ST. PAUL — St. John’s Catholic Church was built in 1922 to serve the growing Irish immigrant parish that was founded in 1887 on the city’s east side. When Mohamud Mumin, an artist I had invited to speak to my visual culture class at Macalester College last year, asked me to see a new exhibition that he had helped organize and had work in,
I was excited to see it. My GPS led me to the Darul Uloom Center for Islam, giving me no indication that it would look like a church with a school next-door. Mumin waved to me from the door of the school. When I walked into this new art space, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.
I stood frozen in an old Catholic school classroom filled with the wood-and-brick finishing and design of the St. Paul homes and schools that I inhabited as a child. I felt in that space distinctly Irish American, deeply connected to a place and roots that I tend to ignore and hardly ever discuss.
Here is a space and a place that Irish immigrants built to nurture their religious and cultural community that is now being revived and transformed by a new immigrant community from Somalia.
I felt both a connection and a disconnect, realizing how little I know about the Somalis in my city. Minneapolis–St. Paul has the highest concentration of Somalis in the US. A common saying here goes: “When it rains in Minnesota, they take out their umbrellas in Mogadishu. When it rains in Mogadishu, they take out their umbrellas in Minnesota.”
The new exhibition at Darul Uloom (which means “House of Knowledge” in Arabic), Anomalous Expansion, reveals varying expressions of a Somali American identity through video, performance art, installation, painting, and photography. The Center allowed six Somali artists — Mohamud Mn, Kaamil Haider, Abdi Roble, Aziz Osman, Ifrah Mansour, and Mohamed Hersi — to install artwork in any part of the derelict Catholic school. Mumin, who is primarily a photographer, has a background in chemistry.
He immigrated to Minneapolis from Somalia when he was 17. His understanding of relational systems between the wider US socio-cultural climate and his native culture and religion fed his desire to mount this exhibition in this place. Haider is a graphic designer, whose video in the exhibition explores the connections between ideas of home, purity and faith.
Mumin curated the exhibition in a spirit of collaboration with the other artists and with the help of Haider and Zahra Muse, who served as exhibition designer and exhibition manager, respectively.
In her remarks during the opening reception, Ifrah Magan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois Chicago who researches resettlement histories of Somali refugees, reminded visitors that these artists are functioning in a vortex of weighted symbols in a year of vitriol. However, she said that these symbols cannot contain them because they straddle thresholds of identity — Somali, Muslim, Black, African, but ultimately American.
In my conversation with Mumin and Haider, they dug into the foundations of what it means to them to be Somali Minnesotans. Both artists see moving out of the art institutions where they have shown — often as the lone Somali American — into a communal space supported by their mosque as generative both for themselves and as a way to bring more Somali Americans into dialogue with contemporary art.
Sheila Dickinson: The exhibition’s title references the way that water turns to ice, but also the experience of living under ice and snow for many months of the year in Minnesota. Why did you choose this title?
Mohamud Mumin: The properties of water allow for the top to freeze when it gets below zero, while it also supports life underneath that ice. We also utilized the etymology of the word “anomalous,” which means deviating from the norm, doing something unusual. We are deviating from the norm of us only working alone and now coming together. We are deviating from the norm whereby the mosque and art was separate, it has come together. Now we control the narrative, produce the work and the theme — the location was central to that. We can even think about Minnesota as deviating from where we came from. We came here and see that under that layer of ice is life, we are able to survive and be supported. There are many ways that this work ties into the properties of water. What we are trying to do here can be supported even though it is the first of its kind anywhere.
SD: And why now? What things came together to make this exhibition happen?
MM: Originally, Kaamil, Zahra, and I proposed a project for the Cedar Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis that was similar to what we created here. Unfortunately, we never got that grant, and, fortunately for us, it led to this. To Zahra, it felt like a progression and a variation on the old idea; we owe a lot to her. We wanted a center that could have performances, exhibitions, and workshop spaces. When we became aware of this space, the Darul Uloom Center for Islam, those many ideas and discussions came together. It was like a light went on when we saw the space.
Kaamil Haider: What we wanted to highlight was the Somali visual artists in this city and to harness and bring all that talent into one space. If you look at all the artists here, there is cumulatively over 100 years of experience. We wanted to showcase to the community that there are these Somali artists who are here and willing to teach and help a new generation of Somali artists. We wanted to propel the idea that we have all of this experience here for them to tap into.
SD: Were other members of the mosque skeptical?
MM: Oh yes, there was healthy but unspoken skepticism. They did not know what we were going to do. The point of reference was not there. They knew that we made artwork; that we made photos, video, painting, and design. Beyond that, they were not clear about what it would be. But they were respectful and we were mindful of the art that we picked. It was key that this exhibition respond to and also say something about the space that we are in.
SD: I noticed in talking with you and other artists in the exhibition that there is a lot of excitement — even nervousness — about showing art in a mosque. Could you explain why?
MM: There was some hesitation on the part of the artists about showing in a mosque. First of all, it’s important to explain the difference in sacred spaces. “Mosque” is a broad term, it could be anywhere. In fact, the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was reported to have said: “The (whole) earth has been made a mosque (or a place of prayer) and a means of purification for me, so wherever a man of my ummah may be when the time for prayer comes, let him pray.” As a Muslim, it is highly recommended to go to the mosque, but you do not have to. When we used to talk about a mosque back home, it used to be one enclosure. It is anywhere for you to make prayers, to provide a space to pray 5 times a day, but it can encompass many more things. When the artists talk about Darul Uloom, it represents an enclosure — it is one space. This shows the differences: one, culturally, and two, because the space is owned by the mosque.
In the prayer space of the mosque, housed in the former church, no images are allowed. Without the school next door there would be no space to put the art, unless it was non-anthropomorphic or abstract imagery only. That is where the hesitation is coming from; we are actually showing this work within Darul Uloom, so close to the prayer space. That is why this type of exhibition has never happened before, even that close to the prayer space of the mosque.
SD: As a photographer, Mohamud, your work has always been multimedia, bringing in newspaper broadsheets, videos, book making, but almost always based in narrative. In “Al-Fatuhat al-St. Paul,” you push your practice further to include sculptural installation, projection, and found objects. Can you talk about your artistic experimentation in this exhibition?
MM: I remember the first day when I came here and I saw this room, the old classroom that I use as the basis for “Al-Fatuhat al-St. Paul.” It was perfect the way that it was when I found it. My initial reaction was to photograph it because I had my camera with me and that was my usual medium of expression. But after I left, on my way home, I kept thinking about this space in relation to the photographing I had been doing within the mosque next door. All the things that I was thinking about came together in this room. What better way can there be to document a room than to leave it exactly as it is, as a document itself?
SD: Your installation involves a projection onto the floor of the room of a prayer rug from the mosque’s prayer space next-door onto pianos that had been tipped over and made useless by vandals.
MM: Useless in terms of functionality, but useful in terms of the ideas and the memories that the pianos hold. I was looking at spatial succession, this idea of things turning over to something else, especially in terms of sacred spaces. Entropy, when things are turning over from one state to another — what it has been and what it could be. To see what it is now, you have to see what it was before. Even though this is no longer the Church of St. John, it still is in many ways — the spirit is still there.
SD: In one of the ground-floor classrooms, one wall is fitted with built-in glass cupboards that were broken by vandals after Darul Uloom purchased the property. Can you talk about the use of broken glass in the exhibition?
MM: I think when the kids came in and broke all the windows and tipped over the pianos, to me they were saying: “Hurry up and make change!” You have to break things when you make change — it is always traumatic. To me it shows not only the history but also the kids making their mark and pushing, and the building pushing back. You can break the glass but you cannot break anything else; other parts of the building are too concrete for them to break. Kaamil, what did you think of the broken glass? How did it fit into your work and the building itself.
KH: At first we wanted a look of white paint and white walls, with everything corrected and perfect lighting, a specific look of a gallery. The more we looked into it and more we took gratitude in our name, “anomalous,” the more we accepted everything else laying around us. The name “anomalous” spread through all of our actions and the artwork we are presenting. The broken glass and all of that helped us accomplish what we wanted to do. Not to go against the force, but to be with it.
SD: Your work, like Mohamud’s, took a different turn in this particular space. You made a dual video projection, “Of Ritual and Rote,” in one of the upstairs classrooms. It consists of “Equanimity,” in which a man washes his hands and face in ablution before prayer, and “Gaafow (Camel),” in which we hear a woman sing or chant while pounding grain with a friend. Could you talk about the process of making this piece?
KH: I was noticing a lot of repetition and patterns, not just in my life, but in life in general — saying five daily prayers or similarly for those going to church every Sunday — doing certain things ritually. That clicked for me, that to repeat is to remember. Even my mom singing in the background was something I had recorded a long time ago, but I didn’t think about it for an installation. The more I looked for materials to work with, these things began rising up and I wanted to use those ideas in “Of Ritual and Rote.”
MM: In fact, Kaamil’s work and my work were made here in this building. Kaamil’s video was shot in the gym and my work was created using materials found in the building.
KH: Initially I had planned to do posters, as I had done before, but the more we saw what an ambitious project we had here, we had to push ourselves; our work had to be ambitious, like the project itself. This space and working together pushed us to experiment.
MM: Aziz Osman was the same. He had done figurative painting before. His initial reaction to hearing this exhibition would happen next to a mosque was: “Are you sure?” He rejoiced at the possibility, but was a bit hesitant. Aziz has always loved painting abstract painting and this space and the mosque gave him the license to do it. Mohamed Hersi used this room we are sitting in as his studio and made three of the five paintings he has in the show. The proximity to the mosque and the prayer space allowed him to channel what he was feeling into his paintings.
Ifrah Mansour initially wanted to show her film projections, but the minute she saw the room where she was going to install her artwork she said she had to include a performance piece. She was transformed by the space, and, in turn, she transformed the space through her work and performance on the opening day. She said it was by far the most Somalis who have seen her work yet. The venue had a lot to do with that.
When I told Abdi Roble about the exhibition rooms at the school, he said he did not mind putting his artwork anywhere in the space. He believed the photographs belonged to the community, therefore wherever the community inhabits is where the artwork go.
SD: What does it mean to present Somali Minnesotan artists together in a space separate from the art institutions of the city?
MM: It’s completely different from being at an art institution. I think for anybody, whatever they are projecting is identity-specific and place-specific. For us, it was important to think how we could bring to this space a sense of control and ownership through the theme and the site. We had a lot of people come over from the mosque’s prayer space. One of the best memories I have of the opening is when the two young women we had asked to greet visitors placed a Koran on the table next to the catalogues. They had not asked us for permission, they just did it — goes to show how ownership is assumed and exercised by everyone in the community. It was a decision they had made. Imagine that happening in an art institution where everything is controlled and nothing from the outside comes in? Then when it was prayer time, people came in from the mosque and told the visitors, “It is prayer time, come with us.” Where would that happen, but in this space?
We had people touching Roble’s silver gelatin prints and touching the paintings. That sense of wonder and the way that they wanted to perceive and wanted to consume the art is amazing. It was beautiful. The art on the wall paled in comparison to the images I have of the people interacting and being able to engage with the art. It’s completely different from showing in an art institution.
SD: Has anything surprised you by the way that people have responded?
KH: People were amazed that you could take things — especially for non-gallery goers seeing Mohamud’s installation — and make them into art. They were surprised by my videos of ablution and women pounding maize chanting a traditional Somali song, that it could be art.
MM: Even Abdiweli Adan, the mosque’s Family and Youth Center coordinator, did not want to leave. He kept bringing people to the exhibition and asking me to explain the art to them.
May I ask you a question? What surprised you about the exhibition?
SD: As a person who sees a lot of art, what I saw in Anomalous Expansion was refreshing. I was surprised perhaps by my own relief at seeing interesting, engaged art that is the opposite of studied art school tropes. It felt like the work manifested Joseph Beuys’s mantra that art could be made out of anything and by anyone because the concept that needs to be visually articulated will be made “by whatever means necessary.”
MM: That is very true here. I don’t know who this Beuys is, but I like what he is saying. We are using the means that we have been given — this space, this collective of artists working together, and the art materials at hand to make what is necessary for us.
Anomalous Expansion continues at the Darul Uloom Islamic Center 977 East 5th Street, St. Paul, Minnesota) through October 8.