Self portraits

Self portraits

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thoughts on Portraiture, etc.

I gave a portrait to an elderly Somali woman who was one of my models, and she told me (with our interpreter) that she will send the picture to her daughter, who lives in Sweden. She then said 'thank-you' in English; to which I said, 'aada mudan', meaning 'you're welcome' in the colloquial sense, but literally meaning 'you deserve it'.

My portraits include faces of the African diaspora, and honor the person portrayed, but, also, these portraits as a group possess the power to create further conversations in our community. The elders have many stories to tell, and I love the stories, but my ability to understand and share them is limited with our language differences; also, parts of our 'conversations' are non-verbal. Portraiture is part of this conversation, and through this act -- which involves trust -- we gain some understanding of each others' lives and cultures.

Bar ama baro ("learn or teach" -af Soomaali) 



A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

When I wrote the grant about a year ago, I had this naive and optimistic idea that I'd be bringing more groups of older Somali and other east African women and men into our art museums, with interpreters; and, by this act I would integrate them further into the community. I imagined their excitement as they engaged with new material, and how this would enrich their lives in numerous ways. But my field trips have become fewer rather than increasing in numbers like I'd hoped.

After six years of working almost exclusively in the east African community, I often feel like an outsider, which, of course I am. The elders seem content in their familiar surroundings with other elders, sharing common languages, food, traditions, and customs from the old country, similar to my Russian and Turkish grandparents, who spoke Yiddish as a common language, and ate separate meals of Kosher food. It will be Somali-American and other east African artists - the children and grandchildren of these elders -- who interpret and share the stories of their elders through their own poetry and art, and who keep the language(s) and traditions of their culture alive.
Studio view -- portraits in progress
But, meanwhile, I'm having fun making these portraits. People ask me now everywhere I go - word travels fast in an oral society that there is a portrait artist in the house.

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