The Somali Museum of Minnesota, the American Swedish Institute, and the Weavers Guild sponsored a morning of cultural exchange on Saturday in downtown Minneapolis, at the pop-up gallery of the Somali Museum. It was enormously fun and educational. The pop-up gallery at 319 North 1rst Street includes a remarkable traditional Somali nomadic dwelling, assembled this summer from materials brought from Somalia. The dwelling looks substantial and permanent, but it can be dismantled in two-three hours. Traditionally the pieces would be transported by camel, but that is unlikely to happen when it is dismantled in October.
Translator Mulki Hussein talked about how the reconstructed dwelling has been special to members of the Somali community this summer. When she first saw it, the evocative smell of the grasses brought tears to her eyes. “I can’t go home,” she explained, “and this was like home came to me.” Besides the expense, it’s too dangerous to visit Somalia now; with the warfare, people have changed and you don’t know who to trust. Her family is here, she added, and “If your mother is here, your home is here; you don’t have to go back.” She said the weaving elders have been meeting at the gallery and weaving outside the dwelling, just as they might have done in Somalia when they were sixteen or seventeen years old.
Surrounding the dwelling are walls with painted Somali landscapes. The dwelling exterior is brown and thatch-like; inside the walls are lined with graphic woven panels, some woven on sticks and other woven on plaited yarns or raffia. Jan Mostrom, Mary Skoy and I examined the weavings inside, clueless at to how sticks could be the warp. Later we learned that in the weaving process the sticks are held up vertically between trees by two or three women as the first rows of weft are twined among them.
It all made more sense as we watched the Somali master weavers use the same twining process on purse-sized pieces. Those pieces were finger-woven on “warp” made of plaited braids. Many of the women brought examples of their work and hung them for the morning around the paintings on display.
A weaver named Ardho displayed a magnificent purse, “burso” in Somali. It was like a multicolored shiny flash of a secret under her purple headcovering.
While making braids for their pieces, they hooked pairs of yarn lengths on their feet. Why hook them on their toes? Translator Mulki Hussein explained that it is because traditionally women often wove alone and had to depend on their own bodies as their equipment, for example while they were out herding. Here a Somali weaver displays a strap she was making for a purse; look closely and you can see the the warp is actually made of twisted braids.
I learned how to make the braids. A double strand, measured as twice the distance from your mouth to your toe, is cut with a maqas – an ordinary scissors. The two threads in the strand can be one color or two. The Somali women seemed to favor contrast in their twisted braids. Sarah Larsson, Outreach and Marketing Director for the museum, told me that one end can be held in your mouth as you twist the other half, and then the other half can be twisted, with the twisted part transferred to your mouth. Both halves are twisted in the same direction. As I started twisting, a woman on my other side set me straight on a couple of things – no translator needed. You don’t need to use your mouth, merely loop it around the fingers of one hand. Further, don’t twist the yarn with your fingers; roll the threads with your flat hands.
You can see from my description that this was a morning of sharing and teaching. Many of the Somali women did not speak English. Sometimes we enlisted the translator to help us negotiate our questions; other times, it didn’t seem to matter. Hands have a language of their own. Mary Skoy joined the group with her knitting. One Somali woman was knitting, and Mary Skoy commented, “Don’t you just find that you knit all the time?” I’m not sure the woman understood Mary’s question, but it was clear they connected through the similar work that was in their hands. The Somali women’s work held center stage, but the work of other Weavers Guild members enriched the morning. Nedra Granquist showed a rag rug; Jan Mostrom brought a band in process on a small cradle loom.
Elizabeth Harrington brought bright kool-aid dyed wool batting and drop spindles. At first she lagged back and watched the activities, leaving time for the Somali women and their work to shine. Soon it became clear that some Somali women were very interested in what she was doing. The next thing you know, she taught a Somali woman how to spin, and in turn the Somali woman taught a delighted gallery visitor, all in the space of twenty minutes or so.
Siiri Korhonen, who was an artist in residence at the American Swedish Institute in August, was a special guest. She took advantage of the opportunity to both make braids and begin a small woven piece. Here she is intently watching a Somali woman help her with twisting in the first rows of weft.
Interestingly, it wasn’t only Weavers’ Guild members and Siiri who were learning from the Somali, but also some young Somali girls. I asked a young woman sitting next to me whether the weavers were her relatives or neighbors. Oh no, she replied, I just saw the notice on Facebook and decided to come. What a wonderful blend of technology and tradition.
There are still opportunities for learning from the Somali weavers at drop-in informal classes on Wednesdays through September 24. And even if you can’t join the workshops, be sure to visit the pop-up gallery to view the paintings and traditional dwelling.