors the written word over visual depictions of people. “Somalia is behind in the arts,” Osman says. “They are good for the poetics. That’s the country of poems. But we can teach them.”
What Osman would really like to impart to young people is the art of ceramics. “We have lots of clay in Somalia,” he says. “The people there are not taking advantage of the material that they have. They import everything instead of using what they have.”
While Osman’s art has not been completely ignored in Minnesota -- among his accomplishments here, he painted a mural for the Midtown Global Market with Richard Amos and has shown pieces at the Somali Museum of Minnesota, the African Development Center, and Public Art St. Paul -- he still longs for his country of origin and hopes to return.
“That’s my idea, really: to go back,” he says, “to work as an architect, to teach painting and sculpture.”
IF YOU GO:
“I Am Somali: Three Visual Artists From the Twin Cities”
Minneapolis Institute of Art
The exhibition opens on Saturday, August 19 and runs through April 29
Admission is free