Somali-Canadian artist paints for social change

A controversial Somali-Canadian painter, cartoonist and activist has unveiled his first Canadian exhibition in Edmonton.
Amin Amir fled Somalia's civil war in the 1990s and immigrated to Canada in 2000. ((CBC))
A controversial Somali-Canadian painter, cartoonist and activist unveiled his first Canadian exhibition in Edmonton on Sunday.

Known as the voice of Somalis around the world, Amin Amir launched a series of five paintings depicting key moments in his life at City Hall.

The works include an image of a young Amir in Somalia drawing with the charcoal he used to fetch for cooking.

Another depicts the 50-year-old's wife distracting a group of armed men and saving his life.

A third painting shows Amir's family embracing in a Canadian airport.

Website attracts 1M hits a month

Amir fled Somalia's civil war in the 1990s. He lived in several countries before immigrating to Canada in 2000.

He and his family moved to Edmonton in 2006. Through it all, Amir has advocated for political and social change through his paintings and drawings.

His website of political cartoons attracts more than a million hits a month. 

"He's an icon of the Somali community," said fan Moyuadine Nor. "[He tries] to protect most those who need to be protected.

"[His website is] really where we seek information — exactly what is taking place back home."

Some of Amir's paintings portray scenes of a lost Somalia, the country he remembers and hopes to see again. ((CBC))
It's a political commentary that has put Amir's own life in jeopardy.

Amir spoke to CBC News through a translator about death threats he has received.

"If you are trying to save a country and a whole nation, you cannot be afraid of the consequences," he said. "Whatever the outcome is, I'm ready."

Amir has plans to start an art program to mentor young artists in Edmonton, urging them to illustrate their thoughts and feelings.

Champion for Somalis

Amir also spends his time painting scenes of a lost Somalia, the country he remembers and hopes to see again.

Ali Abdi, a professor at the University of Alberta said Amir is a champion of the Somali people.

"His focus is to make the situation of Somalia better," Abdi said. "To make Somalis, but also others, understand what Somalis are going through.

"To devote, literally, his life — sometimes at the expense of his own interests and interests of his family — to actually ameliorate and explain effectively what's happening in Somalia so people understand and maybe something good is done."

Amir's work will be on display at the University of Alberta's Extension Gallery in Enterprise Square Sept. 2-22.

With files from the CBC's Andrea Huncar