Wednesday, December 14, 2016
By Mila Koumpilova
Mohamed Barre’s annual photo exhibit started out as an uncommon introduction to his northeast Minneapolis neighbors.
It has grown into an artistic outlet, an annual family tradition and a ploy to get local Somalis and non-Somalis to mingle and get to know one another. This December, Barre hosts the sixth exhibit of his photos in his apartment building’s community room. Even as some of his photos have migrated to venues such as St. Paul’s Landmark Center, he says there’s nowhere else he’d rather show them off than right at home.
“I cannot afford to rent a gallery, but also this show is intended for the local people,” said Barre, a father of six who works for Hennepin County. “I wanted to show our neighbors that we are just another family in the neighborhood.”
Barre has been taking pictures since he was a child in pre-civil war Somalia. That’s what he told Naema Ali, a classmate at Minneapolis Community and Technical College at the time and the woman who would become his wife, when she asked why she constantly saw him snapping photos on campus.
After they married and started a family, Barre continued taking pictures — at weddings, during funerals, on the street and at home. He also retained his appreciation for photography as a powerful conversation starter.
When a friend pointed out many of the Somali homes in Barre’s apartment building had constantly drawn curtains, Barre explained that was a cultural quirk rather than an attempt to hide anything. And he decided he wanted to offer his neighbors a glimpse into his life and that of fellow Somalis.
That’s how his first apartment building show came about; he’s done it again every year since, carefully choosing from thousands of images he has amassed over the years. Many capture his U.S.-born children’s coming of age as Somali-Americans. Others are scenes from everyday life in the community. These days, business attire and newer-model cars are showing up more often in the images, and he hears “Don’t take my picture” less.
“The pictures are changing because the people are changing,” said Barre, who takes pride in steering clear of public or grant funding to display his work.
The exhibit has brought the family closer together, say Barre and Ali. Their children help choose the photos for each year’s show and welcome guests at the receptions. This winter, the exhibit features images by 11-year-old twins Ilham and Ilhan.
“It’s really become a family affair,” said Barre.
Barre also hopes the receptions are bringing the neighborhood closer. Ali says the couple especially like to share the back stories of photographed elders who were teachers, doctors or sports stars before Somalia’s civil war upended their lives.
Minneapolis artist Rebecca Lawson says the events work well as cultural exchanges. She met Barre when he agreed to speak at a panel on immigration as part of her show documenting her grandparents’ arrival from Romania. She remembers an anecdote he shared about supplying his Somali neighbors with candy and explaining Halloween to them.
“He’s always trying to bridge the gap between the two worlds with his photos,” she said. “He’s got an absolutely natural eye for photography.”
This year’s receptions for Barre’s photo show are 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday in his apartment building, at 1808 University Av. NE. in Minneapolis.