How Minneapolis’ Somali Immigrants Are Keeping Their Artistic Traditions Alive

somali2The Somali community in Minneapolis experienced a lot of firsts in 2013. Abdi Warsame was elected to the City Council and took office in December. Barkhad Abdi earned Oscar buzz, in his inaugural acting and film role as a pirate in “Captain Phillips,” for going head to head with Tom Hanks. And Osman Ali founded the first Somali art museum in North America in the Plaza Verde building at 1516 E. Lake Street.

The Somali Artifact and Cultural Museum is a 700-piece collection amassed by Ali, who owns Sanaag Coffee and Restaurant and is a Somali community leader. The collection encompasses a wide range of objects that document Somalia’s traditional nomadic way of life: camel bells and woven milk “jars,” drums and clothing, jewelry and spears, vessels and prayer mats.

Mogadishu was formerly home to the world’s only Somali cultural museum. But over the past two decades, the museum’s contents have been scattered across the world. While the nation has been engaged in civil war, with many formerly nomadic citizens moving into the cities or living in diaspora, immigrants like Ali have worried that many traditional art forms have been destroyed or vanished.

Ali started compiling the artifacts four years ago after re-visiting his native country. His collection, he says, is a platform through which Somali immigrants “can educate younger generations that don’t know about their culture of origin.” In addition, the museum gives Minneapolis’ large Somali immigrant community—some estimates put the population at more than 75,000—a viable presence and a voice.

The museum is also a portal through which Ali can expose Minnesotans to the cultural and social relevance of Somali art and artifacts, and explore and teach Somali traditions—whether or not visitors are of African heritage. And the museum doesn’t exist within a vacuum. The growing Somali immigrant community has transformed the Twin Cities into an area rich with 3,500 Somali-owned businesses, which offer traditions from authentic cuisine to the ancient, artistic form of expression known as henna. For Somali artists, Ali says, the desire to create “runs in the blood.”

Preserving a disappearing culture  

Since gaining independence from Great Britain in 1960, Somalia has been attempting to unify its five sections as represented on its flag by a five-pointed star. After civil war broke out in 1991, about 30,000 Somalis fled to the United States. One third of that population currently resides in Minnesota. In the past two decades, according to the 2011 U.S. Census, the community has doubled in size.

Only by chance did Ali and his collection end up in the land of 10,000 lakes. Born in Somalia, Ali moved with his family to Yemen while he was young. As an adult, he returned to Somalia, but eventually settled in the United Arab Emirates. After spending seven years in Dubai, he received a visa by lottery. With his wife and five children, Ali moved to New York. They later joined family members in Houston, but then decided to settle in Minneapolis.

“Here is the right place,” Ali says, beaming, as he stands in the doorway of his museum. Minneapolis’ strong Somali community provided his family with an instant sense of belonging. In 2009, Ali returned to Somalia for the first time since leaving and gained a new perspective on the everyday objects of the country’s nomadic people.

He noticed more people were migrating to modern metropolises and enjoying the conveniences of city living. Consequently, the creation of their traditional art and artifacts was declining. Ali began collecting anything he could get his hands on, in an effort to sustain remnants of the quickly disappearing culture.

The desire to collect and preserve aspects of his culture “is something in my blood,” he says. “I see that the art is something that the ancestors used as a way to survive, the art gave them life. You get proud of the art. If you collect it, you keep this history for life.”

For Ali, maintaining Somalia’s ancestral traditions is in itself a form of art. “I am an artist also,” he says, with the museum as his crowning achievement.

A living art

Among Somalia’s artistic traditions are storytelling (which revolves around music and poetry), weaving, pottery, and woodcarving. Many of these arts, and their artifacts, are represented in the Somali Artifact and Cultural Museum. One art that isn’t in the museum, but can be found in Minneapolis’ “Somali malls,” is henna. While more than 100 Somali henna artists call Minnesota home, none may be as well known, or as sought after, as Sabrina Seyf.

Visiting Suugda Karmel on 29th and Pillsbury, Minneapolis’ largest Somali mall, is like stepping into a Mogadishu street market. Long narrow hallways are lined with clothing shops and cafes. Stall number 110 is draped, floor to ceiling, in jewel-toned kaftans. The dresses’ crystal-encrusted necklines gleam against the black-painted walls. Behind those walls is the henna studio.

Laughter billows from the tiny space as women chatter and wave arms freshly painted with ornate patterns. “Drying is the worst part,” says Hani Farah, a bride-to-be who drove 10 hours for Seyf’s distinctive pictorialization. Seyf’s intricate designs—which feature tiny flowers, circles, and dots—are coveted for their drama and elegance.

Seyf, who is 22, has already developed a cult-like following. Devotees fly in from as far away as Atlanta to get tattooed for their wedding days. While henna is traditionally for brides, and done at women’s parties, henna fanatics find any excuse to have Seyf embellish their bodies with her creations.

A fourth-generation henna artist, Seyf was born and raised in Minneapolis. She grew up watching her grandmother and mother henna their clients in the family home. Seven years ago, the women realized their clientele had grown too large to accommodate at home. So they opened the studio in Suugda Karmel and Seyf tattooed her first Somali bride.

“When it comes to other arts, I can’t draw at all,” she says. “But with henna, the designs just come to me. I consider myself an artist.”

Henna is a 5,000-year-old tradition rooted in India, Africa, and the Middle East. The crushed leaves of the henna plant are mixed with water to form an amber-brown or black paste. After the mixture reaches a toothpaste-like consistency, Seyf puts the paste into a cone-shaped bag with a slender opening, squeezes the bag, and draws her designs. After drying for 30 minutes, the hardened paste is scraped off, leaving a design that can last for two weeks.

“Henna is the Somali version of a manicure and pedicure,” Seyf says, laughing. “We get it done all the time.” Somali women stick to feet, hands and arms. But non-Somali women are also embracing henna, and during the summer months ask for designs that may appear on their legs or backs. Seyf attributes the increase in non-Somali clients to their interest in the culture, but her reputation and style are her own doing.

Pride and preservation

Like Ali, Seyf takes tremendous pride in the traditional arts of Somalia and sustaining their existence for future generations. Plans are already in place for Ali to expand his museum, in order to include a life-size replica of a nomadic hut. Soon, he and co-founder Sarah Larsson will offer classes in Somali poetry, weaving, dancing, and language. Seyf is a new mother and looking forward to training her daughter as a fifth generation henna artist.

By keeping their artistic traditions alive, Ali, Seyf, and other Somalis are creating new lives in the Twin Cities while benefiting and enriching the lives of others, and our whole community.



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