Artists in Somalia are taking advantage of a small window of freedom that opened when Al-Shabab abandoned Mogadishu. They create giant canvases to be displayed on the streets and meant to give people hope.
MOGADISHU, Somalia -- The guerrilla artists come out in the darkness of the Mogadishu night. Three of them are old hands with a brush, but they've never been out on such a crazy mission at a time when sensible people stay indoors.
They gather for work in a converted garage, with a wildly paved floor and clutter of paint pots dribbling gaudy colors. Muhiyidin Sharif Ibrahim, 62, uses an old car seat as a chair, reflectively sharpening a pencil with a razor, then honing it to a perfect point by scraping it on the stone floor. He delicately sketches out his next work on a scrap of cardboard with his long, thin fingers.
The artists paint by daylight, then load the canvases on a big truck and, with the help of students they've taken under their wing, plant them around the city.
No one here has seen anything like it. The political paintings that pop up every few days are like brave flags, cheeky and revolutionary.
They take potshots at the most dangerous people, like Somalia's blood-sodden clan warlords and its ever-present Islamic militants.
The men have lived their lives in a country with no tradition of artistic freedom or democracy. When a tiny window of freedom cracked open in recent months in Mogadishu, it seemed like a last chance to be who they really wanted to be.
Ibrahim, who once was among Somalia's most famous artists, claims to have painted the first official portrait of the country's first president. Adan Farah Affey, 50, started as a young artist in the propaganda department of the ruling party but resigned because he wasn't allowed to depict the truth. As for Mohamed Ali Tohow, 57, his real passion was portraits, but he enjoyed his job painting billboards until the day the Islamists threatened to kill him.
The walls of their garage studio are decked out with giant canvases, ready to hang in the streets of the capital. One depicts a crowded city street with men on bicycles or pushing wheelbarrows, women in traditional Somali dress and buildings free of bullet holes.
Another depicts a rural woman with a generous basket of fruit, a pretty red necklace and a wisp of hair straying idly from under her head scarf. There's an undercurrent of socialist realism in its idyllic vision of rural womanhood and agricultural bounty. But the woman's lush beauty would be enough to get an artist killed if it was displayed in an area controlled by Al-Shabab, the Al-Qaida-linked militia that until recently imposed a reign of terror on Mogadishu and still controls much of the country's south. Al-Shabab believes women must be fully covered in billowing garments.
As Mogadishu slowly staggered back onto its feet, a nongovernmental organization, the Center for Research and Dialogue, developed a plan to commission artists to paint posters promoting peace, and provide support for their work.
Ahmed Adde, 45, was given the task of tracking down well-known artists. Adde, an artist himself, didn't know whether they were alive, dead or had fled. When he got in touch with them, they tried to brush him off.
"The old man was afraid," Adde says, referring to Ibrahim. "Actually, we were all afraid. We were reluctant."
Still, Ibrahim says he is optimistic. "I want to return to my career," he says. "I want to show the people how bad the troubles were and how bad the wars were and how bad it is when everything's destroyed."
After years of war, famine and plunder by warlords, radical Islamists began to emerge around 2000, including groups that later morphed into Al-Shabab. In some cases, the Islamic leaders improved security. But after a while, their harsh punishments and rigid social control made them unpopular.
When Al-Shabab abandoned Mogadishu a year ago, the artists cautiously emerged, looking for jobs painting advertising murals.
Despite the risks they take with their guerrilla art, the three men have more freedom than they have ever known.
"We can paint. We can draw. If you go into the street you can see what we did," Tohow says. "Of course, something could easily happen to us. We heard some assassinations are taking place. But it's better than it was."
"It's like you've been dead and you're back to life again," Affey says.