When it comes to African art exhibits, for many people, the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis likely would not be the first venue that jumps to mind.
But the hub for Scandinavian culture is temporarily broadening its scope to include clothes and artifacts of the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
The institute has converted its lower level into a showroom of immigrant fashion — long pleated skirts, pressed white bonnets and lots of floral embroidery. Just beyond the classic Scandinavian attire are flowing cotton robes and colorful, one-shouldered ensembles, the kind that call for a climate far from northern Europe.
To create the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 25, the American Swedish Institute worked with an organization called the Oromo Young Generation of Minneapolis. Its members are among 20,000 Oromo-Americans in the state.
One of its curators is 16-year-old Mubarak Hassan, who recently led a group of visitors through the exhibit, which highlights the traditional wardrobe of Oromia, a region within current-day Ethiopia.
As Hassan guided Scandinavian museum-goers past a collection of beaded armbands and headpieces, he told them that many women in his country likely would wear red, green and red, the colors of the Oromo flag.
"Clothing is very important to the Oromo people so they wear it to family gathering, holidays," Hassan said. "Any day that is special to Oromo people, they wear the traditional clothing."
Some might wonder why would a Swedish organization would develop an entire exhibit on the culture of an east African community. For Ingrid Nyholm-Lange, the institute's family programs coordinator, the better question is 'Why not?'
"The Swedes were immigrants here as well. We're just farther along on this historical trajectory than they are," Nyholm-Lange said. "As an institution it's important for us to reach out to new immigrant audiences and having this exhibit Dressing Oromo is just one of the many ways we do that."
For members of the Oromo Young Generation, the first step was accepting how few Minnesotans had ever heard of them.
"They assume I'm Somali, but when I tell them I'm Oromo, they don't know," said Hamdi Abdujalil. "So I have to tell them I'm Ethiopian. They will know Ethiopia."
During the recent tour, Mubarak Hassan led visitors to a map of his native Oromia. One visitor wanted to know if his homeland was near Somalia.
When Hassan explained that Oromia borders Somalia and Kenya, another said, "I've heard of Djibouti, but I'd never heard of this."
"That's the thing," Hassan replied. "The whole point of doing this is to raise awareness. That's our identity, you know."
The exhibit's opening included videos and dance performances. It also offered a crash-course on the state of Oromia and its 45 million people.
Abdurahman Mustafa Kadir, a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, spoke of the abuses against the Oromo in Ethiopia, long documented by human rights organizations.
"Killing and torturing and putting people in prison, just for political opinion," Mustafa Kadir said.
That reality drives 17-year-old Umar Hassan to share his heritage with others in the United States.
"People sacrificed their life to sustain the Oromo culture," he said. "We cherish our culture very much."
Many of the young curators behind Dressing Oromo left their homeland when they were small children. Advisor Tsehai Wodajo said that, besides sharing their culture, the exhibit gave Oromos in Minnesota a chance to learn about themselves.
"When we were working on this, they said they took for granted being an Oromo," Wodajo said. "Then doing the research they were really able to get to know who they are and about their people. For them, being proud of who they are — and their identity — is really incredible."
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