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Beauty, but only on canvas

A Somalian painter who depicts Mogadishu in happier times wants to give people hope, he says. In secret, he documents the city's devastation.

January 12, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

Mogadishu, Somalia — HIS T-shirts read "Beautiful Mogadishu," with a hand-painted background of a Somali flag or a camel. Foreigners in this wasted capital buy them as souvenirs, chuckling at the irony. But the man behind the shirt isn't laughing.

They call him Happy Arts, and the Mogadishu-born artist said he uses his craft to spread hope in a city that has seen little.

"I paint to show people another time, so they will remember Mogadishu was once beautiful," said the 30-year-old artist, whose real name is Abdulkhadir Aweys Abdi.

In the front of his tiny shop are oil paintings of cheerful scenes. Bucking impalas, children playing or smiling women. Sales are sparse, he said, because few people these days have money to splurge. But for years, he has supported a wife and nine children by peddling hand-painted T-shirts, commercial signposts and the occasional portrait.

Hidden in the back of the tin-roofed shack are a collection of darker creations he painted secretly over the years. After some nudging, he agreed to dig out the large canvases. They depict a far different Somalia, one of civil war and starvation, street fights and drowning refugees. His technique is coarse, the message overt.

They are his passion and his pride. One painting shows a collage of scenes from Somalia's recent past, from the artillery attack that destroyed the parliament building to bloodied bodies from a clan war. In the center of the piece is a woman's anguished gaze, tears streaming down her face.

He refuses to sell these darker pieces. He said he's saving them for history, for an exhibition he dreams of holding after Mogadishu's problems end.

"This is the civil war," he said, motioning to the work. "I'm keeping a record."

Happy is a short man, about 5 foot 4, with a round belly and fat cheeks. He and his studio smell faintly of fresh-baked bread, suggesting baker more than painter.

By age 10 he was studying with a local artist. When he was 15, the military dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed and Somalia began a 16-year plunge into violence, clan war and lawlessness. Happy never finished high school.

As an artist, the suffering has been inspirational, he said. In the early days of the civil war, Happy's secret paintings reflected the gritty reality he was witnessing. As a Somali, however, it's been too painful to watch. Now he paints what he remembers, or what people describe to him, because he can no longer bear to see the decline of his beloved city.

His shop stands on what was once one of the capital's grandest shopping avenues, a tree-lined street with grassy medians and posh shops selling Italian-made clothing and ivory. Today it's a dusty, congested thoroughfare of fruit stands, auto parts stores and mobile phone kiosks.

A few months ago, after an alliance of religious leaders known as the Islamic Courts Union restored security to the streets, Happy considered fixing up his shop or moving to a better area.

U.S. officials accused the courts of having links to terrorists, but they won praise in Mogadishu for reducing crime and unifying the city. Last month, Ethiopian-led troops helped Somalia's transitional government defeat the Islamists.

Facing yet another new authority in Mogadishu, Happy is putting his renovation plans on hold to see whether the transitional government can maintain order.

On a drive down the capital's coastline, Mogadishu's descent is reflected in his eyes. The salted warm breeze from the Indian Ocean remains strong, but today the city center, once filled with museums, monuments, government buildings and parks, is deserted, a modern-day ruin.

Only the bombed-out frames of ornate Italian columns and archways are left. Sand, cactus and weeds creep through glassless windows and doorways. Any material of value, such as glass, wire or pipes, was looted long ago. All that's left of the parliament building is a rectangular tower, its exterior walls blown apart, revealing an interior staircase to nowhere. The once-trendy Lido Club, whose dance floor overlooked the crashing waves below, is a ghost disco.

"It turned into this very slowly," Happy said. Bit by bit, he watched the civil war claim the city.

He stopped at an empty intersection, once one of the capital's most congested. "This used to be my favorite spot. I used to sit there and watch children play." He pointed to a two-story pile of rubble across the street.

"This was where I came to learn to paint," he said quietly. "My teacher had a studio there." He shook his head. "It shocks me every time I see this building. I don't come here anymore. I don't like to see my school in ruins. It reminds me of when life was better."

The Mogadishu of his childhood was a time of traffic lights and picnics and going to movies with his father. He used to love swimming in the blue waters. He hasn't dipped a toe into the Indian Ocean since 1994, after United Nations and U.S. troops withdrew from Somalia. It's too unsafe, he said, and probably polluted. "All that is over."

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