Talantaalis (Duet), 2019, canvas and fabrics, installation shot
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In this interview, Kaamil A. Haider reflects upon the vital role memory makes in bridging individual and communal experiences in his multidisciplinary practices.

Storytelling, memory, and community seem to be at the heart of your practice. Could you tell us more about how these ideas manifest themselves in your work?

Of those approaches, memory is the overarching and necessary component whence I create all of my work. Memory, both involuntary and voluntary, produces a sense of collective and individual identity. It introduces a consciousness of objects and environment, changes perceptions of reality, and creates words, mores, stories, and communities. 

Using memory as a guiding source, I borrow ideas and inspirations from the historical and provincial stories of my community as well as document our current experiences. This act allows me to explore visual possibilities and to create forms of expression by weaving together and translating cultural stories, themes, and assets.   

You describe your work as situated between a receiving society and a sending community. What is your personal experience of being in and creating work from this position?

I was born and raised in Qoryooley, a city in southern Somalia. Having now lived in Minnesota for close to two decades, I reflect on my community’s transition from an accustomed space of living to another: of being, remembering, thinking, creating, feeling, behaving, and acting.  

Finding myself at the nexus between these dual reflections and experiences, my work imitates and is informed by the Somali diaspora experience. Themes of exploration are constant conversations among my communities, such as the passing on of heritage, language, knowledge, rituals, and other physical connections with our culture as we forge a new life in our new homes.

Your practice is multi-faceted. You received your degree in graphic design and your studio work includes video, performance, sculpture, public art, and textiles. I’m curious does your graphic design background co-mingle with your fine art projects or do they operate as separate practices?

My work oscillates between my various backgrounds. And, occasionally, they coalesce, intersect, and infer one another. I choose the medium that can best help me investigate and express what I am trying to create, and then I utilize these various practices to aid the production aspect. Sometimes I do not know what type of art I am creating until I know I am done with the work. 

However, I tend to be very precise and minimal whenever I commit to graphic design work. Attributes from my graphic design background such as Gestalt, design elements and principles, and minimalism overflow into my artworks through symbols, colors, patterns, movements, symmetry, etc. These approaches are apparent in my projects such as Talantaalis (Duet) and Soo Bood, Bood / Come Jump, Jump

In Talantaalis, I used my signature colors (black, blue, red, and green) with traditional Somali garments (baati and hoosgunti) that share, more or less, the same hues. The repetition of colors, patterns, symmetry, scale, and movements of the textiles are apparent in my other works. In this project, I used my sibling’s everyday cultural garments to activate memory as a repository of the past and the meanings of objects in our homes.

In the Soo Bood, Bood project, I created the work with the same attitude: closeups of dance movements; colors via the dancers’ garments; repetition, chants, claps, and stomps in a unified frenzied rhythm. This project was a five-part multi-channel video installation that used traditional Somali dance as its starting point. Three of the videos focused on dancing and the body parts that are used during dancing: the head, trunk, and limbs. The other two videos are solid red and blue projections that cast a shadow when the viewer stood, danced, or moved in front of it. This allowed for the viewers’ movements to be an active part of my project. This last aspect of Soo Bood, Bood is what inspired my upcoming project (Untitled for now).
Kaamil A. Haider
Soo Bood, Bood / Come jump, Jump, 2019, multi-channel video installation, still image from video

What’s the most challenging part of your studio practice?

I have a proclivity for inserting multiple ideas into a single project. Despite how often this occurs, I try to maintain a sustained negotiation process with myself at every stage of the creation. Sometimes you are in control, and at other times, the work will confer with you. 

You are a co-founder of the Soomaal House of Art, a Somali American artist collective. Could you tell us more about this collective, how was it formed, and what types of projects or exhibitions is the group working on?

Together with my friends and fellow artists, Khadijah Muse and Mohamud Mumin, we created Soomaal House of Art to provide a platform for Somali visual artists. Through Soomaal, we work with local, national, and international artists to help them find their artistic cohorts, community, and support through programming and exhibitions, and a space of their own. Our sustained mission at Soomaal is to inspire more Minnesotans, especially Somali Minnesotans, to harness the power of art as a tool for intellectual and civic engagement. 

Soomaal’s creative programs are intimately focused on contemporary Somali art. They include monthly exhibitions, annual group exhibitions, and a fellowship program at Augsburg University. In addition, we teach art at local schools, lead art discussions, and organize and facilitate initiatives with institutions to broaden the arts and cultural sectors within our Minnesotan communities by nurturing and promoting contemporary Somali arts in Minnesota.

What do you want a viewer to walk away with after experiencing your work?

That’s a tough one to answer because every viewer comes with a set of beliefs, perceptions, ideas, and not to mention their own sufferings as well. 

I will have to refer to James Baldwin on this: “The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”  By the same token, the viewer should not take any art for granted. 

How has winning the Jerome fellowship affected and/or changed your work?

Because of the various roles that I occupy, the Jerome Fellowship has given me the opportunity to focus solely on myself, both as an artist and as a seeker. The opportunities that come with the fellowship such as access to curators, art critics, fellow artists, discussions, and MCAD’s facility resources will surely enhance my practice as an artist. Kaamil A. HaiderUntitled (in progress), 2020, multi-channel video installation, still image from video

If you could describe your work in one word, what would it be?

Metaphysical.