If Ifrah Mansour were forced to become a refugee again, she’d bring two items.
Item one: a tattered sweater from her mother, now living in Kenya, with whom she fled Somalia in the early 1990s.
Item two: a 50-foot roll of Somali fabric — nearly 10 times her height — to keep developing her satirical skit, “How to Have Fun in a Civil War.”
This past summer, the 28-year-old became the first Somali artist to perform a show at the Minnesota State Fair. During eight performances, fairgoers clutching fried meals-on-a-stick watched Mansour whimsically portray a theme typically confined to tragic plays: war.
At barely 5 feet tall, Mansour plays her 6-year-old self leaving a cataclysmic homeland with her parents and three siblings. The East African country’s civil unrest, still ongoing, has propelled a large Somali population to sprout up in Minnesota.
In the one-woman show, Mansour nimbly crawls around in an imaginary war scene as bombs explode around her. A puppet, which she calls “grandma,” is the play’s centerpiece, which she constructed with ornate fabrics purchased at Karmel Square, often called the “Somali mall” in south Minneapolis.
As her parents urge their children to evacuate, the child’s concerns are simpler. They’d forgotten, she bawls, her beautiful red dress.
“I remember crying,” she said of the real-life experience, and asking, “Why can’t we go back?”
As a multimedia artist and teacher, Mansour shuffles between cultures and generations. Mansour’s chief goal: delivering a youthful perspective that she feels has been limited in the telling of Somalian refugees’ stories.
“I knew and still know that what I do [artistically] is a little foreign to the community,” she said. “It’s not something that they can see themselves doing. I never went out to be sort of like the spokesman of how we can use arts to express ourselves. I just want to for myself.”
Much of Mansour’s varied artwork, which ranges from installation pieces to short plays, is centered on the idea of displacement and Somali culture. Mansour, who lives in south Minneapolis, was named one of 10 Somali artists and entertainers to watch in 2015 by OkayAfrica, a global media hub that covers African culture. She also volunteers and substitutes as an English teacher for Somali adults at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
In “How to Have Fun in a Civil War,” the actress’ girlish voice sums up the play’s premise during a farcical temper tantrum. Amid the turmoil, she squawks: “Nobody ever lets me talk!”
“It’s been sort of freeing, a little bit,” she said. “I use the word ‘freeing’ lightly. ... You’re able to share the things that maybe an elder wouldn’t be able to share.”
But she hasn’t shared her work with its supporting characters: her family.
“They have no clue what I do, bless their heart,” she said. “I know my siblings are not in a place to necessarily stage their lives, which is why I feel like this becomes a work of art.”
Shades of language
Mansour’s relationships volley between the arts and traditional Somali communities.
“She defies the stereotype of what we’re told Muslim and Somali people ought to be,” said Rhiana Yazzie, a Navajo artist who created the local New Native Theater company.
Indeed, Mansour’s tastes are eclectic. She works in the West Bank, watches the hit ABC show “Scandal” with female friends and shops for wares at Karmel Square. She celebrates Eid with her family — now split between Minnesota and Washington state — and posts videos of her performances on Instagram. She clears a stuffy nose with spiced tea and goes out to downtown clubs to dance — without alcohol, as “I’m crazy enough,” she says.
Born in Saudi Arabia, Mansour’s family lived in Somalia for four years before moving to Kenya and the United States. She studied education at the University of Minnesota and began working more seriously as an artist four years ago.
Since graduating from college, Mansour has taught English to the Somali elders who could easily find a translator, she said, but choose autonomy.
“They are my secret mentors and role models,” Mansour said. “They would walk in the freezing winter to get to class on time to learn what I think, as a teacher, is a useless language to them.”
Her interest in outreach also spans to other ethnic groups. Yazzie and Mansour have worked together on projects that foster friendship between the American Indian and Somali populations in Minnesota.
“The greater Minnesota community is lucky that somebody like her is choosing to communicate with them,” Yazzie said, adding that it’s “so enriching to learn about her particular experiences, which mirror the very large experience of what happened with the Somali community before they came to Minnesota.”
Mansour’s work reflects her split allegiances in a diaspora community that considers two different places home. And that divide has cultivated some backlash against some of her choices: the fashion, the lack of wedding ring or children, the hobby-as-career.
“Sometimes, I feel like there is a cardinal truth,” she said. “We are from here. We know more of America than what is Somalia.”
On opening night of Alma Lights, a recent exhibit hosted by Northern Lights.mn and Restaurant Alma in southeast Minneapolis, Mansour stood by her installation artwork that was sprawled across a wall. Her mural on the exposed brick wall was composed of milk jugs, in the shape of an oversized tipping jug, beside a cascading stream of Somali fabrics.
Many visitors that evening were surprised to learn that the Twin Cities had a Somali museum or mall. The piece was designed to convey the cultural connection between Somali and Minnesotan hospitality around milk — even the trendy coffee shops dole out liquid dairy for free.
“Yes, there are Somali museums here. … They’re foreign, and people don’t always know how to respect foreign things,” she said.
A cultural liaison
Mansour’s foray into the Twin Cities arts has been bolstered by relationships with fellow artists at Bedlam Theatre and Patrick’s Cabaret. She was featured in “The Blacker the Berry,” an exhibit by Twin Cities women of color at Intermedia Arts earlier this year. She’ll perform a collaborative piece with her students called “East African Elders’ Advice to Diaspora Children” in the Cedar Cypher festival Nov. 27-28 in Cedar-Riverside.
A few years ago, she became interested in sewing and joined a Swatch Team, which was led by Christina Elías, an urban farmer, self-employed artist/educator and self-described “gypsy.”
Elías has since supported her work, including “How to Clean a Man,” a feminist take on modern African women.
“I love how she always has some surprise,” Elías said. “I love, too, how she is able to mix emotions. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself laughing and yet punched in the gut at the same time.”
Elías’ group often met at the Walker Art Center, where Mansour spent time with another friend, Scott Artley, who’s the performing arts curator at Patrick’s Cabaret. “There are some people, Ifrah being one of them, whose arts and personality make me pause and examine and really experience,” Artley said. “I wouldn’t say she’s taught me the official textbook history, but the emotional wares of that are very sort of evident in her work.”
As she continues to develop “How to Have Fun in a Civil War,” Mansour is revisiting the foggy childhood memories shared with her siblings.
“I’m 28 right now, and it took this long for me to share this story,” she said.
It’s a narrative that other members of the Somali diaspora community are less inclined to tell, she added.
“I want my personal story to be used to create a platform.”