Childhood in Somalia for Ifrah Mansour was interrupted by the breakout of civil war and famine that displaced her to a desert refugee camp in 1991 in Kenya. It was an experience she would later memorialize as a playwright with her script for How to Have Fun in a Civil War, a 2018 production at the Guthrie Theatre written from the viewpoint of a 7-year-old girl.
She said her grandmother’s skills at storytelling and survival saved her life, eventually paving the way to come to America and settling in Minneapolis. Ifrah become a student at the University of Minnesota and planned to go on to a career in education when the course of her life shifted in a much more pleasant way.
“What happened to me happens often to people in college,” she said. “You choose a path and think, ‘This is it.’ I thought the way that I would serve the world would be through teaching. I was almost finished with my practicum when I started going to theaters. Watching people tell stories live on stage reminded me of my grandmother. It woke me up and made me feel more alive than teaching, so I went to whatever theater that would hire an untrained artist and, after doing a lot of shows and plays that didn’t reflect my lived experiences, I felt like it was necessary for me to become a playwright and make my own stories and embody them onstage.”
In addition to performance art, she also produces sculpture and has become enthralled with memories and revelations about her Muslim and Somali culture. Her latest effort will be on display beginning Monday (Jan. 29) at the Benedict and Dorothy Gorecki Gallery in the Benedicta Arts Center (BAC) on the campus of the College of Saint Benedict. While many art exhibitions feature a number of works by the featured artist or artists, Mansour will display only one at CSB – but it’s large enough to walk into, and the intent is for viewers to do just that with “The Healing Aqal.”
“I’ve always been fascinated with building, and I’m now at a place where I’m experimenting with that and learning about indigenous weaving and hut-building,” said Mansour, who in 2022 was awarded a fellowship by the Bush Foundation. “These are things my grandmother did when I was a kid. I grew up in that culture, but I was removed from it through forced migration.”
Aqal means “hut” in the Somali language. Mansour, who has been featured on Twin Cities Public Television, will conduct a workshop on Feb. 1 for students from Kennedy Community School in St. Joseph. Later that day, from 5-7 p.m., there will be an artist’s reception at the gallery in the BAC – including a formal talk at 6 p.m.
“I want to share the Somali-built hut with the world and show that it has multiple layers of meaning,” Mansour said. “It shows what refugees and most people who are forcibly moved go through. You start over with nothing. We know the hut through the emergency home creation of refugees, but culturally and indigenously – way back in the days when Somalis were nomads – what would happen is that a new family would get this beautifully adorned hut that was built, almost like a wedding gift. Often, females build them, but men do help. If you Google ‘aqal,’ you’ll often see images that were taken from refugee camps. They would use random sticks and their own ripped-off clothing, though there are obviously more complex ways of building the hut to show culture and for celebration purposes.
“But the healing hut is also an intentional place that I’m carving to get everyone to meditate and think about, what is healing for me? For you? For us in our community as Minnesotans? As individuals who all carry unique pain? It’s been beautiful, and this exhibition feels special because it’s the first time it has been professionally exhibited.”
This is the sixth hut Mansour has constructed.
“This one fit more of my reflection,” she said. “You can track my growth through the ones I’ve produced. This one folds. I literally had to think about, how does it move? How does it go through doors? Where can it be displayed? It has been a conference room, an alleyway, on the streets.”
And going inside, for visitors, is the whole point.
“I built this one in a way that’s very intricate and still growing,” Mansour said. “I have a complex layer of wanting people to meditate on what heals us as a community. Creating these is also a way to reclaim the accidental beauty you find in these structures. In the 1991 Somali civil war, it’s interesting that you had a lot of people who lived in cities and were fully educated, and they found themselves in the middle of the desert with nothing. They all had to lean into the wisdom and knowledge of their elders who knew how to succeed with these old ways of living. I find that beautiful and I also find it has a thread that relates to climate crisis. The world is producing more refugees from climate crisis, where folks are fleeing lack of food or lack of rain. How can we all be inspired to go back to old ways of living?”
But for those old ways, Mansour is a Minnesotan now. She recently spent three months in Kenya, only to lament that she missed winter.
“Minnesota has a spirit of adopting people who truly want to be there,” Mansour said. “I love it. We get four seasons and winter has so much beauty that speaks of death, renewal and rebirth.
“I really hope everybody who goes through can sit down and spend some time in the healing hut. My art is my home and I’m allowing everyone to come inside. I hope they feel loved, cocooned and seen, and experience a sense of hope in whatever form that may be.”
Ifrah Mansour (center) joins two friends inside The Healing Aqal, a traditional Somali hut that will be the focus of an exhibition from Jan. 29-Feb. 28 at the Gorecki Gallery in the Benedicta Arts Center.