In 1988, internal conflicts initiated by the Somali Civil War resulted in the establishment of Somaliland, an area in Somalia’s northwest that now operates as a self-declared autonomous region of 4 million residents. From a global perspective, Somalia and its citizens are constantly misunderstood, perpetuated by negative media interpretations and stereotypes. Additionally, as an extension of this misinterpretation, very little is known about Somaliland specifically, except by those who live in the region as citizens or visit on a regular basis.
Initiated by independent curator Amal Alhaag and photographer Nadine Stijns, The Anarchist Citizenship is a dynamic collaboration that explores the vibrancy and individuality of people living in Somaliland. By working with local artists, including filmmakers and architects, the duo sets out to represent local Somalilanders in any way their subjects choose, so that each image is an intentional collaboration with the depicted individuals.
We were able to see a preview of this incredible work at this year’s Unseen Amsterdam, and caught up with both Nadine and Amal to discuss their roles in the project, how they are working to subvert the colonial gaze in documentary work, and what they mean by “anarchist citizenship.”
LensCulture: Your collaboration is interesting because while Nadine is formally trained as a photographer, Amal works in visual culture, but not necessarily as a practicing artist. Tell me a bit about how you each began working with photography and the arts, and how that evolved into this project.
Nadine Stijns: I actually began my career in fashion design, and very quickly found out that I wasn’t very good at sitting behind a sewing machine, and I also wasn’t really interested in designing a fashion collection. I’m more interested in what fashion can tell us about the identity of people, or how people present themselves through what they are wearing. So I switched to studying photography, and that theme been a major focus in my photographic work: how people express themselves, be it through clothes, or even architecture. My latest photography projects focus on labor migration and diasporic communities, so when Amal and I first met, we talked a lot about what it means to be from a diaspora, living in the Netherlands but coming from somewhere else.
Amal Alhaag: For me, photography is a tool for working through the practices that I engage with. I don’t exactly embody the standard idea of a curator, because I work very intensely in collaboration with people, blurring the line between the maker and curatorial concept. I enjoy working together so that both people are really engaging with the concept, thinking about it all the time.
LC: What did your initial conversations for this project look like? How did you decide how to approach the topics you are addressing in the work?
AA: When we started this project, we talked about it so much just to make sure we were well-prepared. We share a love for fashion and the way people use it to not only create their own identity, but also go through this world-making process—the way they see the world and the way they want to be seen in the world. Nadine and I are also both really into pop culture and how it travels across the globe, and how it’s co-owned by people and then changed and remixed to be given a new form. For example in one of our images, I love how the Gucci print is more abstract and remixed. In Somali, we call it a baati, which is a longer piece, almost like informal wear.
LC: So you spoke a lot about your similar interests before creating the project, but when did you make the decision to create The Anarchist Citizenship specifically?
AA: I went to Somaliland for the first time in 2014. I had never been there before, even though my parents are from the region, because I was born somewhere else. In a way, I’m a prototype diasporic person. My family has been diasporic for more than 100 years, so it’s not like I am the first one. It’s actually a part of a lot of Somali communities – they are diasporic by nature. When Nadine and I met, we shared that interest in the diaspora, and we talked about how little is known about the way Somali people see their own reality, or how they shape their own reality – myself included.
When I got to Somaliland, I saw the richness of the colors and fabric, and so much of what both Nadine and I are interested in: fashion, youth culture and popular culture. But what also interested me was the architecture. It’s not the style we know here in Europe or the West, and it wasn’t like the African architecture that I have studied and am interested in. We know so little about architectural developments in Somaliland, just like we know so little about how the people there narrate their own realities. When I came back, I quickly sent Nadine the images, and we started conceptualizing what a project about Somaliland might look like.
LC: It’s interesting that despite our endless sources of imagery and photos, seeing something totally new and surprising for the first time is still possible, and probably felt really sublime. What kind of research were you able to do to ensure that this project was done correctly, especially because there aren’t many visual references for you to work with?
AA: We definitely agreed that the things that are known about Somaliland are so stereotypical. The image that people have of Somalis is rooted in this visualization of what has come to constitute the “barbarian”: piracy, terrorism, refugees, drought. It’s the same keywords: if you google any of those, you get “Somali,” and if you google “Somali,” you get any of these keywords. You barely get anything about the people speaking for themselves. Everything reproduces some sort of imperialist ideology about what the people there are like.
It’s important to underline that this project is an attempt to move away from that, by focusing on how people are shaping their own concept of citizenship through visual culture and through architecture. Witnessing how they actually design their own presence has been very interesting. It’s like stepping into an omnipotent time capsule – you’re here, but you’re simultaneously in many other places at the same time. It’s futuristic.
LC: Tell me a bit more about how you are working with people so that they can represent themselves, because this is often tricky territory, especially in photography.
NS: At this point, we are primarily focusing on women, and when Amal speaks to them and asks about taking their photo, they say yes – but they want to change into a new outfit first, and they want a particular backdrop, and they want their two friends in the picture as well. Everyone is very conscious of how they want to be represented, and how they want an image of themselves to be made. As a photographer, that is super interesting. That’s always the thing I battle with: how much of this is my idea of a place or a person, and how much of it is what the person themselves wants to portray?
For example, we took a picture of the first female taxi driver in Somaliland. We had this beautiful backdrop in our mind, and wanted to take the picture of her in her taxi. She totally overruled us in every decision, and it turned out great in the end.
AA: It’s where the title for the project comes from: The Anarchist Citizenship. It’s an in-depth look into this sort of hierarchical relationship, and how people refuse it. In the West, we have this understanding that a particular hierarchy has to be in place in order to make society work. But what happens when that is refused, and people decide to shape citizenship differently? Also, what happens when citizenship is no longer narrowly rooted in place and territory, but is equally shaped by people who are diasporic and always in motion? It’s been amazing to see that even young people are pro-Somaliland in this sense, because it’s almost never recognized. I think everybody really wants to make this project a success because they are sick of being portrayed in such a bad way. People also want to be co-owners of the images, which I found so interesting – everyone wants to have equal rights to the photographs, so they can decide for themselves what they will do with that image.
LC: Documentary stylings are, the majority of the time, incredibly voyeuristic, and I understand how you are actively trying to subvert that. But can you speak a bit more directly about the ways you are working against that?
AA: Yes, we spoke a lot about the colonial gaze. How do we avoid it? Because I am also equally implicated in that. People of color reproduce these colonial gazes despite being the primary subject matter throughout its legacy. We are trained in the Western way of seeing things, especially if our formal education happen in the West. I personally try to shape a practice that shifts away from this. For us, the negotiation and collaboration with other people has been important, but it also goes back to this question of ownership. Documentary photography was often meant to exoticize people, or show them as something other than human. It’s always about colonial or enslaved subjects – but not human beings. When photography in general is so loaded, how do we step away from that?
NS: Yes, this is something that I, as a white person from the Netherlands, was very conscious about. I have a lot of opportunities to make the work that I do, as opposed to a lot of people in Somaliland. Early on, we reached out to the amazing photographer Mustafa Saeed, who is also a part of this project. Next year we plan on having a larger exhibition, with photographers from Somaliland, as well as an architect who is between London and Hargeisa. We are also working with someone who is currently living in London, running an organization geared towards diaspora and Somali communities. We are working with them to integrate all these voices into the project, and we don’t want to just have an exhibition here in the Netherlands – we also want to bring it to Hargeisa.
LC: As you mentioned, the title suggests these different layers of both societal structure and culture. Tell me a bit more about the difference in perception of these words, because in the West we are taught that they cannot necessarily coexist.
NS: In the civil war, Somaliland broke away from the rest of Somalia, and it was a decision that was made very consciously. For 27 years, they have had their own elections, their own currency, their own passports – it functions as a real state with a parliament and free elections and all that. So in that sense, it’s about people taking ownership of their surroundings. But like we mentioned earlier, it’s also about people telling us how they want to be portrayed, and having them take ownership of that.
AA: There are particular cultures, particularly in the West, where you have this culture of kingdoms, where there is a hierarchy of different classes. This understanding of classes doesn’t necessarily exist in Somaliland. There are people who fall outside of the clan system, but within the political arena, anarchism also refers to our relationship to rules and regulations – including in the diaspora. People often joke by saying that in Somaliland, the president could not dictate anything to a five-year-old, and that really is the attitude of the people there. Everything can and should be negotiated, and I think that idea of approaching rules as guidelines instead of static instructions is quite inspiring.
Once I witnessed this there, I realized it also made sense to me as a citizen of the diasporic community. I always joke that I have a dyslexia towards hierarchy – I do not comprehend it. I just step over it, and I think that is part of the Somali attitude. In a political sense, it also shifts the anarchist away from what we understand anarchy to be in Western left wing politics. There’s a long history of that particular culture, specifically in the Netherlands. So instead we ask: how can anarchism be seen as a model or way for people to organize themselves, rather than the opposite? Combining the word anarchy and citizenship – we initially think those things don’t go together, right? That’s the poeticism of the title – it makes you think about it.
LC: Speaking with you about this work, it’s clear it’s meant to reach a wide audience, all for different reasons. You’re collaboratively creating this platform for people to dictate how they would like to be represented, and in doing so, you are presenting a more truthful representation of these individuals – a shift from the stereotypical images of the past. Your audience is both your collaborators and other people who have no conception of what Somaliland is like. Tell me about the importance of this dualistic audience.
NS: Photography is often about focusing on the photographer themselves – they are the one, the king of whatever hangs on the wall, deciding each detail every step of the way. For us, it’s all about collaboration. Even if people know where Somaliland is, so little is known about it, and we want what is known to be rooted in the voices of the people who live there.
AA: We live in a time where the idea of being Muslim is so contested. I think for Muslim people to somehow be front and center of a particular narrative or particular photography project, without them being shown as either the good people or, which is what happens the majority of the time, the bad people, is really important. Muslims need to be shown as the complex beings that they are. That is what we want to do with this project.
In a way, we also want to engage with this underlying theme without centralizing it. People are Muslim, and Black, and African, and a lot of things. They are mothers, and they are sisters, and they are students, they are jokers, they are players – they are a hundred million things at the same time. We don’t necessarily reference it in the text because it shouldn’t be referenced – it just is. This idea of complexity is so problematized in the West, but we can’t be creating things for a Western audience so that everything falls in line with how they conceptualize and see things already. That’s what perpetuates this terrible tradition of hiding all the other problems that we are currently dealing with. And that is what we are trying to overturn with this work.