Photographer Documents Somali Exile
Thursday, November 22, 2007; 10:36 PM
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A photographic exhibit captures one of the largest mass movements of people in recent history in images ranging from women carrying sacks of grain in Africa to men pushing shopping carts in California.
"Stories of the Somali Diaspora" starts in refugee camps in Kenya and moves to cities across the United States, including Columbus, Portland, Maine, and Minneapolis, home of the nation's largest population of Somali refugees.
The exhibit by Abdi Roble, an Ohio-based photographer who left Somalia in 1989, also uses some of the pictures to tell the story of a single family.
Abdisalam and his wife, Ijabo, walked for 15 days from their home near the town of Sakow in the Jubba River Valley in southern Somalia to a camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Later, they relocated to Anaheim, Calif., and eventually to Portland.
Roble shows the family in a stick hut in Kenya, on their first day in the United States, Ijabo undergoing an ultrasound during a pregnancy and Abdisalam filling out a job application.
Roble said he was driven to capture the experience of a people ripped from their country with virtually no belongings. It was important to document the refugees' journey before memories fade and stories are lost.
"If you have no record, you have no history," he said.
"We lost everything. We have no museum, no galleries, no record. If you ask anyone to get a Somali ID, you have nothing."
The exhibit runs through Sunday at the Columbus Museum of Art, moves to the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis next year and to the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, in 2009.
The show is part of the Somali Documentary Project, an archive project founded by Roble. Some photos will be included in a book he is publishing next year through the University of Minnesota.
The forced exile overseas of hundreds of thousands of Somalis dates to the country's disintegration in the early 1990s as warlords battled for supremacy.
The crisis continues today as new fighting is displacing huge numbers of civilians. The United Nations refugee agency says that 1 million Somalis have been displaced within the country by the most recent violence.
Working with Catherine Evans, chief curator at the Columbus Museum of Art, Roble distilled more than 50,000 photos to the 55 in the show.
In "First Day of School," Ijabo and a daughter, Hafsa, wait for the school bus in Portland. Less than a year from life in the refugee camp, Hafsa now carries a giant school backpack.
"Walking" shows a mother and daughter carrying grain, cooking oil and water across the desert back to their hut in Dadaab in 2005.
"Super King," taken the following year, shows two Somali men pushing grocery carts out of a store in Anaheim.
Another photo shows boys in a Columbus swimming pool, their quiet, intense gaze trained at the camera. In "Voting Day," several Somalis, including three robe-clad women, cast ballots in Minneapolis in November 2006.
Roble eschews digital photography and shoots his pictures with black-and-white film using only available light. It's part of his desire to follow the traditional methods of documentary photography. He also wants to create a physical archive of negatives for future generations of Somalis.
The quality of Roble's pictures and the topic itself are enough to carry the exhibition.
But the museum in Columbus was careful to put Roble's work into a broader context, including references to documentary photographers such as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, artists who used their pictures to try to change people's lives for the better.
The exhibit includes one of Lange's most famous photos, a weary migrant mother holding one child while another tries to cuddle.
It is juxtaposed with a hauntingly similar picture of Ijabo waiting outside a social service center in Anaheim with her children. The two mothers, separated by 70 years and a huge cultural divide, even raise their hands to their faces in the same pensive fashion.
"This is very much extending that tradition and fits squarely in with that impulse to effect change," Evans said. "It's that combination of the power of the story and the talent of the work itself."
Roble told the story of Abdisalam and Ijabo to help people relate to the Somali experience. Along the way he found himself humbled by the stories he was allowed to tell.
The pictures represent "classic American stories of people landing in this country," he said. "It's exactly the same _ it just happened in a different time."
On the Net:
Somali Documentary Project: http:/
Columbus Museum of Art: http:/