The women behind the camera
The Somali Arts Foundation (SAF) is the first contemporary art institution in Somalia. SAF seeks to promote and create conducive environments for the creative industries to flourish in Somalia, while leveraging the arts to ignite critical discourses around ideas on identity, memory, loss, healing and what it means to be a “Soomaali” person in the 21st Century.
Sagal Ali founded the Somali Arts Foundation in 2020. After a few years in her career in heritage protection and the cultural sector, she took the initiative to directly support young creatives in Somalia by launching her own foundation. She hopes to bridge the social gaps and inequalities women face in Somalia, both in society and in the arts scene.
Sagal Ali: My name is Sagal Ali and I’m the founder and executive director of the Somali Arts Foundation.
Fari Sow: Can you start by telling me how it came about? What’s the history?
Sagal Ali: I set up SAF in September 2020, essentially during COVID, which was quite interesting. My background is in cultural heritage and museum work, I’ve been working in that field for several years. I grew up in Denmark and studied in the UK, but the reason I even grew up in Europe was because of the civil war that happened in Somalia in the late 80s. For that reason, as an artist and cultural practitioner, I always try to understand conflict through a lens of arts.
I came to Somalia in 2015 on an EU project that leveraged the creative industries and heritage for peacebuilding and encouraging community cohesion. Through that experience, I realized where the gaps in the market were, especially in the cultural and creative industries. And then, when that project finished, I worked for the government and supported the revival of the cultural and heritage sector, but I’d be so frustrated that I couldn’t directly support all these young creatives who would approach me because there weren’t many initiatives that looked at creativity or arts or culture. I seemed to have become a point of reference for these young creatives with very little resources or support. And then, I made a promise to myself that, as soon as I was able to do something or support them, I would do it.
That opportunity came when, after several years of supporting the cultural initiatives within the government,I felt I had done my part, and I was happy to move on. I resigned from my position as the senior adviser for arts, and I also used to manage the UNESCO commission as well. As soon as I decided to resign from that, I remember I was on my first holiday in years in Dakar, and I had this idea: Not a gallery, not a cultural institution, it must be a foundation. And so, I launched SAF a year after I resigned, and it just seemed like the most natural thing to do.
Fari Sow: How has the journey been and where are you today with SAF?
Sagal Ali: It’s been an incredibly humbling experience because as soon as we launched, I felt like we had to constantly catch up to how well it’s been received and how many things were happening. It can be quite exhausting, despite all these beautiful things and opportunities we’re getting, but the back of the house isn’t as advanced as an organization that’s been around for several years. We also had to deal with the new effects of the pandemic that everyone else is grappling with. But for us, it’s been very much at the very foundational structure of how everything we do has to be, instead of adapting to this time we find ourselves in.
Today, we have very strong support locally and internationally. We support several artists, we have a sense of community around us, and we’ve done three trainings, supporting young people, particularly young women, from minority backgrounds. We try to be a positive place in society; we try to work with people who already have been at a disadvantage, but who are creative, not anyone just because they’re a minority, but artists and creatives who need that support.
We’ve done a number of successful trainings, several exhibitions as well as different events, and it’s all gone very well. And we’ve been featured in major international news outlets as well as the BBC and True Africa, Voice of America, and The Guardian. It’s been great so far, and we have some projects in the pipeline that we’re very excited about, but we are sometimes a little bit stretched because we are fundamentally self-funded. When we get some partnerships, it is really ad-hoc and project-based, so we have a reserve of challenges, covering all of our overheads and just running the business because we’re a few people. We still face some challenges, but otherwise, it’s been going really well.
Fari Sow: So, the trainings lead to the exhibitions; what is the process like? Do you recruit people, or do they come to you? What are their profiles, and how do the trainings eventually lead to the final results?
Sagal Ali: All our training is advertised on our social media channels and different platforms. Then we have a fundamental selection process, a first come, first serve for those who meet the criteria. We’ll send out a few screening questions, have a small interview and then ask for work that illustrates whatever it is we’re doing, photography, fine art, sometimes filmmaking, and then assess from that.
Of course, the people who take precedent or get first get positions are young women, mainly from minority backgrounds; those are the first people we select. But so far, our trainings are being geared towards women only. Our next training is different for men and women, but again, with the preference given to women, minorities and so on.
Our trainings have been at a pilot stage so far. We are learning from experience how we should approach them, what the need is and how people want to navigate them. And then, we try we always hire from someone for the training which is already working professionally in that industry. So far, we’ve had ethnic Somalis, but nationals from elsewhere come, again through screening and applying for the job. And then we always like to have an exhibition at the end of it; it’s essential. We think that on the one hand, the exhibitions are very much an encouraging tool, but also because they get exposed to another layer of work, curating, exhibiting, marketing, all of that, doing the exhibition tours as well. It’s great for them to see their hard labour in exhibitions; it is just one of the most amazing things to witness. You know, the students come through, and they see the show and are like, Wow, I did that. We find it’s an excellent tool for motivation.
As an artist and cultural practitioner, I always try to understand conflict through a lens of arts.
Fari Sow: This focus on having primarily girls and women in those trainings; what role does that play in the social issues you’re trying to highlight in the activities and through the foundation’s work?
Sagal Ali: It’s slightly the other way around in the sense that, for us, this focus happens purely because women and young girls aren’t part of the dominant social discourse in Somalia since the war in this very male-dominated society, especially with access to decision-making positions and visibility. Women’s narratives are seldom leading in the public domain. We want to have a role to play in that, to tip the scales. That was the first decision to support people already disadvantaged, women, young people, particularly minorities. Doing that, you end up highlighting the issues that are circumvented in the public discourse purely because those narratives weren’t included to start with.
One of the most powerful things for us has been to see the young women that come to our courses go out with camera equipment and take images, and for them essentially empower themselves through this conviction that they can do that. And some of the stories they shared with us have been quite incredible. People ask them, What are you doing? Why are you carrying that equipment? It should only be cameramen and the girls going: “No, we’re camerawomen.” From the vantage point of putting on the exhibitions, they also go against these stereotypes that only men who can produce high-quality audiovisual work and be of interest to have that work put on. That’s been a recurrent reaction, people saying, I can’t believe that these are produced by young women carrying equipment and navigating public life in Mogadishu, especially in the zone where we operate, that is still reeling back from civil strife.
For example, the exhibition Through my Lens was in collaboration with UNDP, who came to us because we worked with women, and it was a collaboration between their Gender department and Communications Department. They asked us what they could contribute to our photography and gender work. That’s why that one had a powerful sense of putting issues about women at the forefront. Each of the trainees chose a topic that was particularly close to her heart in dealing with a problem that touched on women. Then they each went through the training, exploring that issue visually through the apparatus of photography. And at the end, we got an exhibition with clear themes, whether it’s women, politics, the dark side of the cosmetic industry or women their work in markets.
For the exhibition we’re working on right now, we trained a cohort of young women again, using basic digital photography, to tell their own stories, anything from their lives that they wanted to bring together into a mood board And that one is much more abstract. There’s still some storyline because each of the young women are distinct, but it is much more flowy and abstract, and even the colour usage has been exciting.
Fari Sow: The disparity in the creative scene of Somalia also reflects the disparity in the women’s narratives and social discourse within the political situation. With SAF, how do you hope to grow and make a difference in the long-term, both in the creative scene and with more significant social issues?
Sagal Ali: I think the first motivation wasn’t that necessary. Before the war, we were a socialist state, so we didn’t have any art sector that was in itself independent. Fast forward to after the war years, where whatever was even there has been completely dismantled, there aren’t really any spaces for contemporary art, because I think especially contemporary art in itself is a tool to inquire about your environment. It’s a tool, essentially, and we didn’t have that. SAF was to be a professional institution with artists and cultural producers working at it, catering to artists and providing what any other contemporary art institution would. And then, in doing that, you unearth all of the other things. Because of that, I would say it’s more of a byproduct than our primary focus. But of course, I think art, as ever, has a central role in society. It’s where we make sense of things and show each other empathy and compassion and have dialogue in a more egalitarian way.
Fari Sow: What is the average age of the participants of those trainings?
Sagal Ali: Between 20 and 31 years old. There’s a diverse range of applicants but of course, because the training is quite intensive, you need to have time for that so you can’t be in school, and you have to be over age. But if you are in school or college, you probably wouldn’t be able to apply for those. Again, for us, it’s about motivation. It would be best if you were serious about wanting to work with these tools, and we can then support them. We hope to offer these courses to more people in the long term, but for now, it’s people that are serious about this that we have a real opportunity to support.
Fari Sow: So they’re not students, but would you say you offer an alternative educational format, not in the institutional education sense of the term like schools and universities, but since it’s still training, a formation? It can unlock something in them if you teach them something that they can carry with them, that can become a career, something more significant.
Sagal Ali: That’s precisely the point. To put it in context, due to the war, the education system was completely dismantled, so it became privatized. And of course, if you seek to make money from education, you opt for the very traditional fields, engineering, medicine and so on. There isn’t any art training of any sort, so we also try to fill in that gap of being there for the artists or the creatives who don’t have anywhere else to go for their photography training, their filmmaking training, their fine art training. We aspire to become an institute of cultural activities, as well as having the gallery as space and eventually an in-house cinema and a music recording studio. The umbrella has different branches; the foundation is the main one. We’re just developing the various aspects, mostly now the gallery and the Institute of Training.
One of the most powerful things for us has been to see the young women that come to our courses go out with camera equipment and take images, and for them essentially empower themselves through this conviction that they can do that.
Fari Sow: How long does the training last?
Sagal Ali: So far, the longest we’ve had has been for three months. And then, of course, you have the exhibition organizing and the curatorial work in addition to the actual physical training time.
Fari Sow: Do you see a significant evolution in the students over the course of those three months, from those first weeks of discovering the world of art and photography and fine arts through the end? What is the evolution, not just in how they can produce content and become artists, but also in terms of thought process and attitude?
Sagal Ali: For the photography one, for example, it has been just extraordinary because many of the young women who applied to our courses, who were very good and had a great eye, only had their phones to shoot on. For the vast majority, it was their first time handling a camera and discovering the different tools or different functions of a camera during that course. It’s incredible seeing them being quite shy and not so confident, handling a camera and then them being able to dismantle the whole camera part by part, re-assembling it, using it, editing the images, even at a rudimentary level; their confidence is quite extraordinary. It has been amazing to see that evolution.
Even the idea of understanding, conceptually, what a photograph is, the evolution of photography, just because you see something able to weigh up a good image instinctively doesn’t necessarily mean that you have all the tools to understand why that makes a good image. So for them to get the vocabulary, theory, and practical skills.
Fari Sow: Because you launched in 2020, what were the immediate challenges in that particular context?
Sagal Ali: The immediate challenge was the idea that you couldn’t bring people together. You had to be very mindful of that. And actually, we launched our first exhibition, which is still very close to my heart, that we organized with two female artists, Still Life, as an outdoor exhibition. We had a cocktail-esque reception where we invited all those people, standing apart, and we had masks with our logo on them that we gave for free at the event. But I also think, to be completely honest, because we had to take the pandemic in our stride, it probably was less complicated for us starting during the pandemic than having to adapt to it as an already existing, flourishing institution.
The other thing is that I also decided, in the beginning, to be self-funded because Somalia has gone through 30 years of being a humanitarian project. I did not want to be on another project. I wanted to be an independent institution catering to artists, to have a focal point for contemporary art and not an NGO in the traditional sense of the word, although we are a non-profit. So, it was also knowing that even if we were ready for the proper financial support, maybe they weren’t available? Now we’re getting the right partnerships that support us in what we want to do. But the main challenge was being mindful of gatherings, even if our trainings aren’t packed because we wanted the students to have the right amounts of contact hours with the trainers. And for us, it is about quality instead of quantity, so we only recruit eight to eight students for our courses.
Fari Sow: In that sense, you can also focus more on individual stories and narratives.
Sagal Ali: Yes, and there’s a parallel mentorship with the course. We must work directly with them to develop their portfolio, moodboards, and shot list like everything related to the individual project that comes out of that. And then for the next steps, what they are looking to do with their skills.
In 2021, the Somalia Arts Foundation was one of the first organizations to receive the Moleskine Foundation’s Creativity Pioneers Fund, becoming part of the Creativity Pioneers network.