My mother shortened my name from Abdullahi to Abdi when I was 5, predicting that kindergarteners in suburban Maryland might have trouble pronouncing the four-syllable Arabic word. Physically, I take almost completely after my absentee Somali father, and I have a different last name than all of my mom’s family: the Stewarts. A love and dedication to making stands as the most potent genetic link to the Stewarts, my only inheritance from this working poor family.
My Grandfather, Claude Stewart, built ships for Bethlehem Steel and hand carved model clipper ships. His son, my uncle Frank, worked on the tunnels that connect Baltimore to DC. He practices ikebana on his days off. Every few years my mother, Donna, retells the story of how her and my aunt Romaine made their prom dresses from scratch. As a sheltered suburban kid, drawing was the only shared language between me and my streetsmart older cousins, Frankie and Hugh. We would sharpen pencils with dinner knives and sit around the kitchen table drawing for hours.
The child of an itinerant single mom, I attended four elementary schools. Always the new kid, drawing served as my means of making friends. I would draw classmates’ favorite superheroes or write their names in fancy lettering. With each new school, I would rush to assume my role as the resident artist. There remains a purity in that blatant need for acceptance and desire to fulfill a role that I continue to wrestle with in my current life as an artist.

In shortening my name, my mom unknowingly changed its meaning from Servant of Allah, (Abdullahi) to just Servant (Abdi). I believe this act of renaming posits an outlook on identity and belonging linked less to culture and ethnicity and more to one’s actions. Who I am is less where I’m from or how different I look, but rather what I choose to do.Like the Stewarts, my relatives and loved ones are those who choose to make.

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