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East African teens share culture, conflict in Seattle show
The Seattle Times
Monday, March 25, 2013

“Layers of the Hijab” at Columbia City Gallery is a project by local artist Mary Coss and a group of East African teens who attend Cleveland High School. Through April 21, 2013.

Cleveland High School seniors Fatima Muse,   left, and Safia Mohamed, with artist Mary Coss, stand with their wire portraits. Cleveland High School seniors Fatima Muse, left, and Safia Mohamed, with artist Mary Coss, stand with their wire portraits.

With wit, graciousness and the occasional high-five, Cleveland High School seniors Safia Mohamed and Fatima Muse described the “top three ridiculous questions” that people ask them about wearing a hijab, the head covering worn by many Muslim women: “Do you have hair under there? Do you wear it in the shower? Do you sleep with it?”

“Random people ask ridiculous questions, but I don’t blame them, either. This is our opportunity to educate people,” said Mohamed. She adds, “And it’s not just the hijab thing. It’s about Somalia, too: ‘Do you have TV? Do you have cars? Do you live in a jungle?’ ”

These kinds of conflicting and intersecting cultural experiences are at the heart of “Layers of the Hijab,” an art project led by artist Mary Coss that brought together Mohamed, Muse and other Cleveland High School Muslim girls with East African backgrounds.

During this two-year project, Coss engaged students in conversations and guided them in writing poetry and creating art that explored questions of identity. Some of the resulting poems and sculptures, along with Coss’ life-size wire portraits of the girls, are currently on view at Columbia City Gallery.

“We talked about the different identities, the multiple identities that we deal with and how we’re able to balance them out ... being Somali, being American, being a Muslim and being a woman,” Muse said.

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Both students say that their weekly meetings became important to many of those involved. Muse says it was “a place where all of us, all the girls were able to understand each other and know that, yes, we all go through this and we’re all strong enough to deal with it.”

The exhibition features highly detailed plaster molds of the girls’ hands. They formed, painted and embellished their sculptures in personally and culturally symbolic ways. Although the girls share common ground with their religious and ethnic backgrounds, for Mohamed the varied artistic approaches “show how different we are from one another and our different lives that we live.”

Coss said she was fascinated when all the girls chose to use their right hands for the project. For Muse and Mohammed, having grown up with a cultural association between the left hand and uncleanliness, it was an automatic choice.

Mohamed felt strongly about incorporating the peace sign in her work: “The media makes the religion look really bad, and I wanted to show, through the hands that I made, that Islam stands for peace.”

One of Muse’s poems, titled “The Story of Her,” is about an East African girl who has to grow up quickly. Muse says, “We tend to have bigger families, and the older kids have to step up to take on responsibilities. And you have to stay on top of your faith, your schoolwork, and on top of that you have to stay in the whole American framework ... not being bullied.”

She stops and laughs, “and being cool.”

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