By Brandy McDonnell
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma artist Ebony Iman Dallas traces her father’s history, the heritage to Africa and back in the exhibit ‘Through Abahay’s Eyes’
Ebony Iman Dallas never got to see her father’s face, and even after a lifetime of seeking, she still only has a hazy notion of what he looked like.
“The only picture that I had of him growing up, he had really dark, like ‘70s-style glasses on. So, I couldn’t tell what his face looked like really, because the glasses were so big. But whenever I’d meet someone who knew him, they’d say, ‘Oh, you have his eyes. You have his nose and you have his eyes,’” she said.
“So, to complete his face in the paintings or the drawings I would do of him, I would just draw my eyes in their place.”
The Oklahoma City artist picked the title “Through Abahay’s Eyes,” or “Through My Father’s Eyes,” for the solo show of the most intimate work of her career: A series of paintings chronicling the long-awaited discovery of the family, history and heritage of her late biological father, Said Osman, a Somaliland citizen who died in Oklahoma under mysterious circumstances before she was born.
“In this whole process, I’ve been learning so much about him, so in that sense it’s like ‘Through Abahay’s Eyes’ is trying to understand the world through his eyes, trying to understand the place that he came from and learn about it over time,” she said.
An exhibit more than 15 years in the making, “Through Abahay’s Eyes” will be on view April 6-29 at The Paseo Plunge, where it will open with a reception April 6, two days after the anniversary of her father’s death.
“I would definitely say she’s one of the premier rising artists in Oklahoma City. And she has been working toward this body of work for a decade, back when she first started trying to poke around to see what kind of evidence she could find of where she came from, what her father’s side of her family had gone through,” said Charles Martin, marketing manager for The Paseo Plunge and creative director for Literati Press Comics & Novels.
“It was just this massive missing piece in her lineage, so the first paintings of these she was doing were based on some of these encounters that she was having, looking for any photos she could find of her father. It’s a whole intersection of watching an artist who is definitely on the rise, whose name is really getting more and more known locally, statewide and regionally, and being able to see that intersect with this project that she’s been pouring her soul into for years now.”
The heart in her name
When Dallas signs her artwork with her initials, she carefully makes the three letters come together to form a heart.
“I never want to deny any part of myself. So, Ebony, to me, is the name that my mother gave me, and then Iman … is Somali, that’s the name I feel like I got from my biological father. And then Dallas is from my adoptive father,” she said. “There are three big families on all sides, so I just never want to deny any of my people.”
Born and raised in Oklahoma, Dallas grew up with both a mother and father, since her mother, Viola, met and married Wayne Dallas, when her oldest daughter was just a toddler. He adopted Ebony, who said her family never made distinctions like half-siblings or adoptive children.
But the artist said her mother also never hid the truth about her biological father, including the suspicious circumstances of his death. Born in Hargeisa, Somaliland (which is now the capital of the independent Republic of Somaliland), Osman was found hanging in his dorm room on an Oklahoma college campus on April 4, 1980, a week after he had been in an altercation with police in which he was knocked unconscious and sustained a large gash on his forehead.
While the official ruling was suicide, there also was a reason to suspect foul play.
Her mother, who had been dating Osman for a few years, was three months pregnant with Ebony at the time.
“My mother always told me, ‘Ebony, there’s two stories,’” Dallas said, who is continuing to dig into the circumstances around her father’s death. “In the police report, you have all these just strange things. … I’m still in the process of putting it together.”
Growing up, Dallas said she came to believe her biological father committed suicide and grappled with embarrassment and anger. At the same time, she longed to know more about her Somali heritage.
“When I was in college, I would basically use art as a means of learning about Africa, learning about Somaliland. So, I Googled some images of Somalia, and this picture of three women dancing popped up. So, I painted it for one of my final senior projects. And then years later, after I actually met my family and went to my first Somali wedding … I realized I’d painting a wedding and had no idea,” she said, adding that the painting, which she has since revamped, is included in her new exhibit.
“That piece has a lot of meaning to me because it’s kind of like before I just had no idea what it was and then the context changed and it has so much more meaning now that I’m learning so much more.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Central Oklahoma, she moved to Oakland, Calif., to pursue a career in advertising, then her master of fine arts in design at the California College of the Arts.
In San Francisco, a chance meeting at a nightclub helped her connect to her long-lost family.
An unexpected encounter
Two months after moving to California, Dallas was at a dance club when a guy started a conversation with her sister, Krystal. Noticing that his friend looked East African, Dallas asked where he was from, and within moments, the stranger, a Somali named Hakim Gulaid, told her, “I know your family.”
“He didn’t even know my name. He just said, ‘I know your family.’ I realize now how small the Somali community is: People know each other worldwide; it’s crazy,” she said. “But I didn’t know that, of course, then. So, I didn’t believe it at first. At first, I just said, ‘Yeah, right.’”
But Gulaid’s father had been best friends with Dallas’ grandfather in Somaliland, and he had been dating one of her cousins in 1998 when her grandmother, Amina Jama, had come to California to stay with family and launched an ultimately unsuccessful search for her late son’s daughter.
“They hired a private investigator to try to find me,” Dallas said. “But they had my last name wrong because mom had gotten married and my dad adopted me, so my last name changed. And they had my birthday wrong because everywhere else in the world 10-5-80 means May 10 and not Oct. 5. … So, they didn’t have any connections.”
Thanks to Gulaid, she and her family were able, at long last, to make those connections. She soon realized that it was not only her father’s untimely death but also the Somali Civil War that kept them apart.
“My family’s home was destroyed in the home in the ‘80s. In 1988, there were government planes that would go over towns and just completely bombed the towns. It’s changed a lot since then in that area. Somaliland in the northernmost part has not seen war in over 20 years, so it’s been very stable in comparison to the south. You know, it’s good that there’s a stable part that people can come back to, but it’s sad because there’s still so much going on, so much destruction in other parts,” she said.
“I think the idea that peace is fragile is something that I’ve learned by going to Somalia. And you just hear the people talk about it, like no one wants to go back there, they know what the effects are. There are millions and millions of Somalis displaced all over the world.
“That’s why when it comes to immigration and refugee programs, it’s like think about if it happened in your hometown and you had no place to go. … It definitely opens you up to understanding why it is important for the world to have open arms because it can be you next. You know, war, it’s not an overnight thing. It doesn’t just happen overnight, but no one wants that in their land. When people talk about overthrowing governments and things like that, I’m like, ‘Do you know the effects of that? Why don’t you look at Somalia for an example?’ It’s still struggling to gain stability.”
Painting through the process
Since that chance encounter in 2004, Dallas has traveled to Africa at least eight times to visit her family and delve into her heritage. Although she continues to learn, she said her travels have been quite an education.
“You may have this picture of what something is in your mind like there’s this picture of Africa that’s shown a lot in America that it’s easy to just say ‘OK, it’s a blanket statement. This is Africa.’ But then you go to different countries and you see the different cultures, you see the different traditions and things like that, and it just paints a more holistic view. You can the diversity,” said Dallas, who teaches African aesthetics as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Oklahoma.
“How I may have pictured Somalia or Somaliland before I had the chance to go is very, very different. … Some of the other paintings I would paint, they would be of giraffes or elephants — and neither of those exists in the desert,” she added with a laugh. “So, it definitely continues to evolve over time.”
Talking with her father’s family and friends, including his college roommate, she said she no longer believes he committed suicide and has been working to get more information about his death.
“Over the years when I have told people the story about how I met my family and that whole experience, one of the first thing that comes out is ‘You should write a book. That sounds crazy. That’s just a miraculous story, so you should write about it,’” she said. “I definitely believe it’s important to tell the story just because … who knows how many stories have gone untold like this?”
Through Literati Press, she plans to publish a memoir as well as a children’s book, and Martin said he is eager not only to show her paintings at The Paseo Plunge but also to begin digitizing the images for the forthcoming publications, which he hopes to release in the next year or so.
“Her story is very, very powerful and very timely. It’s ultimately the immigrant’s tale of a man coming to the U.S. to try to find a better place for himself and for his family, and unfortunately, America’s racial divide kind of getting in the way,” Martin said.
“She’s a powerful artist of really beautiful work. Her work just seems to always kind of be a breathing thing with an amazing array of colors and imagery that just kind of flows and swirls like water. I’ve always been really compelled by her work, and knowing how well she has knit these pieces together to tell a story just makes it that much more interesting for us, considering … we love showing art, but we prefer, when we can, showing art that tells a story.”
For Dallas, she even has used her art to revise one part of her story. Although many of her family’s photographs were destroyed in the war, she has collected five additional photos of her late father. She combined those with an image of her aunt holding her as a baby and the view of her own face in the mirror to create a painting called “Kernel of Eternity,” which depicts her father doing what he never got to do in real life: Holding his infant daughter.
“I cried the whole time I painted it, just because I wonder what he would have been like as a father if he would have been like that protective dad type,” Dallas said. “The process of writing and painting, it has helped me to heal. If in any way it’s able to inspire people, then that’s what I hope for.”
Ebony Iman Dallas’ “Through Abahay’s Eyes (Through My Father’s Eyes)”
When: April 6-29.
Where: The Paseo Plunge, 3010 Paseo.
Opening reception: 6 to 10 p.m. April 6 during the Paseo First Friday Gallery Walk.
Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment.