Toronto is home to one of the largest Somali diasporas in the country and this year, one of the city’s most popular art festivals will showcase the community’s art, culture and influence here.
For the past two years, Aziz Farah has been slowly collecting Somali artifacts through online marketplaces, auctions and estate sales. This week, he says he’s excited to make some of that private collection public at this year’s Nuit Blanche as part of an exhibit at Union Station Saturday night.
Many of Farah’s pieces – some of them up to 200 years old and ranging from jewelry to hand picks to a shield made of rhino-hide – will be featured at the exhibit, highlighting through different mediums the culture and history of Somali people in Canada.
The exhibit is being organized by the Somali Centre for Culture and Recreation (SCCR). It’s called “Dhis Bulshada,” which translates to “Build our community,” and will feature six artists from Toronto’s Somali Canadian community. Pieces will focus on the influence of Somali culture in Toronto.
“We often hear about Somalia being the land of poets, but there’s also a lot of richness with artifacts, a lot of craftsmanship, and we’re hoping to put that on display,” Farah said.
Aziz Farah will be displaying Somali artifacts from his collection at Nuit Blanche this Saturday.
Farah says he hopes the exhibit will help share his culture with people outside the Somali community, and have a big impact on young Somali Canadians living in Toronto.
“Growing up in Canada, you go to museums and the work that’s on display is often European,” Farah said. “So to see Somali artwork on display is incredible.”
‘Art is like a part of us’
Ayan Bashir is one of those artists. She’s created a sculpture of her mother’s hand, which she describes as “an ode to a mother’s blessing.”
“It’s going to be a tribute to my mom because I feel like she supports the arts I do,” she said. “For her to come out and see her hands replicated with her skin tone and the original henna with black and orange, she’ll be so excited to see it.”
Like Farah, Bashir says this week’s exhibit gives the Somali community and its artists their due. Bashir says it’s a chance for Somali Canadians of Toronto to showcase their culture and talent.
“Art is like a part of us,” she said from the Toronto studio where she’s working. “This is an exciting way to show a mass amount of people, like, this is what we actually already do.”
Asmaa Bana, an artist and creative director, says she hopes her art communicates part of the Somali Canadian experience to other Torontonians. Bana cites one piece in particular, “We Have a Seat at the Table,” where people can interact with a table full of paraphenalia significant to Somali Canadian life.
“I kind of implement our culture using clothing, items on the table,” she said. “The viewer can come in and sit down at the table and, you know, really feel that (Somali) experience.”
Group also pushing for Somali cultural centre
Sagal Shuriye is a team leader the SCCR. She says Saturday’s exhibit is a chance to concentrate Somali Canadian talent from around Toronto and connect it to the city at large.
But the Dhis Bulshada exhibit is just one way the SCCR is trying to bring Somali Canadians together and showcase their talents.
Asmaa Bana says she wants to relate the Somali-Canadian experience to the broader Toronto community at this year’s Nuit Blanche.
The SCCR is now working with the city to secure a community centre for Somali Canadians, where the group hopes artists and others from the community can come together to work, create and socialize. The group and the city are now looking to secure land for a potential site as well as more funding from other levels of government, Shuriye said in an email.
Farah says that’s just as exciting as showcasing his artifacts for the city – and it’s been a long time coming.
“I think there’s been over 40 years of advocacy for a space where Somalis can gather, where we can share our stories (and) artwork, a place where we can enjoy recreation together,” he said. “It’s finally coming together. Momentum is building. And I’m really, really excited.”
Dhis Bulshada will be on display at Union Station from 7 p.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday. The 17th Nuit Blanche Toronto will feature more than 80 art projects from about 250 artists, with public exhibits in downtown Toronto, Scarborough and Etobicoke.