In Somalia, rare female artist promotes images of peace
Among the once taboo professions emerging from decades of conflict and Islamic extremism in Somalia is the arts, and a 21-year-old female painter has faced more opposition than most.
A rare woman artist in the very conservative Horn of Africa nation, Sana Ashraf Sharif Muhsin lives and works amid the rubble of her uncle’s building which was partially destroyed during Mogadishu’s war years.
Despite challenges which include the belief of some Muslims that Islam prohibits all portrayal of people and the search for paintbrushes and other materials for her work, she is optimistic.
“I love my job and I believe that I can contribute to the reconstruction and the pacification of my country,” she said.
According to Abdi Mohamed Shu’ayb, art professor at the National University of Somalia, Sana stands out for his ability to break the gender barrier to enter a predominantly male profession. She is just one of two women artists he knows in Somalia, the other in the breakaway region of Somaliland.
And yet, Sana is unique “because her works capture contemporary life in a positive way and seek to build reconciliation,” he said, calling her a national hero.
Sana, a civil engineering student, began drawing at the age of 8, following in the footsteps of her maternal uncle, Abdikarim Osman Addow, a renowned artist.
“I would use charcoal on all the walls in the house, sketching out my view of the world,” Sana said with a laugh. More formal instructions followed, and she eventually assembled a book from her sketches of household items like a shoe or a water jug.
But as her work gained her more public attention over the years, tensions followed.
“I fear for myself sometimes,” she said, recalling a confrontation at a recent exhibition at the University of the City of Mogadishu. A student started shouting “This is wrong! And the teachers tried to calm him down, explaining that art is an important part of the world.
Many people in Somalia don’t understand the arts, Sana said, and some even criticize them as disgusting. At exhibitions, she tries to convey that art is useful and “a weapon that can be used for many things”.
A teacher once put her skills to the test by asking questions and demanding answers in the form of a drawing, she said.
“Everything that is done is drawn first, and what we do is not the dress but something that changes your internal emotions,” Sana said. “Our paintings speak to people.”
His work sometimes explores the social issues that rock Somalia, including a painting of a soldier looking at the ruins of the country’s first parliament building. This reflects the current political clash between the federal government and the opposition, she said, as national elections are delayed.
Another painting reflects the abuse against vulnerable young women “whom they cannot even express”. A third shows a woman in an off-the-shoulder dress popular in Somalia decades ago before a stricter interpretation of Islam took hold and academics urged women to wear the hijab.
But Sana also longs for beauty in her work, realizing that “we have been through 30 years of destruction, and people only see bad things, having blood, destruction and explosions in their minds. … If you Google Somalia, we don’t there are no beautiful pictures there, but ugly ones, so I would like to change all that using my paintings. “
Sana said she hopes to gain more confidence in her work by exposing it more widely, beyond the events in Somalia and neighboring Kenya.
But finding models at home for her profession is not easy.
Sana has named several Somali artists whose work she admires, but she does not know any other woman like her.