“Representation is a form of surveillance.” These words—said by Martine Syms to Doreen St. Felix in a profile in The New Yorker—have 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.