Made entirely out of dirt, these sculptures could fall apart at any moment

Her family came to Canada as refugees. Now, Bishara Elmi makes art that reflects how fragile life can be.

Her family came to Canada as refugees. Now she makes art that reflects how fragile life can be

Bishara Elmi. Installation view of Salt of the Earth. The show runs at Toronto's Tangled Art Gallery to November 25. (Kristina McMullin/Courtesy of Tangled Arts)

When multidisciplinary artist Bishara Elmi was five years old, her family came to Canada as refugees from Somalia.

Like many children her age, she loved playing with dirt, and like many children her age, she started to eat it. This was the first stage in a lifelong fascination with the stuff, and according to the artist, it's a resource that society takes for granted.

Salt of the Earth is the name of Elmi's current exhibit at Toronto's Tangled Art Gallery, which runs to Nov. 25. I visited the show last weekend and spoke with Elmi about her inspiration and creative process.

[Dirt is] the most abundant of materials on Planet Earth [...] but also the most underappreciated and undervalued resource in the world.- Bishara Elmi, artist

The installation features objects you would often find in a home: teapots, plates, spoons, vases — each item molded out of dirt that the artist collected from various places she's lived around the GTA: Etobicoke, York and downtown Toronto.

Staged as a living space with a carefully arranged dining table and smaller tables fitted with cloths from Mogadishu, the scene is inspired by her family's first home in Canada.

"[It's] basically recreating my parents' dining room that was very sparse when we were refugees in the early '90s," Elmi explains. "We didn't have that much furniture but we had a fancy tea set."  

(Kristina McMullin/Courtesy of Tangled Arts)
(Kristina McMullin/Courtesy of Tangled Arts)

One of the family's few luxuries, they would use the cheaper plates and cups on an everyday basis, reserving the more elaborate tea set for special occasions.

"Across the African Diaspora it's pretty common," says Elmi. "The good tea set, the good china [is] for guests because guests are often travellers that you hold in a high esteem and you give shelter to because that's your hospitality and your responsibility to this person."

"You also treat them better than you treat family," she says, laughing.

(Kristina McMullin/Courtesy of Tangled Arts)

Elmi's dining table is set for four, with a vase in the centre that holds a fake blue and white flower (her subtle ode to the Somali flag).

A rough and deeply textured spoon sits beside each delicate but rugged saucer. A darkly hued teacup is placed on top.

Each piece looks incredibly fragile — and missing chunks from one large plate confirms this suspicion. The worn texture of the items hints at a weariness and slow decay that lends a strange melancholy to the scene.

When Elmi started gardening eight years ago, she got the idea of incorporating dirt into her artistic practice. Growing food and herbs, she began to realize its healing properties. Putting her hands in the soil made her calmer and helped shift her anxiety and depression.

"[Dirt is] the most abundant of materials on Planet Earth. It's what Planet Earth is, aside from the waters — but also the most underappreciated and undervalued resource in the world. We eat meat but 80 per cent of our diet are things that grow, so [dirt] sustains us. But at the same time we've forgotten a lot of dirt science in the world. Things like dirt erosion, deforestation."

Elmi created the pieces in the show by making molds. "This is a weird type of art making because it's part art, part science and part math," she says.

Using tea sets she bought at Value Village, Elmi became a sculptural scientist of sorts, enduring many failures before finding the correct catalysts and precise ratios.

On one table she displays her various "failed" attempts: broken and incomplete cups, teapots, spoons and vases. They illustrate a process of trial and error.

(Kristina McMullin/Courtesy of Tangled Arts)
(Kristina McMullin/Courtesy of Tangled Arts)

A sign beside them encourages people to touch the sculptures. Elmi felt this element was imperative.

"[Tangled] is a disability art centre that engages all types of mad and disabled people and some of the people that frequent here are blind and low-vision people. So the touch was very intentional."

The dining table is set for four but only two chairs are arranged around it. It's an intentional decision, Elmi explains. "There's an absent body present going here. There's two people that are here but they're not."

It's a recurring theme in the life of a refugee. The missing chairs are Elmi's ode to the relationships that endure and the space that is made for people who are not physically present.

Homeland is fragile and nation states are fragile and peace is fragile and people are fragile. Nobody plans to be a refugee.- Bishara Elmi, artist

As someone who arrived in Canada several decades before the contemporary refugee crisis, Elmi is conflicted about her relative privilege and ability to creatively reflect.

"I have a lot of survivor's guilt, I have guilt about navel-gazing like that because we live in the age where refugees are criminalized and put in camps and detention centres," she says. "Yes, there was hostility when I [arrived] here, but I wasn't criminalized just for fleeing and seeking safety."  

It is perhaps because of this distance that Elmi has chosen to explore a concept of exile that transcends her experience as a refugee and extends to those who are exiled from society such as incarcerated and hospitalized people, individuals living with mental illness and disability and queer and gender non-conforming individuals who are ostracized by their families.

Elmi herself says she is estranged from her own family, so when she thinks about the question of home, she locates herself in a place of exile.

"I can't say that I feel more at home in Mogadishu than I do in Toronto because that's not true. I actually feel more at home in my discomfort actually because it's all I know."

That might be why the exhibit seems to disrupt conventional notions of home, presenting recognizable objects of domesticity with a fraught and fragile material like dirt.

"It's familiar objects, but they're made foreign. In a sense they're foreigners. Because they're made out of dirt, they're fragile," she says.

"Homeland is fragile and nation states are fragile and peace is fragile and people are fragile. Nobody plans to be a refugee. Nobody plans to live in any type of exile. These things just happen."

Bishara Elmi. Salt of the Earth. To Nov. 25, 2017 at Tangled Art Gallery. www.tangledarts.org

About the Author

Amanda Parris

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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