Ifrah Mansour was born in Saudi Arabia, and by the time her family returned to their native Somalia a few years later it was too late. Civil war broke out, the government collapsed, and Mansour’s family—her parents, five siblings, and herself—soon left for a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, one of the oldest and largest in the world.
When her family eventually came to the United States, they settled first in Dallas, Texas, where the only African-American they knew was the mailman. “The whole family would run to the door when he came,” she recalls. “We asked him, ‘Where are all the brown people?'”
Mansour moved to Minneapolis in high school, and now lives among the largest Somali diaspora community in the country. But at 30 she hasn’t followed the Somali immigrant path that she or anyone else expected. “I was doing what everyone was doing, which is to go to college, seek a degree that will financially stabilize you and your extended family. I was on track for elementary ed. My life was set. I was going to be the perfect kindergarten teacher,” she says. Then she discovered her penchant for performance.
When Mia’s “I am Somali” exhibition opens on August 18, Mansour’s installation Can I Touch It will be among the art of two other Somali immigrant artists. The piece reflects on the experience of Muslim women and girls whose hijabs are yanked or touched without permission—a surprisingly frequent violation of privacy shared by pregnant women whose bellies are rubbed by strangers, people with incredible tattoos, and so on. Occasionally, Mansour says, people do ask permission—even as their hands are already reaching for the fabric.
Mansour once worked in a Minneapolis daycare facility, where little girls wore hijabs fastened with a safety pin. And every day, she says, boys would pull the girls’ hijabs—and the pins would stab the girls in the neck.
Bullying aside, she understands the curiosity: “On some level, these people may want to connect with you.” Touching and staring, she notes, are among our sensory tools for understanding the world. “But what does this getting-to-know-you cost? Can we do it in a way that both parties are healthier for it in the end?”
Staging a Life
Mansour is still getting used to the idea of creating a permanent piece of art. She trained as a performer, having been introduced to the stage through Mixed Blood Theatre, on Minneapolis’ West Bank, where it was her job to market plays to the neighboring Somali community. “I wasn’t very good at it,” she says. “It was awkward to try to get people to come to shows that didn’t reflect them.”
So she learned to write her own stories—”stories that reflected me,” she says—and to perform them. In a couple weeks, she’ll play the Minnesota State Fair, six days of pop-up performances outside the Education Building. The show, Somalia’s Balloon, takes a child’s perspective of Somalia’s colonial history. In February, she’ll perform How to Have Fun in a Civil War at the Guthrie Theater, another solo show that looks at violence through a child’s eyes. Both are by turns serious and funny, with a playfulness often lacking in refugee stories.
“Life includes humor,” she says emphatically, “and I want to capture that as well as the difficult, painful, and unjust things around us. To me, it’s more reflective of the human condition: one minute we’re laughing, the next we’re extremely sad. As refugees, as Muslims, as minorities, showing our humorous and playful side gives us more dimension. Basically, I want to portray on the stage how I want to be seen in the world.”
It’s an approach that veers not just from the refugee narrative we’ve come to expect but also from the de-facto Somali history—”one sad sob story,” as Mansour has put it—largely informed by the perspective of her elders, whose deep attachment to their homeland she could not have shared when she left at age 7. She’s tired of the expectation that she is defined by what the world did to her, not by what she has done in the world.
“When people ask about your experience as a refugee, what they’re really asking is, ‘How did all this injustice make you the way you are?’ It’s very exhausting if we have to keep sharing that, as though we’re all stuck on it.”
In one of her shows, she doesn’t speak at all. There are voiceovers of statistics, bits of information about other people. But Mansour simply occupies the stage. “It’s powerful for me to exist as a refugee without having to talk about our experience,” she says. “Just to exist.”
“I am Somali” opens August 18 in gallery G255 at Mia. Mansour will join the other two artists in the exhibition, Hassan Nor and Aziz Osman, for a talk at Mia on October 26.
Top image: Mansour in “Somalia’s Balloons.”