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.

Halima S. Gothlime
Halima S. Gothlime is civil engineer and artist. She co-founded Byte Zine, an annual digital zine curated by Gothlime and graphic designer and illustrator Eman Aleghfeli.

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?
Like most people, I would say "Big Brother" is more complex than that. For me, surveillance seems like an organism trying to regulate how and where things are placed. Surveillance is a form of regulation. Surveillance is daunting and stressful. It forces me to imagine a world without that "gaze"—all gazes, whether it be the regulatory grandma in the corner or the “man.” As for my work, I try to imagine [my own] little world, using the same tools that are used to control us.

How has your social media usage changed when you started creating work for public consumption? Do you feel the need to be respectable or "professional"? What parts of your life are important for you to keep to yourself?
In general, it does keep me awake at night. How can I be authentically me? Am I a censored version of me because of surveillance? How do I navigate it? I try to be vague about everything. As for my work, surveillance makes me more cryptic.

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?

Yes, I do think it has a huge role. For example, in a lot of science-fiction novels or WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin, anybody who tries to go up against the status quo sticks out. The systems work all of us to wear the same uniform, and if you do not comply, you are obviously different. So assimilation, in my opinion, is about wearing a uniform with a number tag—not even a name tag. With surveillance, the man wants you to wear a uniform, and if you do not wear that uniform, you are going to be in trouble. Surveillance and assimilation are linked.