By Denise Marray.
London, 24 November:
Libyan artist Hadia Gana is talking above the hubbub of a packed preview for the ‘The Libyan’ art exhibition at the Arab British Centre in London. At our feet is her art installation and all around us people are desperately trying to avoid stepping on it in the crush of the small venue.
Maybe that’s exactly the right atmosphere to understand her work ‘Zarda’ or ‘Picnic’ which tells a story on many levels. As she explained, the word ‘zarda’ is used to describe both a picnic and a chaotic or messy situation. When people go for a picnic, she said, they sit down a carpet or rug and neatly arrange the teapot and hamper. Then all around this space or ‘territory’ debris is often left discarded.
Look closely and you will see a poignant image emerge from what at first appears to be an ordinary, everyday scene. For the message inscribed in the cleared space is a slogan that became synonymous with the Libyan revolution: ‘The blood of the martyrs will not disappear’. The ceramic bottles ‘discarded’ around the picnic ‘carpet’ bear the names and photographs of those who sacrificed their lives for the revolution. For Gana, based in Tripoli, it has been a painful experience to see how their sacrifice has to some extent been exploited by those who treat them almost like a brand or commodity to further their own agendas.
“For me this work represents something that hurt me at certain points. These people are not goods or commodities – they are the children, brothers and sisters of people and we shouldn’t put labels on them or use them as brands,” she said. Her work rings out like a bell – warning people to treat them with respect. In this setting, where the ceramic pieces bearing their names are so vulnerable to the crowd surging around them, you can so how easily damage can be done, even unwittingly.
Prior to the revolution, Gana was not able to make political statements through her art, though she did create pieces that made social comment using images that could be interpreted on a dual level.
She is full of optimism about the future and sa “We are a young population of just six million people – so everyone has a responsibility to make things better.”
‘The Libyan’ exhibition is presented by Noon Arts with the support of the British Council and Arab British Centre. Noon Arts was set up by two enterprising art enthusiasts, Najlaa El-Ageli and Nessrin Gebreel. It was Najlaa who first had the inspiration to bring the work of Libyan artists to London and onto the international stage. In the spring of this year she was visiting the International Tripoli Fair which has a focus on industry and manufacturing when she came across a display of Libyan art. She got into conversation with artist Muktar Alshrief who said that he hadn’t exhibited his art in Libya for 35 years because of the political situation. Inspired by what she saw, El-Ageli sought out artists, visiting the Dar al Founon or Art House in Tripoli, a traditional gathering place for creative people.
The work of eight artists in the mediums of painting, photography, sculpture, film and art installation was eventually selected for the exhibition. Najlaa, whose parents are from Tripoli, was born in the United States where her father was studying. Her childhood was spent between Libya and the States. She describes herself as a ‘nomad’ having also lived in the UK, Italy and Spain. She is an architect by profession; she studied at the Architectural Association in London and worked in commercial and residential practices before setting up her own consultancy.
She has used her training to assist community projects in Egypt and Southern Libya, introducing the idea of sustainable building techniques.
She is married with one child and moves between London and Tripoli where her mother lives.
Her father left Libya, she said, because, “He was thinking of our future and education as everything was becoming very bad.” She recalled how as child she would be ‘dragged’ around art galleries across Europe. Her parents instilled in her from an early age an awareness of Libyan art which was displayed in their home.
Co-founder of Noon Arts and joint organiser of the exhibition is Nessrin Gebreel. She shares with El-Ageli a passion for art and design. Gebreel, whose mother is a textile designer, was born in Benghazi but left at the age of eight when her father, working in the public health sector in Tripoli became disillusioned with the political situation and moved to the US and subsequently to the UK.
Nessrin Gabreel did a degree in Environmental Biology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and after graduation went to Afghanistan in 1996 where she worked as a research assistant on a LSTM programme focusing on the decentralisation of the health system. “I was completely overwhelmed with the beauty of the country and the people,” she recalled, but was frustrated by the lack of funding to tackle the problems.
“When I came back I was determined to get into fund raising,” she said, and that led to a career with the Refugee Council and Amnesty International. Then a twist of fate set her on a totally unexpected path when she was asked by Amnesty to organise the global fund raising, marketing and press initiatives around the Eurythmics’ ’99 ‘Peacetour’. (All proceeds from the tour went to Amnesty International and Greenpeace). The famous duo Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (75 million record sales worldwide) were at the height of their fame and it was a big challenge. But for Gebreel, who had just been in Afghanistan, this was nothing to get fazed by – and that level-headed attitude was noticed by the Eurythmics manager, Simon Fuller.
Fuller is a British entrepreneur, artist manager and television producer who first came to prominence through his management of the pop group the Spice Girls. Famous names he currently manages include David and Victoria Beckham, Lewis Hamilton and Lisa Marie Presley. He created the hugely popular US talent show, American Idol. His charitable work through his ‘Idol Gives Back’ initiative raises millions for charities including Malaria No More and Save the Children.
Though Gebreel was initially unsure about stepping into the entertainment world, she did join Fuller’s senior management team and embarked on a decade of incredible experiences. She worked on American Idol and also managed David and Victoria Beckham for six years, including working with Victoria as she moved into the fashion industry and earned her reputation as a respected international designer.
“It was incredibly hard work but I had the most insane experiences – I laughed my way around the world!” she said.
Gebreel got married last year and is now based with her husband in Abu Dhabi. ‘The Libyan’ exhibition is an expression of her continuing passion for human rights and love of art. She currently does consultancy work with organisations such as Nomad Two Worlds which raises awareness of the rich cultural history of indigenous people world-wide.
For Gabreel and El-Ageli the exhibition means giving a platform to show the creative talent in Libya which has been suppressed for four decades. El-Ageli summed up the feeling when she related a comment made by the artist Mohammad Bin Lamin, who was imprisoned for several months during the February 17 Revolution at the infamous Abu Salim prison. He said, “For 42 years there were six million people in Libya and one person talking – now there are six million people talking!”
Artists at the exhibition included photographer Faten Baaba who said: “Before the revolution you hardly saw any women taking pictures and I was stopped various times by security asking why I was taking pictures and what I was going to use them for – so it was a bit difficult and dangerous. Now I notice there are so many photographers around – it’s time to show the world that there is art in Libya!”
Film maker Naziha Arebi, who graduated with a Masters in Screen from Central Saint Martins College of Art last year echoed that sentiment. She rushed to make the preview from the airport where she had just flown in from Doha, Qatar. Her short film ‘Granny’s Flags’ shows the contribution of ordinary people in supporting the revolution. “It’s a chance for people to find out what Libyan culture is all about .We’ve got a really rich artistic history and this exhibition is an extension of that tradition”, she said.
General National Congress Member, Halima A. Younis, visiting the UK with a delegation of Libyan MPs, was present at the preview. She commented that Libyan art and culture is an important part of the new Libya.