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. "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 he says opened his eyes up to a myriad of experiences from a young age. Both his parents took meticulous care in how they adorned themselves, and emphasized in him the importance of grooming. "My mother would pridefully wear colorful Diracs (ankle length Somali dresses), with elaborately embroidered shawls, and matching jewelry almost everyday. She would always have henna on her hands, and feet. Iridescent blue eyeliner would always coat her eyes. My mother 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 in the minuscule. He would wear impeccably tailored suits to work everyday, his shoes were always polished and he carried himself with a grace and self-importance that I hope to one day embody." He says it was through observing both his parents that he was 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 his identity is a testament to that.
His style is a hybrid of western culture (influenced by his college experience in New York), his upbringing in Ethiopia and his Somali heritage. Through this cultural fusing he has been able to carve out a way of self presenting his intersecting cultural identities and each culture has shaped his 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 drawn to the elaborate prints of the macawis (sarong), the details in the Kufi (cultural hats). For 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, his affinity for statement pieces, eye catching jewelry, and accessories that are loud and over the top embolden his "more is more" attitude towards adornment. However, since Ethiopia is an extremely conservative country, he says "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 in a similar manner to the images I post online. Being in Ethiopia however has given me the time to reconnect with my childhood & 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." Gouled's visual expression is intentional, he says he aims to shatter the limiting boxes that society has placed on us and to live in our complexities. "I want us all to 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. 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."
According to Goueled the creative and alternative social scenes in Addis Ababa are few and far in numbers but 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 two years ago, there was a handful of spaces that catered to people who didn't want to conform to society's respectability politics. Only a number of 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