Episode Five: Rethinking Representation in Diaspora: Art, Research, and Community Building
This episode takes up questions related to the potential of art for community building by focusing on a Columbus-based project with the local Somali community. Eleanor Paynter, a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Studies, speaks with Qorsho Hassan, an educator, researcher, and community organizer, and Ruth Smith, an artist, researcher, and educator, about their participatory photography and book project, Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah: Community In-Between. The conversation considers the need for projects which build and share collective memory, as well as the ways narratives can bridge geographical and generational gaps.
Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah: Community In-Between, the project by Qorsho Hassan and Ruth Smith, is a participatory research project, which means, broadly speaking, that research subjects are involved in the development of the project as a whole. Such projects can take any of a number of forms; participatory projects might involve the development of community spaces, such as the Edible Hut project in Detroit. Or they might involve the creation of art; Urban Art Works in Seattle, for instance, works with community members to design and paint murals in spaces around the city. The Muslim Neighbors project which Smith mentions in this episode is another such example.
Rather than entering a community to identify and collect information, participatory projects usually aim to effect long-term change by involving community members in the co-production of knowledge and, often, by offering something in return for the willingness of participants to share their time and experience. In the case of Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah: Community In-Between, the project has involved training two young photographers and assembling narratives in book and gallery form, collections which will continue to circulate and which will likely prompt further storytelling, even after the exhibit closes.
For Hassan and Smith, one of the main ideas behind the kind of participatory research they facilitate is to challenge the circulation of a single narrative – in other words, to create and multiply the narratives communities tell about themselves and which become available to others outside the community. In their current research, Hassan and Smith are interested in how individuals and groups in diaspora build community and maintain connections between home and host countries. They begin by acknowledging “the consistent renegotiation of belonging and social norms within Somali and American cultures” and ask, “Where do Somali-Americans build their communities?” The narratives produced through the project represent both process and findings. Hassan and Smith have identified multiple unifying factors in the narratives, including “patterns of resiliency, particularly in the narratives of visible Muslim women.” The narratives suggest, they explain, that “communities are built amidst the in-between.”
This kind of project also responds to the question: who produces knowledge about a particular community? As Hassan mentions in the episode, research in Somalia and Somali communities has historically been produced by white scholars, mostly men. A variety of efforts have taken shape to speak against this legacy of colonialism. Mandeeq, a collective of scholars who define themselves as “unapologetically Somali,” actively works to decolonize knowledge production. Novelist Teju Cole discusses the broad scope of this issue in the development and humanitarian aid sectors in a 2012 article in the Atlantic on “the White Savior Industrialist Complex.” Participatory research can challenge colonial forms of knowledge production. Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah: Community In-Between is, at its heart, a project in which Somali-Americans produce their own stories and represent themselves.
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Dublin Arts Council is presenting Urur Dhex-Dhexaad Ah: Community In-Between in collaboration with guest preparators Ruth Smith and Qorsho Hassan. The exhibition will be on view from August 8 – November 3, 2017.