Buying back our things

Aziz Faarah

One man’s mission to reclaim Somali material culture.

Silver Amulet (Xirsi, Qardhaas), early twentieth century. All images courtesy Aziz Faarah © 2024.

Interview by
Amal Nura

In the colonial imaginary, material culture is severed from the people and the land. Artifacts are trapped in “imperial trophy cases,” far from the crafting hands, the storytellers, and the communities to which they belong. They end up in museums, some of which purport to be undergoing decolonization, but they also find their way into private collections, attics, and auctions. This is where Aziz Faarah goes searching for our cultural inheritance.

Shield (Gaashaan). Somali shield crafted from dyed oryx hide leather and embellished with concentric circular motifs and lines. Collected in Somaliland, early twentieth-century.

Like me, Aziz is a diasporic Somali raised primarily in Toronto. We belong to communities shaped by poetry and song, alternative economies, and mutual aid. We claim a lineage of resistance—to European colonialism, regional imperialism, and Canadian state violence. We may be “cash poor”, but we are “culturally rich.” Dhaqan celis translates to “a return to culture;” it is a cultural phenomenon linked to the displacement and mass migration of Somalis to the Global North since the early 1990s. This practice—no doubt familiar to other communities—attempts to combat the forces of assimilation and oppression that harm us here by immersing us in the culture of back home.

While dhaqan celis is not without its forms of violence, at its best it has connected uprooted children with fertile ground. Aziz was one of those children. He returned to Hargeisa with his family in the late 1990s and developed a deeper appreciation for his roots. Now, alongside his day job as an IT Project Manager, he is an independent educator and archivist engaging in a different form of dhaqan celis—the reclamation of Somali material culture piece by piece. He jokes about providing a homecoming of sorts to the items he has bought from white people and welcomed into his Somali household.

Aziz is particularly drawn to fandhaal, intricately carved wooden spoons, and I to gambar. A gambar is a traditional Somali stool made by stretching decorated animal hide across four wooden legs. It is one of many examples of nomadic engineering. I often sit on its taut belly as hooyo pours oil onto my scalp. Here, oral tradition and material culture intermingle naturally. Would a gambar meet the threshold for a prized cultural artifact or is it too simple, too ordinary? Who has the power to decide, and then display? Is there a way out from the colonial architecture of the museum? Aziz is trying to answer just that.

Wood Comb. Double sided wooden comb, collected in the early twentieth century (Luuq area, Somalia).

I stumbled upon a tweet of Aziz’s where he was describing an encounter in the virtual marketplace for Somali artifacts. A Google search of a vendor’s name revealed that this white American man illegally crossed the border between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1974 in search of “souvenirs,” and was subsequently imprisoned for six weeks. I was eager to hear more when Aziz and I met in Toronto in February 2024. We discussed Aziz’s experiences bidding on and buying Somali artifacts, his approach to archival work and Somali material culture more broadly. 

For more on Aziz’s mission to retrieve, and eventually repatriate, Somali cultural artifacts, read an edited transcript from our interview. A longer version of our conversation has been published for East is A Podcast.


Walk us through this, because this truly shook me—that you could even find a State Department document on Google.


It was wild. I came across this private collector who’s got a gallery in New York and he just had a ton of Somali artifacts and cultural artifacts. And seeing his gallery online, one thing led to another, and I was like, I really need to sort of try to acquire [them]. First of all, are these items even for sale? So I sort of started a conversation with him, started getting more details about the artifacts—and one of the things that he mentioned was that a lot of these artifacts came from an estate of a collector named David Price, who was, I guess, a big name in the Somali collection space.

He mentioned that I think he was married to a Somali woman and that he’d been in Somalia for a long time—many times, many trips, and that he’d acquired the stuff. I thought, okay, cool, somebody that is about the culture. I made a deal with the owner of the gallery and actually made a trip to New York—but before I did that, I just looked this David Price guy up and came across that declassified document that you mentioned. It was a lot of shady stuff. I think he served in the military, in sort of some combat in Eritrea.

Silver Necklace (Jilbad). Materials: Silver pendant and beads, leather rope, red silk cord. Somali necklace made in the 1920s-30s and bought in the 1940s by a private collector.

Then I came across this record of him being arrested in the Somali border, in the Somali-Ethiopian border, at a border town called Tog Wajaale which is between Hargeisa and Jijiga. In 1974, I guess they found him on the wrong side of the border, and they put him in jail for like six weeks in Gabiley. I just thought it really interesting because as part of this journey, I’ve come across so many white collectors of African and especially Somali cultural items and the fact that he was arrested for illegally crossing into Somalia at the time and he was there to “collect souvenirs” was really interesting to me—the extent that people would go to collect, to get things from Africa.

A lot of the materials I’ve collected now date back to like the 1800s, early 1900s, and they’re from people that will say to you, “my great grandmother had this and she was in Somalia in the 1890 to the 1920s,” and they’re Italian. I know what that’s about—it’s people that served as colonial officers, things like that. But then there’s this other wave, which is David Price and folks like him that were there as well, as part of [organizations like] the UN, other things like that. They’re in countries like Somalia and while they’re working these jobs, they’re also collecting and oftentimes even being gifted things and bringing those home with them.

David Price’s collection is now sitting in a museum or two in the States. So it just led me down sort of that rabbit hole of how these colonial and post-conflict colonial white travelers went to Africa, brought back stuff, sometimes stolen, sometimes purchased for a lot less than what it’s worth, sometimes gifted to them [by] the generous kind people that they meet and how that then ends up in institutions that you and I don’t even have access to.


I wanted to also talk a little bit about the politics of classification. You recently tweeted an example of a classification system that you’ve been working on—but I think of classification in terms of the museum as a colonial structure and a site of being able to create the narrative around stolen things taken from other cultures. We get to decide what to call them—oftentimes the labeling is vague, problematic, sometimes extremely racist. I’m just curious how you approach classification in your archival collecting work.


There are various different standards out there that museums and academia in general use. It is to put, like, lipstick on the pig—these things were ill-gotten stolen artifacts. But if you are studying them and if you’re putting the right documentation to them, it somehow legitimizes the whole enterprise. Where I started to get into classification was a lot of the artifacts that I was trying to collect. A lot of the places that you have to look online are museums and their catalogs—the British Museum has been one that I’ve looked at a lot because Britain colonized a part of what was then known as British Somaliland and they’ve got a lot of Somali artifacts in their collection. When you start actually searching for those items, you start to see a lot of problematic labeling. They’re very quick to ascribe items to the tribe, for example, of a person that may have just been the person who owned that item. There’s outright misinformation sometimes. You get things like little snippets of the person who bought and gifted it to the museum—and their biased, uneducated experience with this item is now canonized in this record because whoever brought this over in 1890 must have known what this was. As we’ve tried to come up with a bit of a classification and looking at cataloging these items, the view was trying to center the way that Somalis looked at some of these materials. I’m really trying to both leverage what does exist in terms of nomenclature and structure, but also really trying to not fit a square into…however that saying goes. In the context of Somali culture, their uses, the way they were made, the ways that Somalis would think of these items and would logically categorize and group them, and most importantly, what they were called, those all have significance.

Wooden Spoon (Fandhaal). Handmade serving spoon (known as fandhaal in Somali) carved from wood with an elegant tear-drop shaped bowl.

We view the artifacts as something to cherish and to preserve. In the context of when they were made, the Somali community and regions that they came from, did they all have a practical use or were there some that were truly just to be appreciated?


I think it was a bit of an evolution—like when you look at the typical explanation of Somalis as pastoralists or nomads, not all Somalis were that way, but a lot of these artifacts are attributable to that mode of life. You had to be extremely practical and minimalist. You had to have things that had utility, that had a specific purpose that you could take with you and that you could travel with—before Marie Kondo and all of that lifestyle, Somalis were on that trip a long time ago. So a lot of the artifacts—some of what we’ve referenced and some of the things I’ve collected—they all had a practical use. They were tools and instruments, furniture, and bedding. They were your portable house—all things that practically you needed to survive and to thrive as well, including things like jewelry, dowry gifts, things like that. But when you look at the beauty of some of these objects, the carvings that they’ve put in them, the symbols, the signage, it shows you that there was definitely an artistic level of appreciation as well. So even if it was something that was being used, it was also highly valued as something very beautiful. 


I never really thought of our Somali material culture as being part of that currency. But I suppose maybe a lot of it’s actually behind closed doors like you’re saying. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), for exampleIn terms of the collectors that you would meet, what is the marketplace like? Walk us through how you kind of navigate. What are you looking for? Where do you go to get it? And then what are the negotiations that you have to go through?


It’s an interesting world. Even just last week I was in a meeting on Microsoft Teams, I see an auction that’s coming up and I’m in the queue for that auction item that I’m bidding on. So it’s become a bit of an addiction—there is a high that comes with it. The number of collectors out there that are interested in [items] and the terms that they use are pretty cringe. They’ll say that they’re interested in ethnic, tribal, African, wares and materials. It’s a little cottage industry—it was an eye-opening experience for me. 

There’s an entire ecosystem of auction sites that are—whether online, even in person auctions— where people attend and show what they’ve got and have sort of bidding occur on them. There’s Facebook groups of collectors; some of them have been to Africa, some may not have, but that have this real intense interest in all things African.

Wooden Headrest (Barkin). Wooden headrest with a single supporting column and round base, etched with elaborate symmetrical, interlacing patterns and motifs. Age: late nineteenth century.

It’s giving “Get Out” [laugh] 


It really is. I’ll give you an example. There was a guy who I acquired, I think it was a headrest from him. He sent me a little letter that he wrote, and he says, “Aziz, it looks like you’re longing or missing Somalia.” And he says, “I was there in the 70s and spent ten years in the country. I really liked the people. And I feel sad about the unfortunate things that have happened there since. And I wanted to share these pictures with you in case you’re homesick.” And I thought, wow, that’s pretty touching. Then you see the pictures themselves and they were—I can just call them colonial era photography. [They were] pretty close to almost, like, human zoo level sort of pictures.




So, yes, on the one hand, you’re like, wow, this is a really nice sort of letter. And on the other hand, you see these pictures and a part of me—you just feel repulsed because it was even the person taking these photos, you could tell that there was a huge imbalance in power between the people being photographed and the people that were taking these photos. And it wasn’t really to celebrate their culture and themselves, but it was more, like I said, a sort of a human zoo-type experience. So you get this feeling of people that perceive you in a certain way as a tribal, ethnic caricature of Africa. And they’re interested in that. The other part is, it is an industry, and you’ve got people that are making quite a bit of money off of this, off of things that in many cases they just got through their parents or that they even got back home locally, you know, 30, 40, 50 years ago now, which are very hard to get. It’s basically extortion. Some of the negotiations that I’ve had with sellers, it’s mind boggling… “My grandmother had it; she was there [during the] colonial period.” How did you even acquire this? And now you want to sort of sell it for an arm and a leg. It can be a very uncomfortable experience trying to navigate that. But I feel it’s necessary—I’m trying to sort of get these pieces back no matter what that cost is, no matter what that experience is. 

Recently, a seller offered me—once we got to sort of negotiating—a 5% discount. He’s like, “I don’t typically ever do that. But because you seem like somebody that’s from that culture and in the chance that people that it belongs to can appreciate it, because of that I’ll give you this discount.” So I’m just thinking how benevolent of you to give me this 5% discount on something you probably got through pretty ill-gotten means.


A lot of people propose repatriation of our cultural artifacts. Does repatriation to you just mean taking those artifacts back to the motherland, or is there a form of repatriation that is inclusive of our scattered diaspora?


I think that’s a really, really good point. Somebody asked [me] on Twitter just the other day, “you do need to go on this roadshow.” Part of me thinks, you know, as a nomadic sort of and scattered community, what a thing it would be to be able to go to different hubs where there’s Somalis and engage with those communities; there’s some poetic justice in being able to. I’ve got about 130 items right now, and they’ve come from 14 European countries so far—to be able to bring those together and take [them] home has been my unwritten goal. 

But now, the question that you’re raising is where is home really? There’s definitely more than one way to define home. So it’s one that I’ll have to think about.

About the Interviewee

Aziz Faarah is an independent educator, archivist and collector of Somali cultural artifacts.

About the Interviewer

Amal Nura is a poet, writer and daughter of the Somali diaspora living in Tkaronto/Toronto. Inspired by the cultural intifada, she strives to stand in solidarity with liberation movements worldwide: free Turtle Island, Congo, Haiti, Sudan and Palestine.

Further Reading