Minneapolis art installation questions what it really means to be an American

A temporary art installation in downtown Minneapolis aims to break down cultural and ethnic barriers by featuring portraits of Somali-Americans living in the Twin Cities.

Around one hundred black-and-white portraits have been plastered on the brick office building, located at the corner of 1st Avenue North and 2nd Street.

“It’s a platform for giving voices within communities to statements or people and making sure people are heard,” said one of the volunteers who brought the project to Minnesota, Rebecca Thomley.

The Inside Out installation is part of a global participatory art project, started by French artist JR.  According to the Inside Out website, the aim of the project is to “transform messages of personal identity into works of public art.”

Inside Out has taken on a variety of issues from human rights abuses to global conflicts, and has been seen on buildings and street corners from Times Square in New York City to rural India.

“It doesn’t stop here," said Thomley. "This is a starting place. A place of inspiring people.” 

Thomley, along with other volunteers, obtained the portraits organically—by going into the Somali community and talking about their mission.

Scott Elmi, a café owner in Minneapolis, was one of the first participants.

“Everybody sees us now,” said Elmi. “Anybody who’s driving around here, he can see these pictures are the Somali community in Minnesota and they will feel that they are one of us.”

Elmi has been in Minnesota 18 years, and he wants his neighbors to see his portrait and realize he’s just like them.

“This is my home and I love it,” Elmi said of Minneapolis. “There’s no difference between you and I. We are all Americans.”

Management services company Orion Associates and non-profit Headwaters Relief Organization are behind the display. The building was donated as a temporary canvas.