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Somalia guerrilla artists dare to paint reality

The men work quietly by day and set up their cheeky political paintings around the capital in the dark of night. They're also training the next generation.

September 19, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • “I want to show the people how bad the troubles were," says artist Muhiyidin Sharif Ibrahim of Mogadishu, Somalia. "That’s the message we’re going to send to people.”
“I want to show the people how bad the troubles were," says artist… (Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles…)

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The guerrilla artists come out in the darkness of the Mogadishu night. Three of them are old hands with a brush, but they've never been out on such a crazy mission at a time when sensible people stay indoors.

They gather for work in a converted garage, with a wildly paved floor and clutter of paint pots dribbling gaudy colors. Muhiyidin Sharif Ibrahim, 62, uses an old car seat as a chair, reflectively sharpening a pencil with a razor, then honing it to a perfect point by scraping it on the stone floor. He delicately sketches out his next work on a scrap of cardboard with his long, thin fingers.

The artists paint by daylight, then load the canvases on a big truck and, with the help of students they've taken under their wing, plant them around the city.

No one here has seen anything like it. The political paintings that pop up every few days are like brave flags, cheeky and revolutionary.

They take potshots at the most dangerous people, like Somalia's blood-sodden clan warlords and its ever-present Islamic militants, who still maintain a shadowy presence here.

The men have lived their lives in a country with no tradition of artistic freedom or democracy. When a tiny window of freedom cracked open in recent months in Mogadishu, it seemed like a last chance to be who they really wanted to be.

Ibrahim, who once was among Somalia's most famous artists, claims to have painted the first official portrait of the country's first president. Adan Farah Affey, 50, started out as a young artist in the propaganda department of the ruling party but resigned because he wasn't allowed to depict the truth. As for Mohamed Ali Tohow, 57, his real passion was portraits, but he enjoyed his day job, painting advertising billboards, until the day the Islamists threatened to kill him.

The walls of their garage studio are decked out with giant canvases, ready to hang in the streets of the capital. One depicts a crowded city street with men on bicycles or pushing wheelbarrows, women in traditional Somali dress, buildings free of bullet holes and destruction, and a giant yellow sun like a beach ball. Its message is peace.

Another depicts a rural woman with a generous basket of fruit, a pretty red necklace and a wisp of hair straying idly from under her head scarf. There's an undercurrent of socialist realism in its idyllic vision of rural womanhood and agricultural bounty. But the woman's lush beauty would be enough to get an artist killed if it was displayed in an area controlled by the Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked militia that until recently imposed a reign of terror on Mogadishu and still controls much of the country's south. The Shabab believes women must be fully covered in billowing garments.

As Mogadishu slowly staggered back onto its feet, a nongovernmental organization, the Center for Research and Dialogue, developed a plan to commission its artists to paint posters promoting peace, and provide support for their work.

Ahmed Adde, 45, was given the task of tracking down the well-known artists from the old days. Adde, an artist himself, didn't know whether they were alive, dead or had fled. When he got in touch with them, they tried to brush him off.

"The old man was afraid," Adde says, referring to Ibrahim. "Actually, we were all afraid. We were reluctant."

"I've seen their trouble, how they're harassing people and killing people," Ibrahim breaks in, referring to the Shabab, which still carries out regular suicide bombings and political assassinations in Mogadishu, even though it has fled the city.

Still, Ibrahim says he is optimistic. "I want to return to my career," he says, offering his shy, gap-toothed smile like a gift. "I want to show the people how bad the troubles were and how bad the wars were and how bad it is when everything's destroyed. That's the message we're going to send to people."

Ibrahim never finished high school, but was plucked from obscurity as a talented artist, given a post in the government's Information Ministry and promoted because of his abilities.

He was 19 when Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, or Comrade Siad, as he was known, seized power. The dictator's cult of personality meant there was plenty of work for artists, who would paint him in Stalinist poses, looking serious and stately, or laughing, or holding children and looking paternal. But artistic freedom was a mirage.

"I painted Barre hundreds of times. There had to be a portrait of him in every office. People were constantly coming saying, 'I want a portrait of the president,'" Ibrahim says. "You had to be careful. You had to try to make him as handsome as possible. You had to paint him looking elegant. You could not show any signs of age.

"You'd attempt it many times. Before you showed people, you had to check it again and again."

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