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 the 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°7: Nadia Khiari aka Willis from Tunis
(This interview has been edited for clarity)
Willis from Tunis is a facetious, satirical cat that has been criticizing Tunisian news since the early days of the revolution. In Tunisia, Willis has tens of thousands of fans and
followers on social networks. Willis’s creator is Nadia Khiari, artist, cartoonist, and plastic arts teacher, who is also a passionate activist.
In addition to participating in the December 2013 event in Tripoli, Nadia took part in another OMCT event in Benghazi in June 2013, which resulted in a mural against torture in the city.
What expectations did you have about Libya before you visited the country and how was your experience there?
I had absolutely no idea about Libya, except what I saw on TV. But I was ready to go and see what was really taking place on the ground.
Before I went, I had a little insight into the country thanks to Malik L, a Libyan rapper I met one year earlier in Mexico at the World Summit of the Indignant. Before going to Libya, I asked Malik some questions about the security situation, because in 2013 things in the country were already quite tense.
Malik L and I had previously discussed our experiences, especially “artivism,” him with music and me with cartooning. We believed we could do something together at some point. We also believed we could connect with people on the ground through graffiti, because it is in the streets, and through music, because it touches people, especially the youth who know Malik L’s music and lyrics well.
I am always looking for new experiences and I thought going to Libya for the OMCT event would be particularly intense. I wasn’t wrong. I will remember it all my life! I must say though I am clearly a bit of a daredevil; while in Libya, I painted alone on the streets of Benghazi on the wall of the headquarters of a revolutionary militia.
What sort of memories do you have from last year’s events in Benghazi and Tripoli?
As I mentioned, I was alone while completing my mural in Benghazi, although I was accompanied by the OMCT team, as well as members of the militia. Everything went well, but it was still difficult security-wise, much more than in Tripoli.
I also have strong memories of Malik L’s concert in Benghazi. It was great to see youngsters attending, as we did not expect them to come or for there to be such a large audience for the performance. They knew all the lyrics to Malik L’s songs and started to sing along with him.
Other rappers participated in the event and they were enormously successful, as well. Malik L told me he never imagined he could do a concert like that in Benghazi, with the
ongoing lack of security. He wished he could do more and organize other events of that kind because the youth were craving it. Indeed, when I spoke with young people from Benghazi or from Tripoli, I realized there were absolutely no cinemas, no libraries, no theaters. They didn’t even have cafés in which to gather. The only thing they had was the Internet, to follow what is happening elsewhere. They were very aware of what was going on and crazy about hip hop culture.
In Tripoli, it was great to meet young graffiti artists. Above all, what I remember the most is that as soon as I arrived and started to paint, the Tawergha children from the IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camp came over. They saw me drawing the cats and immediately took hold of the brushes and paint, and began painting the mural themselves. I
had wanted to participate in the OMCT event to share and encourage engagement. When I saw them painting and writing, I knew I had achieved my goal.
In the afternoon, I participated in drawing workshops with the children, which were great. Each of them drew from their own perspective. It was impressive to see such young children so mentally mature. At the beginning, they were a bit shy and I had to make them feel comfortable. I told myself the best way to do this was to draw them one by one, and indeed this fostered interaction and made them feel more at ease. We exchanged our drawings; it established a much more interesting relationship, based on trust.
What meaning do the graffiti pieces you made for last year’s events have and why did you choose to paint them?
In Tripoli, I made a mural with a message, with my cats, that was very simple and direct against torture and in favor of respecting human rights.
In Benghazi, I spoke with members of the militia to get their views on torture. In fact, they gave me the messages I wrote on the walls. I asked them: “What do you think about torture and what would you like to have written on your wall?” I wrote their responses down in my notebook and together we decided what to paint.
Militia members were not against these messages. In fact, one of them told me “we are against torture because we suffered from it under Gaddafi, we know what it is, and if we practice it too, we will not be better than Gaddafi.”
I don’t know what happened to the mural afterwards, whether the militia kept it or erased it. The wall was also facing an area controlled by Ansar el-Sharia whose members told us “There is no problem with torturing. What is the problem?” Other people in the street, passers-by or militia members, did not really understand the mural’s message.
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 believe every day should be Human Rights Day. I do what I can, and participating in the OMCT’s events last year was part of it.
I remember, when I was leaving Tripoli, I had to pass by some policemen before boarding my flight. They noticed me because I looked and dressed differently from other people. They started to talk with me, asking me what I had been doing in Libya. These policemen told me they needed human rights and they congratulated me for what I was doing.
Back in Tunis, I received the same question from Tunisian policemen, wondering what I had been doing in Libya. When I said I was there to celebrate Human Rights Day, one of them said, “but if you go to Libya to defend human rights, who will defend my rights here in Tunisia?” I could see they were sensitive to the cause, even if there was some humor in their delivery.
My goal is to talk about human rights, even if it may seem ridiculous. While, for some people, human rights may be a given, for many others it is not. We take human rights for granted, and are very far from achieving it, particularly in Libya.
What sort of artistic projects are you working on these days?
I continue every day to follow what is happening in my country and elsewhere. It is true that in Tunisia, the situation is better than in Libya and that we are in a democratic laboratory of sorts.
Personally, I would rather say Tunisia is under construction. A “lab” gives the image of something anti-septic and very clean. We are more of a messy construction site.
Even though there is much hard work ahead, I think if we continue to stay watchful and engaged, we can achieve something in Tunisia. On the contrary, if we succumb to a kind of lethargy, thinking there were elections and everything is done, we will be making a big mistake.
Every day, I make almost one cartoon of Willis, but it depends also on the period. For example, for the recent presidential elections, there were 27 candidates. I created caricatures of all of them, three per day.
I work a lot so I don’t have much time, but whenever I have some time – and inspiration – I publish cartoons. There are so many things to do, but it is what I like.
I am also preparing an exhibition in February at the Contemporary Art Fair of Lille in France. My exhibit will be more focused on “street art” style than press cartoons. It will include the cat Willis, but in a more sophisticated way. I will also have a personal exhibition in a gallery next June.