The joys and anger of the walls in Libya
Ben Boubakar Youssef - 04/01/2012
The walls of Tripoli are expressing themselves as they have never done before, something that was unthinkable a year ago under the regime of Colonel Gaddafi. Graffiti, drawings and paintings adorn the urban areas rendering the environment a colourful and exquisite place and so unusual for Tripolitans.
The walls of certain barracks, bridges, interchanges and other citadels of the town were invaded by aspiring artists thirsty for expression and wanting to shout out all they have in their hearts.
The Bab Al-Aziziya area, serving as a residence and housing the head quarters of Gaddafi is totally repainted with graffiti and paintings as well as Freedom Square in Benghazi where the first spark of the 17th February revolution had given off.
Taking the streets, one can easily mistake them for the Bronx, in New York or for the suburbs in Europe because of the graffiti that cover the streets of the Libyan capital, Tripoli and many other towns in the country.
From the start of the revolution, the Libyans have adopted this urban culture to conquer spaces and have a different and new identity at the same time. It also led them to express their desires and sufferings as well as their thirst for freedom.
The revolution in Libya has revealed the hidden talents of Libyan artists who gave free rein to their unbridled imagination taking the walls as a medium to express their creativity which was repressed for so long during the 42 year supreme reign of Gaddafi and his followers.
Instead of gigantic ubiquitous portraits which once adorned crossroads and long avenues in Libyan towns and slogans glorifying Gaddafi and his pan-African policy as well as his hate against Western imperialism backed up by the powerful propaganda machine of the regime, the landscapes of Libyan cities are now dominated by frescoes depicting the former dictator as a bloodthirsty devil or a rat coming out of the sewage.
Considered by the Libyans as the main cause for all their misfortunes during 42 years of rule, the extravagant person of Gaddafi is revisited under many angles in these graffitis. His way of dressing, particularly his exaggerated tastes for eccentric robes are widely highlighted in the drawings and paintings.
Calls launched by Gaddafi and his supporters to walk quickly and in millions into cities held by the rebels were ridiculed and turned into caricature where the former Libyan leader, killed on 20th October in tragic circumstances, appears as a big tortoise who struggles to move around.
Graffiti with the independence flag colours which became the symbol of the Libyan resistance, drawings that honour the fighters and highlight the torture and suffering due to the suppression of the former regime and also slogans to the glory of the revolution are present in these new artistic works whose style blends the aesthetic expressions altogether.
The power of images
The Libyans enjoy, together, these colours that now fill and decorate their daily lives. ‘‘ It’s as if it is a new birth ’’ says Oussama Hadj Ahmed, an agent of the Libyan post office indicating that these graffiti symbolise the ongoing change in Libya.
‘‘ Before, under Gaddafi one couldn’t draw on walls except portraits of Gaddafi, or else paintings depicting the glory of his policy or of the Green Book ’’, he says, adding that the revolutionary committees, guardians of the regime, are afraid that these drawings would be modified. So they were simply not allowed.
For Noura Ibrahim a student at the Faculty of Arts and Communication at the University of Tripoli, these graffiti and drawings embody the spirit of freedom that reigns in Libya at the moment, saying that they ‘‘serve as an executory for the artists who have done cultural revolution ’’.
‘‘ Through these graffiti, the artists ’’, she continues, ‘‘have come out of their way to express their contribution and their commitment to the 17thFebruary Revolution by invading the urban public space and making it an instrument to express demands and aspirations of the Libyan people.
This view is shared by Abdelmoumen Ramadan, a Libyan painter who drew a picture where a blond woman is portrayed carrying a child in her arms. The persons in this picture emerge from a field full of flowers and green grass beneath a blue sky where a blazing sun dominates in an atmosphere giving off enthusiasm and happiness.
Interpreting his work, Abdelmoumen, continues that ‘‘ this woman incarnates the new Libya with both her youth, her vitality and her lust for life ’’, indicating that ‘‘ the spring atmosphere evokes the radiant future that awaits her country ’’.
According to him, ‘‘ the Libyans have broken the ties that have chained them for four decades by paying a high price with the sacrifices made’’.
The changes that have taken place in Libya’s urban landscape have not gone unnoticed by those visiting this country. So, on a visit to Libya, Jean-Philippe Magnen, the vice-president of the regional Council of the Pays de la Loire in France, who was part of the European ecologist deputies delegation, stated that ‘‘Tripoli, for example, is covered with strong, astonishing and often beautiful graffiti, insulting the dictator, honouring the fighters but also expressing hope’’.
He adds that he is astonished ‘‘ that in such a short time the artists have taken the walls of their cities as an outlet for their hatred of the dictator, for their desires, troubles, but also to show the strength of the Libyan people with so much talent ’’.
Lastly, Mr Magnen concludes that ‘‘ these graffiti witness both the terrible repression that these people have experienced and the irrepressible revolutionary strength which is ongoing now with all its complexities ’’.
Different forms of expression
For the Libyan academic Fethi Shaibi who teaches Sociology at the Faculty of Tripoli, the practice of graffiti by the Libyans is a way of affirming their existence, of appropriating places, and thus experiencing the impression of a new life in line with the changes taking place. ‘‘ Contrary to the meaning of graffiti being a way of expression of a minority or social group who lives in an urban area and rebels against its condition, the graffiti in Libya conveys a revolution in its genesis ’’ according to Mr Shaibi, ‘‘ above all it is a way for the Libyans to reflect their emotions and experiences ’’.
In this regard, Mr Shaibi underlines the diversity of the graffiti and paintings that vary from scenes of daily life, expressing hope or reminding sufferings, to images that portray scenes of conflict with cars topped with machine guns or missile batteries alluding to the use of weapons during that revolution.
Moreover, the revolution in Libya has led to an explosion of ways of expression. Apart from the painting and graffiti, rap songs relayed from different TV channels and radios in the country, have emerged in practically all the big Libyan cities and have had great success.
Many young people encouraged by this enthusiasm towards this new musical expression in the country have formed rap bands performing songs with themes of commitment and protest singing freedom and democracy. These songs denounce repression and tyranny under Gaddafi’s regime and they also express the desire for freedom and for a better world.
Libyan rap bands such as Libyan Freedom 17 feb or The Super Hamza and rappers like Mc Aziz, Afnan Al-Safani and MakSndr are a big hit among young Libyans.
These changes are not limited to just new ways of expression but have also affected the way of dressing with the emergence of talented new designers like Wafa Mehdaoui who recently organised a fashion show in Tripoli combining tradition and modernity.
For this young designer, the overthrow of the regime has released her energy and creativity. ‘‘ As a woman, I wanted to contribute to the building of the new Libya by putting in my stone’’, she said.
Beyond all these ways of artistic expressions that have demonstrated creativity and openness of the Libyans, the 17th February Revolution has undoubtedly freed men and women in the country making it a better one.
In the words of Albert Camus ‘‘ Freedom offers Man a chance to be better, servitude is the certainty of becoming worse ’’.(*)
*) - «Pour l’Homme la liberté n'offre qu'une chance d'être meilleur, la servitude n'est que la certitude de devenir pire».
Translated from French by Claudia Gauci