My artwork is informed by the stories and events of my life and the larger social culture. My experience teaching at risk youth in Southeast Seattle inspired me to take a closer look at the young women in this community, and with that came my interest in East African teen girls. I wondered if pairing conversations on ideology with art making may empower them and allow the girls an opportunity to process their thoughts and feelings. Would this in turn, create an opportunity for these exploratory conversations and their subsequent thoughts to seep into the artwork that they make? I set about to facilitate a different conversation than they were having in the other areas of their lives, to talk about the duality they live between the traditional contemporary worlds of their Muslim home lives and the world of urban American youth that they experience at school.
After five months of sharing, making art, thinking and talking deeply, and laughing a lot we have come to an understanding of each other. I recently asked the girls what they thought when they found out a white woman was running the workshop. Safia said “at first we said does she wear a scarf? and they said no and I said well ok. The first meeting we had, just grabbed my attention. It was just something that I could relate to and I grabbed all the other girls because it was so interesting you know. No one talks about this stuff anywhere else.”
When asked about walking in both worlds one girl said “We have to integrate two worlds. It’s ok. We deal.” Fatima talked about the integration of three worlds, Somali, Muslim, and American. There are several issues of religion and culture that have been discussed as occasionally the religious and cultural are in conflict, with Somalian traditions and the Muslim faith.
Through all of it I have found these girls are like all the other girls in my life, with the exception that they are more in tune with their spirituality and more free to speak about it. If you ask several young girls wearing the hijab why they do, they will say simply “modesty”. It is much deeper than that. For those who choose to wear it, it blends self-esteem with integrity and spiritual growth. It’s about identity. Some see it as a tool of empowerment.
I started this exchange with curiosity and not really knowing what to expect. What I have found is a mixture of love, frustration, joy, and mutual respect, feelings aligned with those of my relationship with my own children. It would be an understatement to say that I have learned as much as I’ve taught. The rich complexity of the girl’s lives has folded into our relationship. Together, it creates a desire to spread the sharing to a larger audience. Although it is impossible to know and understand the whole, there is a snapshot shared in our upcoming exhibition at Columbia City Gallery in Seattle. The girls will exhibit their artwork from the class, and I’ll be exhibiting my wire portraits of them.
Special thanks for support from 4Culture , city of Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, and the NEA . This funding has helped support two sessions of the workshop and the exhibition.
If you’re in Seattle, join us at the reception on March 9th 5-8pm or come and let the girls wow you at the Artist Panel Discussion March 14th at 7 pm. Columbia City Gallery is located in southeast Seattle at 4864 Rainier Avenue South, 98118.