In times of war, art goes back into hibernation in Libya

Friday 25/09/2015
Some artists remain optimistic, but (…)

TRIPOLI - Four years after a joyous celebration of the end of censorship with the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan artists have had to put their creativity back on hold.

"We have lost all source of inspiration," said Marii Tillissi, an artist in his 50s known for his hyperrealist paintings. "The times are not conducive to creation."

An Islamist-backed militia coalition, Libya Dawn, seized control of Tripoli in summer 2014, sending the internationally recognised government into flight to the country's far east.

The Islamic State jihadist group has taken advantage of the turmoil to expand its foothold, and this month claimed two attacks in the capital.

Today, the Mediterranean city of more than a million residents is left with only a single gallery: Dar al-Founoun (Art House).

Located off a main road in the city centre, not far from the palace of the late King Idris, the gallery is easy to miss.

It has turned into a refuge for artists to meet over coffee or tea -- exhibitions and workshops have become a thing of the past.

"There are power cuts and water cuts, fuel shortages, and many artists have left with their families," said the gallery's Emad Bash-Agha.

"Everything has been slowed down -- if not completely halted -- for more than a year."

Khalifa al-Mahdawi, a founder of Art House, was more blunt. "It's much more than just a pause," he said.

Hopes had been riding high after Gaddafi's ouster, following four decades of dictatorship in which Libyan art's main purpose was to laud the ruler.

The regime's inspectors, wearing fake snakeskin shoes and designer watches emblazoned with Gaddafi's portrait, would appear before exhibition openings to check the content.

Authorities preferred realist over abstract art as less subversive. Many artists were forced into exile, while others had to resort to self-censorship.

In the 1990s, Gaddafi's forward-looking son Seif al-Islam pushed his father to loosen the regime's grip on the arts.

But true freedom of artistic expression did not come until after the dictator was toppled and killed in 2011.

"After the euphoria... Libya's art scene was positively bubbling with creativity," recalled Tillissi. "We'd never seen anything like it!"

Tripoli residents -- artists and amateurs alike -- took to the streets, splashing their city's walls with graffiti to celebrate a new dawn for Libya.

Exhibitions and workshops abounded.

To harness the creativity, Najlaa Elageli, a Libyan based in London, set up Noon Arts to bring artists such as painter Najla al-Fitouri and ceramist Hadia Gana onto the world stage.

In 2013, Tripoli's bustling arts scene found a home in Doshma.

The gallery is set in an avant-garde, silo-like, aluminum-roofed, arched and glass-fronted building with an orange shipping container built-in.

Its inaugural exhibition featured the works of 12 emerging artists.

But last year, ironically during Tripoli's tenure as the "Arab Capital of Culture", courtesy of the Arab League, Doshma had to close its doors and creativity went back into hibernation as the country plunged into civil war.

Diplomats and expatriates, along with a number of artists, fled the capital.

Najla al-Fitouri, a painter in her 30s, said foreigners were the top buyers of local art in a city which now no longer even hosts exhibitions.

However, she and her husband, painter Youssef Ftis, remain optimistic and still work from the privacy of their basement at home.

And Noon Arts, which describes its mission as "to spot, encourage and nurture both new and established Libyan artists and to celebrate their work in all its myriad forms", has tapped 140 artists from Libya for an online catalogue of works from around the world.