On the occasion of Human Right’s Day, on December 10, 2013, the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) promoted four-days of artistic activism for human rights in Tripoli, Libya. In cooperation with local and international partners and with financial support from the European Union, OMCT convened educational, artistic workshops for children and youth, commissioned a huge graffiti mural on Al Saidi Street in Tripoli, as well as an original hip hop song, and held a conference on civil society’s fight against torture in Libya, movie screenings, and various musical concerts. On December 10, 2014, OMCT released a documentary film about these events, called “No to Torture – A Libyan Experience.” The film captures the hope and energy felt by artists and activists in Libya only one year ago.
In this continuing series of interviews, OMCT speaks with young artists, Libyan and non-Libyan, who participated in last year’s events. In these conversations, the artists remember and discuss their experiences at the Human Rights Day events, and how circumstances have changed in their lives, Libya, and the region as a whole, since then.
N°5: Aimen Ajhani aka El Bohly
(This interview has been edited for clarity)
El Bohly is one of the pioneers of graffiti in Libya. Originally from Misrata, he lived all his life in Tripoli until settling in Denmark and marrying the love of his life, a Danish girl he met while he was staying in the country for a project. Since then, he has concentrated on his artistic career and refined his calligraphy and graffiti skills. While he was still in Libya, he worked hard to develop the country’s graffiti culture, and now, from abroad, aims to prove to the world and his fellow-citizens that there is a vibrant art and graffiti scene in Libya.
What sort of memories do you have from last year’s events in Tripoli?
It was a great experience actually, and I remember it often because we did something big, bigger than any other project I have ever done before. I think we created the first big wall of graffiti in Tripoli [on Al Saidi Street]. It was an amazing experience to work with young Libyan artists, and meet Gharbi again [Tunisian artist Moeen Gharbi aka Meen One] and Ammar and Nadia [Egyptian artist Ammar Abo Bakr and Tunisian artist Nadia Khiari]. With the Tawergha kids from the IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camp, we did a lot of stuff, in a short time. It was amazing, and somehow felt like a mixing of cultures. I also enjoyed working with the OMCT team.
What meaning do the graffiti pieces you made for last year’s events have and why did you choose to paint them?
I created three owls with Fatma’s hand: speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil. In my culture, the owl is a sign of bad luck, while Fatma’s hand is a symbol for protecting people from the evil eye.
We, as Libyans, are surrounded by bad luck – well, actually, I don’t know it we are surrounded by bad luck or bad people. The owls are the Libyan people, and Fatma’s hand represents their culture, which prevents them from expressing their opinions. I feel that Libyans do not want to see the violence, the torture, and do not want to speak or hear about it. It is the culture and politics that have made them like this. It has taught them to step away and act like they haven’t seen others do bad things. No one is trying to do something; everyone is afraid.
What is the meaning of December 10 for you and how are you engaged in support of human rights in your country this year?
I knew about the significance of December 10 before, but I didn’t think much of it because, in Libya, I felt it was pointless to think about human rights when there were no human rights. It is wonderful to be able to claim your rights, but in Libya we haven’t had this opportunity, even after the revolution. In this way, things have remained the same.
Nevertheless, when I was in Libya, I was still trying to push for freedom of speech through graffiti. During Muammar Gaddafi’s time, I made some small stencils but I wasn’t brave enough to do more. At that time, whenever you bought spray paint, they would ask for your ID number, and note the colors you purchased, in case you ended up writing something on the walls.
After the revolution, I was arrested five times, sometimes in the middle of the work and other times for no reason, before I even starting working. I was just painting and writing things against the system or something like that. Passers-by complained, and questioned what I was doing. In Libya, everyone is afraid of anything new. If someone is making a useless tag like “Misrata eagles” or “Lions of Zintan,” that is fine. But if you make a piece of art, they don’t understand it and think you are ruining the wall.
Ever since I moved to Denmark, I’ve been doing my work as an artist, and participating in events supporting human rights. Last May, I took part in a human rights forum with the European Union in Brussels. It was a nice experience. I spoke on a panel about the Libyan situation in terms of graffiti, human rights, and freedom of expression. I was the only artist invited. This year, I participated in the OMCT event in Tunis, jointly marking Human Rights Day in Tunisia and Libya. We made a new mural with other Libyan and Tunisian artists on the walls of a theater hall under restoration, “Cinévog.”
I am working on more political things nowadays. For example, I am in the process of creating a stencil about the new Mayor of Tripoli who is a big hypocrite. He used to live in Ireland and returned to Libya because he was not paying his taxes there. Now, he behaves like an educated person while, at the same time, paying to send youngsters to fight in Syria with the Islamists.
I am also thinking about doing something about the random bombings happening in Benghazi and Tripoli, but it will be an ironic piece.
What sort of artistic projects are you working on these days?
The immigrants’ museum in Denmark invited me to paint my life story on a wall inside the museum, as an immigrant artist working in the country. I am now completing this mural.
I will be also featured in a documentary about myself, Hadia Gana, a female Libyan artist living in France, and two other people. The film aims to highlight “successful” Libyans in Europe. It will be finished by the end of this year. I spent a week working with a journalist, documenting my life, for the film.
Finally, I’ve been invited to participate in the “Contemporary Arab Culture Shubbak Festival” in London next July and am excited to get to work there with El Seed [the renowned Tunisian-French calligrapher and graffiti artist].
My main goal is to keep spreading the message that there is an art and graffiti scene in Libya. I really want the young people in Libya to start taking action. Most of the graffiti writers are like the walking dead right now. They are not doing anything, and I know, first hand, how bad that feels. The environment is not motivating them or pushing them forward. It’s just pulling them down. I hope to be an example for these artists, to help them overcome their difficult situation.