MOGADISHU, Somalia — The guerrilla artists come out in the darkness of the Mogadishu night. Three of them are old hands with a brush, but they’ve never been out on such a crazy mission at a time when sensible people stay indoors.
They gather for work in a converted garage, with a wildly paved floor and clutter of paint pots dribbling gaudy colors. Muhiyidin Sharif Ibrahim, 62, uses an old car seat as a chair, reflectively sharpening a pencil with a razor, then honing it to a perfect point by scraping it on the stone floor. He delicately sketches out his next work on a scrap of cardboard with his long, thin fingers.
The artists paint by daylight, then load the canvases on a big truck and, with the help of students they’ve taken under their wing, plant them around the city.
No one here has seen anything like it. The political paintings that pop up every few days are like brave flags, cheeky and revolutionary.
They take potshots at the most dangerous people, like Somalia’s blood-sodden clan warlords and its ever-present Islamic militants, who still maintain a shadowy presence here.
The men have lived their lives in a country with no tradition of artistic freedom or democracy. When a tiny window of freedom cracked open in recent months in Mogadishu, it seemed like a last chance to be who they really wanted to be.
Ibrahim, who once was among Somalia’s most famous artists, claims to have painted the first official portrait of the country’s first president. Adan Farah Affey, 50, started out as a young artist in the propaganda department of the ruling party but resigned because he wasn’t allowed to depict the truth. As for Mohamed Ali Tohow, 57, his real passion was portraits, but he enjoyed his day job, painting advertising billboards, until the day the Islamists threatened to kill him.
The walls of their garage studio are decked out with giant canvases, ready to hang in the streets of the capital. One depicts a crowded city street with men on bicycles or pushing wheelbarrows, women in traditional Somali dress, buildings free of bullet holes and destruction, and a giant yellow sun like a beach ball. Its message is peace.
Another depicts a rural woman with a generous basket of fruit, a pretty red necklace and a wisp of hair straying idly from under her head scarf. There’s an undercurrent of socialist realism in its idyllic vision of rural womanhood and agricultural bounty. But the woman’s lush beauty would be enough to get an artist killed if it was displayed in an area controlled by the Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked militia that until recently imposed a reign of terror on Mogadishu and still controls much of the country’s south. The Shabab believes women must be fully covered in billowing garments.
As Mogadishu slowly staggered back onto its feet, a nongovernmental organization, the Center for Research and Dialogue, developed a plan to commission its artists to paint posters promoting peace, and provide support for their work.
Ahmed Adde, 45, was given the task of tracking down the well-known artists from the old days. Adde, an artist himself, didn’t know whether they were alive, dead or had fled. When he got in touch with them, they tried to brush him off.
“The old man was afraid,” Adde says, referring to Ibrahim. “Actually, we were all afraid. We were reluctant.”
“I’ve seen their trouble, how they’re harassing people and killing people,” Ibrahim breaks in, referring to the Shabab, which still carries out regular suicide bombings and political assassinations in Mogadishu, even though it has fled the city.
Still, Ibrahim says he is optimistic. “I want to return to my career,” he says, offering his shy, gap-toothed smile like a gift. “I want to show the people how bad the troubles were and how bad the wars were and how bad it is when everything’s destroyed. That’s the message we’re going to send to people.”
Ibrahim never finished high school, but was plucked from obscurity as a talented artist, given a post in the government’s Information Ministry and promoted because of his abilities.
He was 19 when Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, or Comrade Siad, as he was known, seized power. The dictator’s cult of personality meant there was plenty of work for artists, who would paint him in Stalinist poses, looking serious and stately, or laughing, or holding children and looking paternal. But artistic freedom was a mirage.
“I painted Barre hundreds of times. There had to be a portrait of him in every office. People were constantly coming saying, ‘I want a portrait of the president,’” Ibrahim says. “You had to be careful. You had to try to make him as handsome as possible. You had to paint him looking elegant. You could not show any signs of age.
“You’d attempt it many times. Before you showed people, you had to check it again and again.”
After Barre was ousted in 1991, all semblance of governance disappeared, clan warlords held sway, and the only way to make a living was to paint shop-front signs and advertisements. A transition government controlled little territory. Then came the Shabab, which won control of most of the country in 2009 and banned the depiction of the living form as un-Islamic.
Ibrahim went into hiding, but in secret he kept painting his favorite subject, camels, which in Somali’s oral poetic tradition have always represented nationhood: tough, independent and willful. He worked in a little room at home, hiding his art, which he covertly sent to friends overseas.
“I had to do it. I had a will and a passion to draw. It’s something that comes from the heart,” he says.
Affey practiced and practiced drawing as a boy. It was only when people began praising his work that he realized he was an artist. He got a job as a political cartoonist in the propaganda department of Barre’s Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party, but didn’t last long. When he tried to lampoon the problems of clanism and nepotism, he was ordered to stop. He resigned and tried farming for a while.
After the collapse of the state in 1991, he barely eked out a living drawing political cartoons for magazines, and says his marriage failed because there was never any money.
From then on, artists worked on a knife edge.
“We were free to do posters and draw cartoons, but you had to be very careful not to insult somebody,” says his colleague, Tohow. “I had to consider what I was doing.”
After years of war, famine and plunder by warlords, radical Islamists began to emerge around 2000, including groups that later morphed into the Shabab. In some cases, the Islamic leaders improved security. But after a while, their harsh punishments and rigid social control made them unpopular.
“When the Shabab came, I had to shut my door and work in secret because they were killing people,” Affrey says. “I was so scared. At the time, staying alive was all that mattered. The Shabab was against artists and intellectuals.”
Roadblocks around the city were manned by trigger-happy militias, mostly teenagers. Under the warlords and later the Shabab, youths were associated with sudden, unpredictable violence.
“If you saw a youth, you’d feel frightened,” Affey says. “A young guy who you’d never believe could kill you, could just come and assassinate you.”
In 1997 in the central town of Galkayo, an artist painting a billboard was dragged down and beheaded because his work gave offense to a religious sheik. The man had been Tohow’s teacher.
In 2000, Tohow narrowly escaped the same fate. He and others had depicted a woman on a billboard clad in the traditional rural Somali style, her shoulders and neck showing. A group of religious men ordered him to take it down.
“They came to me and said, ‘If we see this hanging again we’ll arrest you,’ so we decided to turn the billboard over. It scared me so much because I knew these people were against artists and poetry. It showed me how easily they could come and kill me.”
When the Shabab abandoned Mogadishu a year ago, the artists cautiously emerged, looking for jobs painting advertising murals on small shops and businesses.
“I came out of hiding … but people didn’t know me anymore,” Ibrahim says. “They’d forgotten me.”
Despite the risks they take with their guerrilla art, the three men have more freedom than they have ever known.
“We can paint. We can draw. If you go into the street you can see what we did,” Tohow says. “Of course, something could easily happen to us. We heard some assassinations are taking place. But it’s better than it was.”
“It’s like you’ve been dead and you’re back to life again,” Affey says.
The artists know they won’t be around forever. So they are training a new generation, apprentices who also provide a lot of the muscle power to put up the canvases at night. The older men find themselves sharing paint pots with the kind of young men who once terrified them, like Suleyman Yusuf, 20, who never went to school, but is one of their best students.
Yusuf was paid $2 a day as a member of a militia in Mogadishu from 2009 to 2011 and manned a checkpoint.
“Everyone was afraid of people at the checkpoint because we had guns and we could shoot at them at any time. It made you feel powerful. At the time, I believed I was the most powerful man in the city. It felt good to have that kind of power.”
Now that Mogadishu is more peaceful, Yusuf is hoping to work as a commercial artist after training with Ibrahim, Affey and Tohow.
“I feel great when I’m with them and they’re showing me what to do. We learn how they mix paint and how human beings’ faces are shaped. We’re improving and later we will be able to do what they do.”
Affey believes he can help change Yusuf, and others like him, by teaching him.
“For art, you have to focus. Art teaches you about life. You’re drawing life, so you can’t just go and kill someone. If you want to be an artist, you have to learn to be gentle and wise.”
The teachers, Yusuf says, have taught him respect.
“If I didn’t admire them, I wouldn’t bother to turn up. These are the only guys I have ever really admired.”