What does an i-Pad have to do with healing the wounds of a genocidal war?
Combined with acrylic paint and the warmth of Pamela Gaard, quite a bit, as it turns out.
When the Minnesota State Arts Board gave Gaard a grant for new technology to further her work making portraits of East Africans settled in Minneapolis, they helped seed Gaard’s multi-year project to explore the inheritance of cultural wisdom and identity among the communities of Somali and Ethiopian elders she has come to revere.
A self-taught artist, Gaard is also a trained nutritionist who has worked in the East African communities of Minneapolis as a health worker for many years.
Reflecting on what sparked her interest in the series of portraits recently exhibited at the Susan Hensel Gallery of Minneapolis and the upcoming larger show entitled "Shalom - Nabad", a continuation of this work, next January 31- March 7 at Minneapolis’ Traffic Zone Gallery, Gaard says, “During my work I would look at the older people in the community and would admire the wonderful colors that the women wear in their traditional dress. I’d make notes in the margins of my nutritional job reports to help me remember the colors and then would work from memory.
“My first Somali portrait was of a nurse at an adult daycare center I worked at. This was Zainab, whom all the elders at the center would have their blood pressures taken by. They would see her portrait and ask how it was made. That was 2010 and soon others were asking if I could make their portrait.”
Gaard continues, “Having your picture taken or done is not the Islamic tradition. That’s why I didn’t want to ask anyone but rather wait for them to ask me. The first portrait after Zainab was a younger man, a driver. When someone asked me about a portrait I explain that I’d need to take their picture. I would show them that the paintings are large. I show them the 11x 17 inch photocopies that I give them and I explain it is a gratuity and that there is no charge for the portraits. This is all done with the help of interpreters. Probably because women in these communities tend to be more traditional and observant I did not get any women requesting portraits until very recently.
“The current show includes the proverbs I have been learning by working with the elders. I want to understand more about their culture. Most of the older people are pre-literate because the written language was not developed until 1972. Those who did learn to read only learned Arabic in order to read the Koran. Some of the men sepak four or five languages; one or two speak English. This has made the language aspect of this project especially interesting.
“Basically, it’s a language of oral traditions and learning proverbs has given me a very good way to get a handle on the wisdom and intelligence within the culture.
“I’ve had feedback that the elders really like their portraits and I can see them light up when they see their portraits for the first time. Some of the elders didn’t grow up with mirrors, which means they are seeing a whole view of themselves for the first time. I ask people what they are going to do with their pictures and they tell me they are putting it on their walls or in the case of some of the separated families, men are sending the portraits to their wives.
“I know this is a project that I’ll work on for some time to come especially because it has so many angles to pursue. For example, I want to find people who would be willing to be videotaped telling stories about their lives. This is a matter of great delicacy however, because it is similar to interviewing Holocaust survivors.
In fact, Pam is from a Jewish tradition and decided to incorporate Yiddish proverbs in her recent exhibit to honor her Grandmother. She was thrilled to find some of the Yiddish proverbs to have identical or closely matched Somali counterparts. For example—Yiddish: Der mentsh trakht un got lakt and Somali: Baryaaye waa aadane, bixiyana Eebbe weeye—both mean “Man proposes but God disposes”.
The Minnesota State Arts Board made a wise decision when they gave Gaard a grant for an i-Pad and new color printer to help her in this work. As she wrote in her grant proposal, “I believe that my art can affect many lives and strengthen communities. Perhaps some of the viewers of this exhibition will not be aware of the fact that there are 10,000 Somali elders now living in the Twin Cities, because, to many, they’re unseen. Many have lived in Minnesota for many (10 to 20) years, but are very segregated from mainstream Minnesotans, and haven’t fully engaged in our community resources, particularly in the arts. To abate the marginalization and disenfranchisement of individuals in these communities, especially among immigrants who are non-English speakers, I have developed ways to engage these elders in the arts through field trips to art museums and now through portraiture…Minnesota, with the largest community of Somalis in North America, is vital to Somalis worldwide. Our many Somali immigrants (of all ages) look up to and respect their elders as leaders in the community.”
Thanks to Gaard’s work, Somalis in America are now seen.
Photo Credit: Pam Gaard, Amy Munice, Jan Wenig. Photo of Pamela Gaard: Dawn Vogel
Next "Portraits and Proverbs" Exhibit -- Minneapolis Traffic Zone Gallery , January 31, 2013- March 7, 2014