While the world watches the conflict in Libya and the attendant crisis, at El Sawy Culturewheel a group of Libyan activists have decided to present Egypt with an altogether different outcome – previously buried talent is finally emerging, out of the turmoil beautiful art is born.
The event began on Tuesday 21 June with a concert and videos at the Kelma Showroom (Word Hall), but an exhibition of Libyan caricatures, surreal art and photographs is ongoing until 25 June. Accofrding to Heba Bilal, one of the organisers, “We want to generate awareness, depict what is happening now and show how Libyans express themselves during the war.”
The opening also featured keynote speakers and poetry readings, with the highlight being a 45-minute performance by Guys Underground, a band that came straight from Benghazi, joined by Libyan rapper MC Swat. The band plays a mixture of rock styles, switching smoothly from powerful revolution songs to romance-infused lyrics incorporating both English and Arabic.
Among the songs they performed was "We Will Not Surrender (We Win or We Die)" in the memory of the Libyan martyr Ramy El-Kaleh, who wrote the lyrics of the song but died before seeing it released. During the performance a strong emotional aura filled the room, which was spontaneously accompanied by young children waving the revolutionaries’ flag. The band gathered momentum with each new number and, after MC Swat’s rap especially, the audience could not be more involved – clapping, singing along, moving to the beat, and asking for encores.
The band, which is finally enjoying the exposure of which the Libyan regime had deprived them, basked in the attention. All in their early twenties, the band had been deprived of a performance venue; according to Marwan Gargoum, the lead vocalist and bass player, it was practically impossible for them to find a studio in which to record their songs: “Internet was the only platform for bands in Libya.”
Gaddafi’s regime did not just kill people; it also killed their talent by purposefully depriving them of artistic outlets. The new culture and arts scene in Libya is a vital force for generating the freedom of expression needed to build a free country.
Back in the gallery, viewers enjoyed the caricatures and paintings, most of them inspired by the revolution. One corner was devoted to the memory of another martyr, Kais Al-Hilali, who fought with his paints and brushes instead of arms. A brave artist who lost his life for a cause, Hilali’s art took the form of satirical anti-Gaddafi graffiti and caricatures.
The exhibition reveals Libyan humour, which lives on in spite of the strife. Portraits of Libyan heroes and photographs of Libyan landmarks can also be seen, showing a different side of Libya to the one bombarding international news channels. Surrealism was represented by Mohamed Idris El Senussi, a 23-year-old Egyptian born Libyan.
The arts and culture scene in Libya can only improve from this point forward. “Art comes out of depression,” says Senussi, quoting his favourite writer Chuck Palahniuk. “And these people have been depressed for 42 years.” Surely great art can be expected of that.
Libyan art is on show at El Sawy Culturewheel until 25 June