On its homepage, the Copenhagen-Somali Seminar boldly presents itself as “a new forum for advanced debate and event making focusing on the cultural, economic and social reality of Somalis in the current world.”
Behind the Copenhagen-Somali Seminar, we find four active figures, Abdulkadir Osman Farah, Mahad Farah Aden, Anders Michelsen and Martin el-Toukhy. Their first event, held last March, was a seminar with the title Practicing Art as Politics. With this, the organisers immediately set themselves apart and gave themselves a distinct profile in a world where conferences and think tank type initiatives on Somalia have been proliferating. Art and culture is often a neglected theme in serious political debate.
This time, researchers along with two great figures on the Somali art scene, writer Maxamed Daahir Afrax and the revered poet Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame “Hadraawi”, convened to discuss the given theme. The Somali language and the challenges it faces today, the poetry that is expressed in this language, visual art that is marginal in a Somali context, what actually is art? After the scholarly debate on the first day, at the University of Copenhagen, there followed two days of discussions with the Somali Danish community in Copenhagen and Aarhus.
At the 11th International Congress of Somali Studies, held in Lillehammer, Norway, in October 2012, culture was a recurring theme and figured prominently in the call for papers. Yet, among those participating with a presentation, few had made culture the outright subject of their presentation. This of course reflects the trend in research generally.
And not just in research. Ask anyone to talk about the importance of art and culture and many will answer that it’s something of an extra, to spend money on if there is a surplus. Or it’s something to decorate your home with. Or it is, on the contrary, something innate, just how things are done in any given society, no big deal, until outsiders come in and don’t know how to behave.
Well, then, if you have to move to a foreign place, you have to learn the culture of that place. You also need to think more consciously about who you are yourself, how you behave, what you believe in – in sum, about your own culture and identity. You need to think of what you want to keep, and what to discard, in the new context. Possibly even what you want to both keep and discard, according to context. Not everyone is aware of it, or wants to face up to this need; it’s still there.
Culture then becomes the very essence of human society. Art, in its most refined form – oral as well as visual – is both how we express this essence and question it. But then: who is seen? Who is heard? This is the excitement: a new awareness. When the Copenhagen-Somali Seminar challenges us to consider Somalis in the globalized world through the spectre of culture, and in particular through art, it also invites us to reflect on the global reality in which we all live together.
When the Republic of Somalia collapsed, few, if anyone, could see that the collapse was so profound and would be so long lasting. I have claimed before, and I want to go on record saying it again: I believe that what the Somalis are doing is in fact the first and most thorough questioning of not just the post-colonial state, but the colonial state with all the contradictory legacy that it left behind. It is a painful and costly process. Given time, they will come up with something new, a recreation of who they are today, and who they want to be tomorrow, in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.
There was a moment, during the heady days of the Tunisian revolution igniting the Arab Spring, when I almost thought that the Tunisians might get ahead of the Somalis in this. But what the Somalis have been doing is more profound, and the issues that they have to deal with have become even more complex during all the years of struggle. Yet, for two years now, there has been a new mood, the direction has changed and hope is ever alive.
What the Copenhagen-Somali Seminar attempts to show us is that this process touches us all in our shared global community.
In addition to the three day event that took place in March, the Copenhagen-Somali Seminar is also a website. While waiting for the next event and until the publication of the presentations, one can visit the website for the abstracts and the presentations of the keynote speakers, and also click up the interesting material that the seminar organisers link to elsewhere on the global net.
Suzanne Lilius, artist and independent researcher, originally from Finland, first met Somalis from Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia in Paris in 1978.
Photos: Suzanne Lilius