The Anarchist Citizenship – An interview with Amal Alhaag, Nadine Stijns and Mustafa Saeed
“The Anarchist Citizenship is a collaborative visual project that looks into the concept of the nation state within the context of postcolonial African society. It investigates how Somalilanders define citizenship and shape their identity through visual culture, architecture, politics, storytelling and social life in Somaliland. What does it mean to be a citizen of an unrecognized state? Somaliland is constructed as a separatist state post-civil war in Somalia 28 years ago.
During our work periods in Somaliland, we are documenting and tracing the visual ways citizenship is performed through the friction between nation building and being statelessness, the position of women and role of feminism. Subsequently, we are also looking into how this process of citizenship facilitates self-representation through fashion and visual culture.
The Anarchist Citizenship project was initiated by Amal Alhaag and Nadine Stijns two years ago. The topics we focus on are already present in each of our previous works and we all share an interest in the collage aesthetics of Somaliland’s visual culture that is best described as Post-Internet Art avant la lettre. Perhaps, due to the decolonial nature of this project, it would be more precise to call it cakeland aesthetics.”
#1 – Can you please elaborate on the concept of “Anarchist Citizenship” that you put forward in your title? What do you mean exactly by that?
Anarchism is not an aggressive or destructive quality. It refers to the belief in the abolition of government and the organization of society on a cooperative basis without force or compulsion. To a degree, Somali society prior to arrival of colonialism and its violent practices, practiced a form of voluntary self-governing that was horizontal and social. Filmmaker Leyla Bile described to us that Somalis see rules as guidelines, as something that can be (re)negotiated constantly. To a degree our understanding of the anarchist is a wink towards this reading of anarchism. However, the civil war and the disolvement of the state Somalia has created a political vacuum without state authority. Despite several attempts to reconcile the country, the civil war has contributed to the creation of the unrecognised state of Somaliland. Since Somaliland has been a functioning ‘state’ for two decades, it provides insight into alternative forms of self-governing in which the people through democratic processes and clan networks exert influence. This cocktail of alternative understanding of anarchism and nationalism, is an interesting stage for our research.
#2 – In the presentation of your project, you write about your desire to document the “ways Somalilanders take ownership of one’s own image”. Concretely, how did this translate into the making of the photographs you did there?
We don’t want to create a false representation, use people in a disrespectful way, or commodify the people we work with. Somalis are very aware of how they want to be represented and how they want to communicate to the world. During photoshoots it’s not uncommon for people to change their clothes (a couple of times) and decide on the poses, locations and backgrounds themselves. On some occasions we even had bystanders who acted as art directors telling the people how to pose or reminding us how to document and tell their stories.
Media platforms writing on Somalia often focus on topics as drought and humanitarian aid, piracy, terrorism and displacement and often don’t make the distinction between Somalia and Somaliland. Because of this Somalilanders often might feel they are misrepresented in international media. We on the other hand are interested in what daily life looks like for the people of Somaliland, and by collaborating with Somali artists and thinkers we try to create a project that is also valued by the Somali community within Somaliland as well as the diaspora.
In the stories about the region, the position of women is often invisibilized. We want to prioritize women’s intergenerational stories and offer a stage and are interested in how they run the state’s economy through their entrepreneurship and how they express their identities, power and creativity. An art project offers the opportunity to approach this subject with much freedom and to investigate the complexity of the position of the woman without compromising people.
Visual media formats are a set of languages that showcase alternative understanding and looking into the world. Additionally, these languages change also the hierarchy of who documents, writes, and thinks about whom, and allows for the agency of people to be central to practices. This is why The Anarchist Citizenship is a collaborative project because it offers a meetingpoint for different perspectives to be informed by the social consequences of globalization, colonialism, border politics and migration.
In relation to Somaliland the topics of migration, identity and citizenship are very relevant. A lot of young people go on tahriib (the migration abroad) trying to reach Europe or the Middle East in search for a better life while at the same time there a people from the Somali diaspora, mostly former refugees, political exiles (due to the civil war) migrating back to Somaliland to contribute to the development of the country. These two paradoxal realities are present and are examples of the self determination, friction and challenges that Somaliland as a society faces.
#3 – From our understanding, the collaborative side of the project is of paramount importance to you. Can you please give insights about the way you worked together, between the Netherlands and Somaliland? Did positions shift during the process? If so, how?
The idea for The Anarchist Citizenship came about after Amal first went to Hargeisa in 2014 and showed pictures of that trip to Nadine, who immediately fell in love with the beautiful textiles worn there. Material culture is an important ingredient of Nadine’s work and as we were already in conversation about diaspora communities (because of Nadine’s A Nation Outside A Nation project about the Filipino diaspora) the concept of The Anarchist Citizenship almost naturally followed out of these talks. We then started thinking of Somali artists to collaborate with. That’s how Mustafa got involved. We are working towards an exhibition where Mustafa will show some of the series he has made as well as the work Amal and Nadine are working on. Mustafa’s work deals with the non-existence of platforms for youth in Somaliland, and the lack of self-expression people face and we felt his poetic visual translations fit very well within the concept of The Anarchist Citizenship. Next to that we all share an interest and love for pop-culture, for colors, patterns, textiles and graphics. Other (future) collaborators are: cultural programmer and visual artist Kinsi Abdulleh (UK) from Numbi, architect Rashid Ali (UK and Sl).
We are working towards a multi-sensory visual project consisting of photography, soundscapes, architectural interventions, video, and interviews which will be exhibited at Framed Framed Amsterdam and will be exhibited in Hargeisa Somaliland. Because of the different collaborations within this project The Anarchist Citizenship will come to live in various constellations (from exhibition to public event series). For instance, last year we collaborated with cultural platform Numbi to make a contribution to the City Zine magazines they publish and we will collaborate at this years Numbi Fest as well.
Somalis are known for their oral culture and poetry is the most important art form in Somaliland. But Somaliland is such a vivid and vibrant society with its own visual vernacular language comprised of different influences: East African, Ottoman, Arab, Indian, baroque, Mediterranean, modernist and American. This eclectic mixes of styles are very interesting and inspiring to us and we found that it’s not being researched or visualised extensively yet. The visual language clearly reflects the (historical) influences and local visual language, which is partially fueled by the returning diaspora as much as the local people.
“The Anarchist Citizenship: Ode to Youthful Daredevils” is currently on show at the Kunsthal Rotterdam (Feb. 9, 2019 – June 16, 2019).
Amal Alhaag is a Dutch curator and researcher with an interest in counter-culture, oral histories and global geopolitics and intersectionality. Her work explores these themes through short- and long-term collaborations with artists, institutions and audiences. Since 2008, her projects infuse music and art with current affairs, post-coloniality, digital anthropology and everyday anecdotes to invite, stage or examine ‘uncomfortable‘ issues, unknown stories and unwelcome audiences to write, share or compose narratives in impermanent settings. Together with artist Maria Guggenbichler, Alhaag cofounded the Side Room, a platform for ex-centric cultural practices in Amsterdam. She is the artistic director of the contemporary urban arts platform Metro54 and curator public programming & research at the Research Centre For Material Culture at the Museum of World Cultures.
Nadine Stijns is a Dutch photographer who works on long-term projects fuelled by her curiosity for socio-economic and/or political situations. Topics such as labor migration in a global economic system, Diaspora communities and national identity in post- colonial regions fascinate her and inform her projects. In the past years her work has reached a larger audience through exhibitions at The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, The Kunsthal Rotterdam, The Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai, Format Photography Festival in Derby, lectures and publications in (inter)national media such as The Ones to Watch issue from The British Journal of Photography, Works that Work magazine, Metropolis M and various newspapers.
Mustafa Saeed is an Somali artist who lives and works in Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland. Mustafa’s work explores different mediums including documentary photography, graphics and sound. His work marries poetic symbolism with sociopolitical critique to explore issues of war, conflict and environment. In 2015 he was chosen for the Arab Documentary Program ADPP, and his work has been shown at AddisFotoFest, at Lumières d’Afriques in Paris, it has been published at different platforms such as the BBC and was shown at UNSEEN Photo Fair Amsterdam 2018.