Fleeing Civil War, A Somali Performance Artist Finds Refuge in Minnesota

Ifrah Mansour shares her experience as a Somali-born performance artist living in Minneapolis.

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Jan 24 2017, 9:48pm

This article originally appeared on Creators.

As part of 50 States of Art, Creators is inviting artists to contribute first-person accounts of what it is like to live and create in their communities. Ifrah Mansour is a Somali multimedia artist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her practice interweaves text, movement, sound, digital media, and visual installation.

Strong women propel themselves with just gravity. My grandmother never said it, she lived it. She lived through the Somali Civil War in 1991. She farmed on drought-ridden land. She raised and lived to see her great-grandchildren. She kept walking. She never gave up. My family left Somalia in search of a better life. Now, I live in Minneapolis, a land of 10,000 lakes, but I see Minneapolis as a land of 10,000 hijabis. Fifteen years and counting, you'd swear I just moved in. The Midwest has a way of keeping you out-casted.

Like my grandmother, I walk a lot; I notice a lot. I memorize through my soles; I anchor carefully. Displacement exists in gentrified places: in the glass windows of highrises that used to be community spaces. Uninvited ethnic food smells from restaurants sweep you to a summer breeze on a blistering Tuesday in January. Few will ever admit that immigrants kept the city's lights on in dark economic times.

I explore the city through public transportation. The METRO Blue Line train took me to my first job at The Mall of America, where I witnessed the first community-led protest in 2015 for Jamar Clark's death at the hands of the police. I see immigrants who started from the bottom and now own their own halal markets. I see the Halimas wearing bright-yellow skirts, conjuring the sun even when the newly-renovated U.S. Bank Stadium distorts the city's view. People of color have unwavering resilience and perseverance.

Photo from 'How to Have Fun in a Civil War.' Photo by Daly Proof Photography.

I was going to be an elementary school teacher, but I accidentally discovered art along the way. I found my calling in life. I tell stories for work and for passion. A multimedia artist dancing between many art genres, I mix and weave multi-generational stories and amplify diverse perspectives. I used my childhood experience to create my first play, How To Have Fun in a Civil War, which amplifies the resilience of children in traumatic and tragic times. Hosted by the Children's Theatre Company, I experienced my first sold-out shows. I became the first Somali female artist to perform at the Minnesota State Fair in 2015. Nothing is more powerful than holding the pen that will write your story.

City festivals like Northern Spark, MayDay Parade, Holidazzle, Twin Cities Pride and Somali Week exist. I still search for the wholeness of this seemingly-small yet big, progressive yet rigid, tolerant yet closed, Northern Plain city. The Minneapolis art scene produces brilliant provocative art, and we're learning to push through economic low standards for artists. I used to hide my passion for art. We Somalis are learning that artists do make a powerful impact on our community.

There is no template for being a Somali female performance artist until now. You'll always see me walking alone. But I feel my grandmother walking in front of me, chanting words of encouragement as if I am a child all over again. And I have the Minneapolis, and world, landscape to explore, learn from, and achieve my wildest dreams. The possibilities of art are endless, so should the possibilities of our imagination and our humanity.

Ifrah Mansour's play 'Somalia's Balloon.' Photographer credit: Andy Richter

To learn more about Ifrah Mansour, click here.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States, starting with Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Utah, and Florida. To learn more, click here.

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