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Story Publication logo September 27, 2011

All About Qaddafi: Libya's Artists


Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Tunisia, 2011.

Ellen Knickmeyer has been traveling the Arab world from the first weeks of the revolutions to tell...

Libyan artists. Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Libya, 2011.
Libyans say Muammar Qaddafi banned even spray paint, but art and self-expression in general have exploded in the weeks since Qadafi fell. Here, Libyan families tour the now graffitt-covered walls of Qadafi's looted family mansions. Image by Ellen Knickmeyer. Libya, 2011.

For 42 years, Muammar Qaddafi did it all for the aspiring young artists of Libya. Did they want to study literature? Qaddafi's Green Book had it all. Were they hoping to explore their creative side? Maybe take an art class at school? Great, and for their final exam, they could draw a composition of their choosing, on any one of the glories of Qaddafi's revolution.

"If we wanted to sing, we had to sing about him," said Karim Namssi, an unemployed 25 year old in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, who is trying to change all that. "We got used to him being a one-man show."

Angry at what he considers his own squelching by a regime that seemed to exert itself to block opportunities for its people, and despite neither being an artist nor ever having seen an art exhibition, Namssi has devoted himself in the weeks since Qaddafi fell to bringing out the self-expression and creativity that Qaddafi suppressed for three generations. While arts and artisanal crafts managed to survive and even thrive in some of the other Arab dictatorships, as long as artists avoided political statements, in Libya art all but died under Qaddafi, Libyans say. One of the few art shows Libyans remember ever hearing about was for Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi's not notably talented son.

Over the past few weeks, Namssi and his friends have used word of mouth to track down young Libyans who, unencouraged, make art—even though little of their work has ever been seen beyond their living room or bedroom walls. Starting last Friday, Namssi and his friends have begun throwing weekly art shows in Tripoli's Martyrs Square, the symbolic heart of Libya, called Green Square in the Qaddafi-era. They're putting the work of Libya's lost artists before a public outraged at being told all their lives that only one Libyan ever did anything that was worth seeing or hearing.

"I can assure you, they have been painting for a while, but no one has seen them before," Namssi said of the artists two mornings before the first exhibition as he drove around Tripoli ordering banners for the show and trying to convince amateur artists that the exhibition was really going to happen. "They feel they can't believe it—it's going to be on Martyrs' Square."

In a sense, though, Namssi is trying to get out ahead of what is already an explosion of art since rebel forces and NATO warplanes routed Qaddafi.

"When he left, the art came out,'' said Anouar Swed, a Libyan returned from life in London to launch plans for a fashion-design enterprise drawing on traditional Libyan dress. In Libya, Swed is marveling at the art surging up since the revolution: the neighborhood children break-dancing, the car radios burbling ballads and blasting rap recorded at people's homes in just days, the elaborate graffiti splattering almost every patch of whitewashed bare wall in Tripoli, where Qaddafi had banned even spray paint. She wants to start a children's glee club; Namssi wants to start a youth radio station. After a life of forced silence under Qaddafi, Libyans and Libyan artists have a lot to say. What's mainly on their minds right now: They love Libya.

And they really, really hate Qaddafi.

Most of the art showing up on the walls and airwaves in Libya is in the spirit of what Muhammed Zahmul, a 40-year-old day laborer, was dabbing with a paint brush on a wall along Tripoli's seaside one morning this week: a wild-haired Qaddafi, running screaming from some vengeance that Zahmul hadn't yet drawn in.

Zahmul spent the months of Libya's revolution up in his home in the mountains, drawing what he would like to have happen to Qaddafi. When Qaddafi fell, Zahmul drove to Libya's capital and started putting his cartoon sketches on Tripoli's walls.

In the street with traffic rushing by, Zahmul leafs through the drawings for me: Qaddafi being shot into space on a rocket. Qaddafi perched on an exploding volcano. Qaddafi on a bomb. Qaddafi's son Saif toppling from a marble pedestal. Qaddafi and Saif as frogs mired in slime. More and more like that, dozens of drawings, many of them well-drawn and funny.

How long does Zahmul plan to keep exploring the exploding-Qaddafi theme? "Until he's caught," Zahmul told me.

Namssi hopes his weekly Friday art exhibitions will help move Libyans beyond the immediate catharsis and thrill of depicting their addled lifetime leader as a giant rat. "That's what we want to eliminate," he said. "We want to be much better than those guys," Qaddafi's guys.

The story behind Namssi's own anger is a version of the same tale of frustration told by millions of men and women of his generation in the Arab world, who have come to adulthood only to find that their rulers were too busy stealing the region's resources to develop the economy.

Namssi was one of many children of a widow, and a pilot by training. Libyan government officials promised him a job if he obtained a certain kind of instrument training, he said. And Namssi, a brawny man with closely cropped hair, did just that, washing dishes and shoveling snow in Canada to pay his way through aviation school in that country. When Namssi returned to Libya, he said, the first question that aviation officials asked at his job interview was the only question that counted under Qaddafi. "'Who's your father?"

In other words, what connections do you have that make you deserve this job? Namssi had no connections. He didn't get the job—aviation officials told him it wouldn't be fair because all the other applicants lacked his instrument skills. He spent the next year largely holed up in his apartment with his cat. When the revolution came, he helped supply rebel fighters, but avoided holding a gun.

Now, Namssi said, in English grown rusty in his months back home, "I'm trying to translate my suffering to make change. I don't want them to be ignored like I've been ignored," he said of young Libyans.

"Our lives should have been so much better than this," the 25 year old says later, thoughtfully, slowly, and out of the blue, as we are driving about Tripoli making arrangements for the first Friday show.

Namssi and a colleague stop in at the home of an 18-year-old university student, Farah Jamal Bin Yezza. Farah's previous drawing has all been sketching parties and dresses in the margins of her notebooks, she says. No one before ever cared about what was seen as some hobby. Farah goes to her room to bring out the work she will show. She comes out with a watercolor of a mermaid with flowing hair holding an orb with the Libyan flag, at sunrise.

She answers all my questions in monosyllables before saying what should have been obvious to me: "A lot of people can't speak, but they can express their feelings through paintings."

Driving away, Namssi and his colleague worry that artists won't show up for the exhibition. The colleague previews a back-up plan of buying paintings from one of Tripoli's few galleries to keep the weekly exhibition from starting in failure.

On Friday evening, though, crowds line up on the sidewalk on one edge of Martyrs' Square to see the paintings. Namssi and his friends have found a long red carpet. They've set up LED lights on each easel that bathe the paintings—depictions of Libyan women, a baby, flowers, a burning candle, rebel fighters, and one mermaid—in a warm glow under a canopy of palm trees. Numerous TV and print reporters interview Namssi and the artists. Women with their heads covered, men in traditional tunics, rebels home from the front with their babies in
their arms, stand, look, and take photos with their cell phones. Farah is there with her father, smiling.

In the square beyond, all but empty at night when I visited in Qaddafi's days, thousands of Libyans gather, wave flags, take photos with young rebels, and talk their mind up on stage, as they do nightly now.

"What do you think?" Namssi asks me. "Yeah, not bad, right?"


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