Gouled Ahmed is an Addis Ababa-based Somali visual artist, and stylist whose work grapples with the notion of Black futures through the lens of Somali & Ethiopian culture.
Detailing their approach to artistic expression, Gouled says, "when I create I try to re-imagine what the world around me could look like if everyone was free to express themselves outside of the hegemonic power structures that control us. I try to re-imagine a space where individuals are free to be who they are without remorse, shame, or fear. It is a common misconception that sartorial adornment is a vain and self-indulgent practice, my work seeks to dissect that belief and show both the transformational and liberating qualities that style can have on a person's sense of self."
Gouled grew up in a Somali household in Ethiopia which they say opened their eyes up to a myriad of experiences from a young age. Both their parents took meticulous care in how they adorned themselves and emphasized the importance of grooming. "My mother would proudly wear colorful Diracs (ankle-length Somali dresses), with elaborately embroidered shawls, and matching jewelry almost every day. She would always have henna on her hands, and feet. Iridescent blue eyeliner would always coat her eyes. She has never been a stranger to standing out, I learned the importance of being bold in my self-expression through her. My father on the other hand instilled in me the importance of the minuscule. He would wear impeccably tailored suits to work every day, his shoes were always polished and he carried himself with a grace and self-importance that I hope to one day embody." They say it was through observing both their parents that they were able to see that style is as much about the way you present yourself sartorially, as it is about how you carry and conduct yourself; and their identity is a testament to that.
Their style is a merging of Western and African culture - influenced by their college experience in New York and upbringing in Ethiopia as well as their Somali heritage. Through this cultural amalgam, they have been able to carve out a way of self-presenting their intersecting cultural identities and have shaped their aesthetic preferences and choices. "In Somali culture, I am drawn to the fiery red hennaed beards that older Somali men wear when their hair shows signs of turning white. I am (also) drawn to the elaborate prints of the macawis (sarong), the details in the Kufi (cultural hats). In terms of Somali women, I am drawn to their elaborate shawls and intricate jewelry. Ethiopian culture also has some amazingly intricate jewelry, and elaborate garments, and I am extremely drawn to the delicate weaving practices that have been passed down for centuries, how attention to detail is key. "
Gouled's aesthetic tends to move towards the avant-garde, their affinity for statement pieces, eye-catching jewelry, and loud accessories and over the top embolden their "more is more" attitude towards adornment.
However, since Ethiopia is an extremely conservative country, they say "while I've been here, I haven't been as boldly dressed as I am on my social media, however, I've still managed to retain a sense of rebelliousness towards the social norms within the country by being daring with my aesthetic choices. I'd lived in New York for 5 years before moving back to Addis, and while there I dressed similarly to the images I post online. Being in Ethiopia however, has given me the time to reconnect with my childhood and has allowed me the space to work on my creative projects. The images I've posted while I've been here serve as a tool to forecast a future where one day we will all be able to live as freely and authentically as we wish to."
They express that growing up, they were always drawn to alternative subcultures such as punk as well as the styles in sci-fi and fantasy films, and since they felt underrepresented in these genres, they sought out books and movies that dealt with the future or depicted alternate universes where Black people were the lead characters. "I began devouring books by Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okafor, and other writers who took the time to envision worlds where Black people exist. I saw myself in their characters, and I knew I wanted to incorporate futuristic elements into my work."
In being true to themselves, they aim to shatter the limiting boxes that society has placed on us, so we can live in our complexities and experiment with our self-presentation, and forgo the rigid structures and rules that tell us we can't, that we are not worthy, that we are too much or not enough. They continue to say, "my style hopes to convey the sentiment that we are all enough, we always have been. I want to show people that they can try on that thing they were too afraid to try. To do that thing they never thought they could, to be more compassionate, to celebrate difference, to celebrate themselves."
Since Gouled has expressed that there is a level of conservatism in Ethiopia, it's interesting to know what the creative scene is like. They share that though the creative and alternative social scenes in Addis Ababa are few and far in numbers, they are slowly growing. This shift has been sparked by individuals who are embracing the culture that exists there instead of looking to the West as a model to copy. "When I moved back to Addis, there were a handful of spaces that catered to people who didn't want to conform to society's respectability politics. Only several art spaces were accessible and catered to the general public, and music venues at night had strict dress codes reinforcing gender norms. Things are slowly beginning to change and I am hopeful for what the future has in store. The youth are beginning to embrace their individuality and are beginning to share their stories, and points of view using their respected media, be it photography, music, or art. Though this sector has a while to go to fully develop, we are making strides in creating spaces, products, and services to make a living from our passions, and break free from the limiting ideals of conventional work (a 9 to 5 office job) and success, by creating more spaces for interdisciplinary creative collaboration."
Credits: Photography: Brian Siambi
Interview: Phendu Kuta