‘How can I sum up the humour of Somaliness in my artwork?’ Artist Salma Noor, based in Liverpool, negotiates with possibilities of artmaking that witness joy and communal Somali banter as a site of expression. Noor’s interactive visual iconography, composed of immersive deconstructed animated graphics, draws from collective Somali experiences, in particular those in the diaspora. The Somalinimo or ‘Somaliness’ here is the spatial, visual and sonic vernacular formed from the movement of knowledge, humour and photography.
In ‘Cyborg(etics) to Misdemeanor’ (2021), Noor’s ‘chopped and screwed’ layered historiography is brought to form. The moving image honours hip-hop pioneer Missy Elliot, in particular the music videos for ‘She’s a Bitch’ (1999) and ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’ (1997). GIFs of Elliot in the iconic black inflatable suit are looped, alongside the exaggerated hyper saturated colours and distinctive fisheye lens popularised by director Hype Williams. These distortions are contrasted with layered vibrant hues which interrupt and deform the original context. The composition of bold colours are imbued with an architectural order, concealing and revealing the depth of landscapes of historic and contemporary Somali visual culture. Here, Noor engages in an innovative semiotics of diasporic memory-making. In a similar manner to Elliot’s transformations or the transhuman reengineering of the gendered body, ‘Cyborg(etics) to Misdemeanor’ transforms past Somali landscapes, projecting them into an imaginary that is not bound by territory, but rather ‘always negotiating space’.
Noor’s work makes use of temporal intervals, creating immersive compositions connecting diasporic engagement and the hip-hop of Elliot’s afrofuturist imagery with publicly available and known colonial and mid-twentieth century photographs of Somalis; the few accessible and recognisable photographs available on the internet, outside of museum or private family collections. A gathering of digital preservation, ‘Huudhaydh’, delves further into Somali meme culture, clippings of digitised visual and audio tapes of niche and well known Riwaayado (musical theatre) and songs with raunchy, culturally taboo lyricism found in the corners Somali YouTube. Preserved by largely anonymous internet archivists, these archival fragments are rearranged remnants of a digitised past coexisting with creative non-linear present(s). From the array of public and private cassette tape transmissions to the VHS tapes of family weddings, songs and plays, audio becomes ‘a means of transportation’ through time. Noor draws from ‘the inventiveness behind how we communicate’, in a culture that highly regards poetry and oral prose as lifelines that preserve much traditional and intellectual Somali production. The layering of humour through time forms an expansive exercise in memory-making and worlding; the glitching screen conceals and reveals networks, an active ambivalence ready for an intervention to form new visual iterations.
For Noor, citation is a powerful method of shared pedagogy, collective sufficiency and care. The hollow and sometimes quotidian ways institutions can exploit the labour of the marginalised is critiqued in, ‘A Guide To Navigating Institutions’, a collaboration between Noor and Priya Sharma. In this five-minute animation, Noor and Sharma create a ‘short guide to navigating institutions’ for artist workers and those employed by institutions. The animation critiques the often unequal relationships between displayed archives, works of racialised artists and their labour, contributing to the physical maintenance of institutions. In a light-hearted and witty manner, Noor and Sharma warn against ‘lies lies lies’ and ‘fake activism’, advocating for horizontal economies of care, where the labour of artist worker and institutional worker are properly funded and grounded in community building. Through black feminist collective (self) definition, one’s labour participates in the world and has a right to be seen, ‘run me my money’ and not used for ‘a photo opp for diversity quotas and funding’.
Noor’s artistic practice plays with the humour of digital Somali expression, made metaphor by an iconography theorising on a Somalinimo that is expansive. Her work mobilises the nomadic Somali being that is simultaneously rooted and rootless in digital territories, creating an index for a new visual convergence. All of this brings an endearing underdone, sensitive to the many facets of Blackness/Somaliness as embodying a multitude of experiences.
(Part of a series of texts on artists participating in PIVOT, the inaugural artist development programme in the North West of England. PIVOT is delivered in partnership with Bluecoat, Liverpool and Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.)