5 Somali Creatives On How Surveillance Culture Shapes Their Work

“Representation is a form of surveillance”

“Representation is a form of surveillance.” These words—said by Martine Syms to Doreen St. Felix in a profile in The New Yorkerhave stuck with me for some time because of how apt they are—especially for Somali women, who create on the fringes of both Muslim and black cultural production. And all this creation happens while the world is watching as we grapple with how to create—and even just exist—in spite of all of the forces around us suppressing or trying to outright ban us from the public spaces. 

More and more people are slowly becoming cybersecurity-literate, but while some people rush to cover their webcams with tape, others can’t escape their more intimate, long-standing relationships with surveillance. As black Afrofuturists have contended with before me, black people have always been ahead of their time, and thus are no strangers to navigating and subverting the kind of mass surveillance used to police and control parts of the populace; black people have been surveilled long before the invention of any GPS device. And so, knowing this, knowing we are being watched, how do we document our current realities without filtering ourselves? How can we create without feeling like we need to censor our thoughts and feelings about the way the world is engaging with our many identities? 

I spoke with five Somali artists about this very issue. All of the women I spoke with flirt with someone else's gaze, whether that be the gaze of their own communities, the male gaze, or the white gaze; these are gazes that fetishize, and they respond to them in their own ways. If these women are not archiving, documenting, and facilitating discourse, they are curating magazines and online publications. These Somali women are proactive in their own representation and hail from different backgrounds and are interested in different types of artistic expression, but underlying their creations is the daunting reality of both external and internal surveillance. 

Read about what creating under surveillance culture means to them.

Naima Nur: Sun Song
Naima Nur is an archivist and the founder of The Sun Song, an online destination featuring poetry, fiction, and essays, which she describes as a cultural hub dedicated to inclusivity.

When you think of "surveillance," what comes to mind? How much does surveillance culture impact the work you do? Both within the Somali community and outside the community?
When I think of surveillance, I think of social control. Everything we do is under a microscope, but, on some level, we participate in our own surveillance by constantly updating the world on our whereabouts via social media. As a Somali, there is an added level of surveillance just within our community because we are so tight-knit. I find myself self-censoring myself online and avoiding certain scenes to avoid the gaze of the Somali community. It can be quite limiting. 

How has your social media usage changed when you started creating work for public consumption? What parts of your life are important for you to keep to yourself?
When I first started using social media, I was quite young and carefree. I would talk about myself and what I was doing quite a bit. As I started creating work for the public, I completely stopped sharing personal details about my life. I rarely post pictures of myself or my family. The larger my platform has grown, the more private I have become. It is important to keep my personal life private to avoid the cyberbullying and abuse that comes with a public life. 

Do you think surveillance culture plays a role in assimilation? Do you think visibility, or the need for, forces us to want to assimilate? How true is that for you and your work?
I think for sure it plays a huge part. The internet, in particular, is like the Wild West right now, because there are no set social mores or ethics. People self-censor themselves in order to protect their image and sometimes that self-censoring leads them to assimilate. I couldn't assimilate even if I wanted to and the point of the work I do is to push the discourse forward and provide space for marginalized voices.