I have worked in the local community of Somali elders as a healthcare worker for six years. Most of the elders don’t speak English, and my work is accomplished through interpreters. For that reason, I have been learning af-Soomaali (Somali language). As I get to know the elders in our community I have started to portray them in my art, along with Islamic designs, also of my creation. I’m fascinated by the resilience, intelligence, and humor of these elders, and mean for the portraits to serve as an introduction and a means of integrating them into the community.
Although there is an aniconic tradition in Islamic culture, the elders I have painted have asked me for their portraits, since recognizing me as an artist. I don’t ask them, out of respect. My understanding is that, although the elders are observant Muslims, they realize the intrinsic value of the art, they want to see the artist’s interpretation of their visage, and sometimes they have family they want to share the pictures with, as they would a photo.
I paint on large paper with acrylics, and make an inkjet print of my painting for the model to keep, at no cost to them. I received a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board in 2013 to create my portraits and bring them to exhibition. My first solo show of portraits will be at Traffic Zone Center for the Arts, downtown Minneapolis, in January 2014.
Pamela Gaard is a fiscal year 2013 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.