I recently had the pleasure of exploring Dublin Arts Council’s Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah, which translates from Somali to English as Community In-Between. This photography exhibition features portraits of 15 central Ohio Somali trailblazers. The photographs explore ideas of immigration, integration, and identity. The portraits, created primarily by two Somali-American high school students, are accompanied by personal narratives, artifacts and oral histories.
Upon entering the gallery, I am greeted by the sight of the American flag and the Somali flag hanging side by side. This symbolism of unity between the two countries is a powerful and well-orchestrated way to open the exhibition. Inside the main gallery is a rectangular table, filling the majority of the space in the room. On this table are 16 binders filled with mini-biographies about the photographers and participants of the exhibition. The binders contain artworks, letters, photos, writings, poetry, and more. After reading through some of these biographies, I learned that participants of this exhibition have a variety of titles, including Mental Health Practitioner, Journalist, Filmmaker, Political Organizer, Economist, Anesthesiologist, Mechanic, Psychiatrist, Educator, Industrial Designer, Writer, Registered Nurse, Sheriff’s Deputy, Poet, and Student.
On the walls of the main gallery are photographs of both smiling and contemplative faces. Each portrait is unique and inviting, and the augmented reality storytelling techniques featured alongside the photographs brought the portraits to life. After opening the Aurasma augmented reality app and focusing my device’s camera on a trigger image, the image transformed into a video of the featured participant. In each video, the interviewee speaks about their upbringing, career, education, family, or passions. This added touch to the exhibition helps make the artworks much more personal and brings the photos to life. These videos are also important for the tradition of storytelling across various cultures, especially in Somali culture. As Khalid Moalim says in his interview, “personal stories are what makes the world a lot better”. The personal stories spoken in the UDDA exhibition bring up topics of creativity, community, advocacy, friendship, and representation.
On display in the Sun Porch is the literary publication of Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah, a book written by guest preparators Ruth Smith and Qorsho Hassan. This fascinating and informative book is too lengthy to read its entirety in just one sitting, but after flipping through its pages, I learned a bit more about the exhibition. One major theme of the book seemed to be the importance of storytelling, not just in Somali culture, but in cultures across the globe. Storytelling is seen as a time-trascendant tradition that connects lives and creates empathy. In her interview, participant Riya Jama explains the importance of sharing one’s personal narrative. An avid J.K. Rowling fan, Jama explains that she struggled with not seeing much representation of people of color in the Harry Potter series. Amid her frustration, her father explained that Rowling was writing her narrative from her own perspective, and that Riya should do the same. And she did! Now a writer, Jama creates characters representative of girls like her, such as black fairies or black angels. She hopes that children reading her stories will have someone to identify with and feel connected to.
In the final part of the exhibition, the North Gallery hosts a more participatory section of art and activities. On one wall are three boards asking the questions, “How can you be a connector in your community?”, “How can you be a mentor in your community?”, and “How can you be a leader in your community?”. Guests’ answers are written on post-it notes and scattered across the three boards. Reading these notes is both fascinating and humbling. Some of my favorite responses under the question, “How can you be a leader in your community?” include “make new friends”, “listen first”, “help people”, and “Don’t look the other way. Do something”. On the adjacent wall is a map showing the journeys of the exhibition participants. Some of the locations featured on the map include Zamia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Turkey, Morocco, United Kingdom, California, Oregon, Texas, Minnesota, Canada, and Georgia. This illustration provides a clear image of the dynamics of diaspora to the United States. On the opposite wall sits another map, but one that requires guest participation. Guests are asked to place a pin on the map to represent their current or historic journey. Countries containing pins include Syria, Mongolia, France, Slovakia, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Israel, and Jordan. Seeing such diversity on the map is incredible, and it is also special to see others had marked off the same countries I did. I turn to the middle of the room to see a display case containing artifacts of significance from the featured Somali American community. Some of these items include a drum, a bowl, a mug, a mixer bottle, and dollars. At the end of the exhibition is a television, playing spoken word poetry by one of the participating central Ohio Somali community members, Chowder the Poet. The video, filmed entirely on an iPhone, is titled Albert Avenue. The lyrics feature themes of family, financial difficulties, and the corruption of the love of money. These themes are important topics of discussion, not just in the Somali American community, but in all communities throughout central Ohio.
In all, Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah adheres to its values of “collaboration with community members, education toward social justice, and a belief that research should lead to action”. It implements photography and documentary practices as a means of storytelling, an important tradition in any community. Storytelling helps connect teller and listener, opens minds to new ways of thinking, and educates listeners. I highly encourage everyone to stop by Dublin Arts Council’s (free!) gallery and experience the exhibition firsthand.
Alexa Demyan, DAC Fellow