For 21 years, Somalia was out of art. The country’s creative industries, once encouraged by the socialist regime’s constant demand for propaganda posters, ground to a halt when civil war broke out in 1991. Then, in 2009, al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab took control of capital city Mogadishu and declared art un-Islamic, punishable by death. Artists fled the city or went into hiding, took up other jobs and refused to talk about art.
Until January 2012, when government forces finally pushed al-Shabab’s militia out of the city. Since then, mysterious billboards have started to pop up on the streets of Mogadishu presenting hopeful scenes of everyday life, from buildings free of bullet holes to citizens lining up to pay their taxes. “We post them in the middle of the night, so people see them when they wake up in the morning,” says Jibril Ibrahim Abdulle, director of the Mogadishu-based Center for Research and Dialogue (CRD), which finances and supports the operation. “We use art as a peacebuilding mechanism. One of the reasons Somalis continue killing each other is that no effort was made to reach their inner feelings.”
But not every soul in Mogadishu is willing to be reached. The capital still shakes with suicide bombings and the center’s artists have received death threats from al-Shabab affiliates. Which is why none of the billboards are signed by their painters, says Abdulle: “We do not want these people to be followed home and killed.”
From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.