Artists in Somalia have resurfaced from their hideouts and are now painting in the open. Until recently these artists working here at Mogadishu’s Centre for Research and Dialogue (CRD), had either given up their craft or were painting in secret.
Art, sports and all other forms of entertainment were forbidden by al Qaeda linked extremist group al-Shabaab, whose time in power from 2006 is considered one of the most repressive since Somalia’s troubles began in 1991.
Not only did artists receive death threats, the late Abdulkadir Yahya Ali, a prominent peace activist, founder of the CRD and patron of the arts was killed in his home by suspected al-Shabaab fighters.
With the support of several development agencies, Ali’s friends and successors like Ahmednur Abdulle, the center’s director are overseeing a project that helps Somali artists create pieces about their country’s dramatic change in fortunes.
“Al-Shabaab people believe that art is “haram ‘prohibited from in Somali religion, but as soon as al-Shabaab started defeating (started being defeated) these artist came out. That’s the only time they can come out and show their talent to the public. Before that they can’t, they could not even come out from their homes,’said Abdulle.
The East African country now has an interim constitution, parliament and president – Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud. Not only will they have to rebuild Somalia’s institutions and infrastructure, they will also have to inspire and educate their populace about the various rights and privileges they were denied under al-Shabaab.
Most of the artists’ work supports this effort as their work not only depicts the country’s violent past but also hope for the future.
Some artists say an empty canvas can be a very intimidating thing – but Ahmed Mohamed Mudey knows exactly what he wants to paint today.
“There will be a man putting in soil for the tree on one side and on the other side there will be a woman watering it. It shows the government is growing and we want Somalis to see that,’said Mudey.
Clearly, times have changed. The project’s members have placed over 20 paintings in parts of Mogadishu for drivers and passersby to see.
Many of these places were no-go areas until al-Shabaab fled the capital and much of central and southern Somalia, under pressure from the Somali National Security Forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia or AMISOM.
“This painting has great importance and you can see it from the title. It says all people are equal before the law and that means the MPs, the president, the ministers and ordinary people are all equal before the law,’said artists Mohamed Tohow.
Tohow’s painting has just been mounted in Waberi District, near a busy taxi park. It doesn’t take long before people notice it and begin interpreting it’s underlying message.
“I think it means that everyone is equal before the law. The painting shows the police arresting an old man who looks responsible, but there’s something in his hand that he may have stolen or used to break the law. It means that if someone who looks respectable can be arrested and ordinary people can be arrested too,’said Abukar Ahmed Mohamed, a taxi driver.
There are still many threats to Somalia’s future, and the combined efforts that helped the country reach this point are needed now more than ever.
But this creative group of Somalis know that even when it seems like all hope is gone, all it may take is a simple brush to begin a revival.