Inside Libya’s Burgeoning Youth Art Scene

The Berka Barracks in Benghazi, known colloquially as the Turkish Castle, is a U-shaped building in the middle of the Keesh district. A double row of arched windows line the length of the building’s walls and gives the building a stately look. Once a military outpost that housed Ottoman soldiers, the barracks have become abandoned and neglected over the decades, like most of Benghazi’s historic and cultural sites.

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

Panel discussion at the ARRA Gallery on the problems faced by art magazines in Libya

But during the first week of February, the castle played host to a cultural event, the first to take place on the premises in years. The event in question was the ARRA Gallery, a three-day art event organized by a group of civil society organizations and activists to highlight the young Libyan talent. Consisting of discussion panels, live drawing sessions and film screenings, visitors could also browse the temporary exhibition of work.

“The aim of this project is to give young Libyan artists exposure to the rest of society,” said Aya Mohammed, the main organizer of the event. “We want to encourage these artists to showcase their work, but we also want to show the world a different side of Libya.” Aya told me that the gallery is just the first phase of a bigger project to make Libyan art more global.

In a city like Benghazi, where intense fighting and a dire humanitarian crisis has plagued the residents for over two years, the idea of an art gallery may seem counterintuitive. But this gallery is just the latest event in a steadily growing art scene among Libyan youth. While politicians and fighters destroy the country, disenfranchised young people are using art as an outlet for creative expression, and, increasingly, paving the new for a new profession and new opportunities.

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

Live drawing session at the ARRA Gallery

The 2011 revolution and subsequent war was a catalyst for new art movements in the country. Music, graphic design, photography and even graffiti were taken up by young people who were eager to express their passion in the rapid changes happening around them. Galleries, book fairs, carnivals and other cultural events were being organized in Benghazi, bringing together artists from the past generations with the new generation.

There was a lull in artistic creativity in the years after as Benghazi’s security situation rapidly deteriorated. Civil society, one of the main promoters of culture, was facing threats by religious extremists who saw no need for art in their post-revolution vision. The 2014 war made humanitarian relief the most urgent priority for the besieged city.

But, as life had begun to slowly return, so did the art scene. A popular Facebook group, ‘Art Lovers’, is an online forum with tens of thousands of members from across Libya to share their art and get tips on how to improve. This group organized one of the first art galleries in Benghazi after the start of the war, a statement of resilience in the face of conflict. A series of art events followed, from the publishing of the first Libyan manga comic, Habka Magazine, to the opening of Tanarout, a culture club that celebrates the arts and humanities. These events have created a momentum that has encouraged more youth to engage in creative hobbies.

This growing trend is not confined only to Benghazi. Cultural events are being frequently organized in Tripoli’s many art houses, covering everything from painting to writing to music. A new center called Warraq Art Foundation has recently opened its doors, and a new project aims to set up cultural palace in a historic public building. And art galleries and crafts fairs continue to be organized in more disenfranchised cities like Ajdabiya, Waddan, Ghat and Sebha.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

A sample of work from the ARRA gallery showing diversity of methods; traditional, digital, manga, etc.

The use of art has grown as well, not just as an expressive medium but also to shed light on important social issues. The Aegis Gallery held last November was organized to commemorate the Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, and cartoonist Suhaib Tantoush draws satirical images on the everyday struggle of Libya citizens. Popular musician Fuad Gritli is known for his tongue-in-cheek songs on Libya current events, and artist Abdullah Hadia uses themes and symbols from Libyan folklore to revive cultural traditions.

But while the will and passion persist, there are still obstacles that deter the growth of these art movements. Weak infrastructure, worsening financial problems and a lack of cultural awareness still cripple the art scene, as the shadow of war still looms over the country. Citizens whose basic needs are not met do not have the luxury of focusing culture, and art has a historically infamous reputation in Libya as not being a “real” profession. “Art is a new market,” said Noureldine Elhouni during a panel on art magazines in Libya. “Investors are afraid to put their money in such a new sector.” And Libya is not exempt from problems faced by aspiring artists around the world, including a lack funding and sustainability.

A new movement of religious extremism has also emerged as a threat to this burgeoning youth art scene, particularly in East Libya. A shipment of books was confiscated by a police check point on its way to Benghazi, and religious authorities in the area claimed that the books promoted, among other things, secularism and atheism.  While this act was met with strong outcries – even prompting a widespread hashtag on social media which pressured the police to make a statement – it is a worrying indicator of things to come.

A visitor to the ARRA Gallery remarked to me that the gallery was an important statement in light of the recent fears, made all the more significant by its location in a culturally historic building. It will be more difficult to stem the tide of art in Libya as the community continues to grow, especially as new artistic avenues and techniques are explored. While the policy makers and government authorities continue to stall the development of the country, it’s clear that the youth have become the new safeguards of art and culture.

 

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What It Means To Be Libyan

Yes, it’s another culture post. I’m a Libyan who’s obsessed with the intellectual revival of my country, okay? While political flame wars are fun, it’s the artistic manifestations of this unstable and contrasting country that piques my interest. I’ve written about our cultural bankruptcy and Libya’s lost literature. And yes, I’ve revisited this topic several times before.

Pictured: Something difficult to find Libya (the book, not chewing gum)

Pictured: Something difficult to find Libya (the book, not chewing gum)

What really pushed me to write about it again was a book, namely Chewing Gum, by Mansour Bushnaf. I stumbled on this book almost by accident. There was a BBC report called “killing books in Libya” in which the author himself describes the dismal state of publishing in the country. My compulsive googling habits led me to discover his recently published book, and my rage at being unable to attain a copy led naturally to a prolonged Twitter rant at the injustice of not being able to buy books written by people in the same country they come from. 

But a good samaritan noticed my twitter tirade and compassionately bought me the Kindle version of the book, which you can get here by the way. I won’t review the book here since I’ve already done so on Goodreads, but I do want to highlight my reaction upon reading and finishing it.

First off, since I have the unfortunate habit of underestimating Libyan talent, I was taken aback at the literary prose of the book. This is a translated book by the way, a fate that leaves many a written word stripped of the beauty and context of the original language. But the English prose here is even superior to many native English novels I’ve read. Picking my jaw up off the floor, I continued.

The subject matter, whoa. Prostitution, alcohol, love affairs, class division. Libyans like to pretend that this dark underbelly of society doesn’t exist, despite the overwhelming majority of society having some connection to it. But for someone to write about it, and sympathetically no less, was akin to revelation. Why don’t we talk about it? Why are Libyans so afraid of admitting that our social structure is unhealthy and unjust? If you thought ‘systematic repression that has become too ingrained into our subconscious’, then we’re on the same wavelength.

The novel was also, surprisingly, feminist. The repeated symbol of a woman whose intense passions have broken her down because of society’s inability to support her, was refreshing without being too preachy. And the heroine, Fatma, is a symbol of sacrifice for higher aspirations. Relatability, man.

An aged Libyan man wrote a strong female lead. Take a moment to let that sink in.

Libyan horse-riders. Horse riding is a popular sport in Libya. Painting by Libyan artist Ramadan Bakshishi

Libyan horse-riders. Horse riding is a popular sport in Libya. Painting by Libyan artist Ramadan Bakshishi

The story is actually a novelette, and left me with a thirst for more Libyan storytelling. The raw emotion and honesty in Chewing Gum presents a strong impression of one of the many facets of Libyan identity. Our identity is shaped by our surroundings, which is in turn formed from history. We don’t know much about our history because half of it is buried and the other half is being manipulated for political leverage.

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King Idris, a much beloved figure symbolizing a more prosperous time for Libya. (Painting by Tariq Al-Shebli)

Never mind history books, Libya has virtually no books, let alone some kind of widely available, neutral source of history where we can all read up on the path that led us to this crumbling wasteland of a country. “Those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it.” I know it’s a trite, overused cliche, but it’s also true.

Libyans wouldn’t be apathetic (I hope) towards these new entities insistent on forcing an Islamist or Western identity if they had read Libya’s history and realized that we’re not insane fundamentalists who obsessively segregate genders or openly engage in debauchery. But the truth is painfully obvious when someone posts a picture of a younger Libya, where, for example, women and men both engage in social activities together, and people quote “Wow, I can’t believe this used to be Libya.”

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A Libyan Mona Lisa. Western and Eastern themes often overlap in the art and literature of Libyans. Painting by Libyan artist Khalid (last name unknown)

We can’t believe it because we don’t know anything about it apart from aged photographs and our grandparent’s vague recollections. Without books, without history, Libyans will be mired in this identity crisis, trying on different cultural standards and discovering that none of them fit just right. We need to know who we are as a people and not wait for someone to tell us, because, news flash, Libya is a tempting place for several countries to manipulate and screw us over.

When you ask a Libyan to describe their society, you’ll often get the answer “we’re conservative”. People mistake this for being religious, when it actually just means that Libyans care about what other people think, which is most certainly not an Islamic trait. And it’s sad that we don’t have a more comprehensive answer, or that we limit ourselves to a very narrow political/religious identity. Even the attempts to describe the current conflict as ‘Islamist vs. Liberal’ is way off the mark, since the average Libyan is more moderate than anything else.

A painting entitled 'Refugees' by Libyan artist Ali Enaiza, inspired by the refugees of Ajdabiya during the revolution

A painting entitled ‘Refugees’ by Libyan artist Ali Enaizi, inspired by the refugees of Ajdabiya during the revolution

For the last three days there has been a cultural gallery here. I went to see the books available, but was sad to find that that section was gone (I went late on the third day). Instead I perused through the artwork and photography. There was some very impressive stuff (again, underestimated). Ask the average Libyan about famous artists and you might get one or two names at best.

One of the artists told us about a disagreement he had with his father. “He told me that I was wasting my time by painting,” he said, echoing a common reaction in Libya towards the arts and humanities. This is just my opinion, but I strongly, strongly believe that it’s the arts that will help us form a more national identity than any other pursuit.

Religion has played a large role in Libyan identity. So has tribalism, regionalism, politics, and our long history of invasion and occupation. The 2011 revolution provided a chance for us to finally show the world who we are, and in my opinion, we stuttered. Libyan culture is, among other things, an amalgam of outside influences. This will continue to be our predominate image until we start looking back through our history and start forging our own unique identity. One thing that needs to stop is our desperate cling to one homogeneous Libya. We can be united while still being diverse.

Culturally Bankrupt

As a representative of the Libyan people, I’d like to file for cultural bankruptcy. I guess it’s kind of like regular bankruptcy, except we don’t have any debts to pay. Unless you count what we owe our children in the form of a legacy. But they might be more worried about the imminent financial bankruptcy they’ll inherent if Libya’s oil continues to be sold on the black market.

A Libyan might scoff at such a claim. “Look at Libya’s rich history!”, I imagine them saying, in an unfounded tone of self-righteousness. “Gaze our ancient ruins from the time of the Greeks and Romans, gander at our Italian architecture from the days of the occupation, observe the books and paintings left behind by great Libyan minds!”

Except, how long have we been using the same, tired line when trying to showcase Libya’s culture? Besides a handful of dead authors and artists, and a cluster of dilapidated buildings, what else do we have to show for our history?

Look left and right on a map of North Africa. Tunisia is famous for it’s sprawling, seaside towns. Morocco is well-known for it’s rich art, and Egypt is, well, the mother of civilization. But Libya? How many times, oh smug Libyan, have you encountered a person who had never heard of your country before?

To be fair, we’re pretty well-known now. Just type up Benghazi in any search engine and it will be embarrassingly obvious what the world identifies Libya with today.

There’s an annual event called “World Architectural Day”, each year with it’s own theme. This year’s theme is, you guessed it, cultural architecture.

A few architects in Benghazi got together twice, to figure out how we’ll celebrate. If you’re an Arab, I need not transcribe the blood-curdling chaos that is us trying to unify around one idea. If you’re not an Arab, count your blessings. One of the recurring ideas was holding a festival at a historic site in the city.

Gah. No, please. Not more tradition-glorifying. Since we’re already devolving into a more backwards society, I don’t think we need anymore “returning to the past”. It’s the go-to concept for the lazy thinker when asked to come up with an innovative solution to any social crisis these days. “Let’s work on preserving our culture!” Let’s not.

I proposed the idea of implementing what we want Libyan culture to look like in the future, and perhaps by personifying it, it will seem more attainable. I was, of course, drowned out by the raucous din of several voices trying to talk over each other.

My mother habitually surfs through the multitude of inane Libyan channels, with the hope of finding a report on current events, rather than the typical armchair analysts droning for hours about an event that happened months ago, or a blast of shrill, auto-tuned, generic music. One time she stumbled upon the taping of an “event”, a word I use in the loosest sense. It comprised of a crowd sitting on bleachers watching an infamous Libyan “actor”(again, in the loosest sense) parading around on the stage in a teen-style costume and singing, in the distinct gruff voice Arabs use when trying to convey humor, about drugs and guns. It might have been a social commentary on the ills of these criminals, and how they corrupt our society. Except there were children present. Singing and dancing, with this apish imbecile.

Whatever message was being conveyed here (and if, in fact, there actually was a message and this wasn’t some kind of brain-melting exercise in debauchery), I highly doubt the children picked up on it. This “actor” is well-known in Libya and, much to the chagrin of the intellectuals, pretty well-loved. Most other actors here are not far behind on the no-talent scale.

After the revolution, a burst of talent erupted from the most disenfranchised demographic, the youth. Writers, artists, aspiring politicians, etc. etc. But they were plagued by two curses; de-motivation and hubris. There was no one to encourage their life-choices (“you’re going to throw away 4 years of engineering school to paint?”) and they expected accolades for their every achievement, since there was virtually none prior to the revolution (“I spent a week making that hip-hop album in my garage, how dare the radio stations refuse to play it!”).

So, let’s summarize the painful reality. Architecture: Falling apart, if not already in ruins. Artists: Dead or dying. Actors: Dismal. Authors: If Facebook users who write out essay-length posts qualify, several. Musicianshahahahahaha

All we have left to clutch onto is our faded history. I think this is a pretty strong case for declaring cultural bankruptcy. In the future, if globalization doesn’t engulf us, there is still perhaps hope of recovery. The talent we saw after the revolution was completely unexpected, which means that it’s still there under the surface, waiting to be noticed. Strong institutes and even stronger minds are needed. But there also needs to be demand. Once the novelty of talking about politics wears off, Libyans might start seeking other topics to converse about. Whether the lack of culture prompts them to act or not is still uncertain.

 

Architecture Is Not Art

Quite a claim to make, I know, but not an unfounded one.

There’s an interesting article (whose whereabouts currently escape me), that laments the state of structure and construction subjects at schools of architecture. Visual design is the primary focus. This article does not declare that both need equal course hours, but that structural aspects of building design play as important a role in the education of future architects.

This holds true in our architectural department at Benghazi University. Spectacular shapes often garner more focus than the buildings structural integrity. The unfortunate truth is that it’s easier to get an ‘A’ with twisting, convoluted shapes than with a rational functionality.

Architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid claim that they see themselves as sculptors rather than engineers, and this is evident in the buildings they produce. But does this qualify as architecture?

First off, what qualifies as art? I realize that this is a wide, complex spectrum not easily definable. But for the sake of context, let’s refer to art in the form of visual works, such as paintings, statues, murals, etc.

Architecture is not something to be looked at and nothing more, the way art is. It’s something to be used, and thus must hold some degree of rationality and order. Gehry designed the Disney Opera House as an art piece, and the flaws of his design are still being felt to this day.

But, then, is architecture a science? Of course not. Science explains the unknown, it answers questions. It is also cold and unfeeling. It takes a joke and analyzes it’s workings, explaining why it’s funny. But architecture is full of life, it breathes easy, it laughs at the joke.

So, then, if architecture is neither art nor science, what is it?

Science answers humanity’s questions and makes life easier to live. Art is an expression of human thought and emotion. Architecture is humanity itself. As long as there are people, there is architecture. It moves with the shift of time, reflecting the zeitgeist of the day, though often doing so unnoticed in the background.

Ancient man did not begin building shelters to impress their neighbours, they made homes so that they may live protected. They filled and decorated these houses with their belongings and imprinted their life on to it. As man changed and developed, so did his buildings.

But architecture today is just a replica of this practice. Architects use Corinthian columns and pediments, not to celebrate the god Athena, but to design in the ‘Greek style’, to make something that can be ogled at, much like art does.

Of course there is the side that believes, to not consider architecture an art is the defense of the unimaginative. But the first evidences of architecture was a result of fulfilling a need, not a competition to produce the coolest building. Architecture needs people, but people do not need architects. If a disease that infected only architects wiped us out, architecture will still thrive.

The stereotype of a latte-sipping, Gucci-wearing architect that scribbles a design on a napkin and gets paid a king’s ransom for it, is not far off the mark. I think Vitruvius would roll in his grave if he knew what we had become. We must accept that we are not humanity’s saviours, and design for people, not art critics.