Can’t stay away from you too long
A conversation with Sagal Jibril about loving Somalia
While the world has been turning the blind eye to the hot and remote desert-lands of Somalia for years, the recent end of a 20-year long conflict has aroused hope and optimism. Relatively speaking Somalis are experiencing the most peaceful period in decades, which has installed new energy and life in the capital Mogadishu. Small businesses are shooting up, diasporas are returning from abroad to take part in the re-building of the country and economy, restoration of roads and buildings has begun, and last year even saw the first post-civil war music festival go down in Mogadishu.
The civil war lasted for so long that young Somalis do not have any memory or images of what was before the conflict. War and hunger torn photos dominate the overall visual representation of Somalia, and the pre-war days seem to be only a vague and distant memory. The blog, Vintage Somalia, pays tribute to the heydays of the nation celebrating the old glory within architecture, social life, art, fashion, music etc. Back then Mogadishu was a beautiful city with a buzzing social life, vibrant music scene and an active art scene. Unfortunately, 20 years of chaos left all of this in ruins.
But even in ruins and decay beauty prevails and optimism rises. Sagal Jibril, a young Somali-Canadian photography enthusiast working in the field of human rights, has since her first return to her home country in 2012 been documenting developments and accomplishments in Somalia. Based in Kampala she travels back and forth, documenting cities and social life in Somalia, and shares them on her blog Msafiri.
One of the things that captures the eye reviewing photos on Vintage Somalia and Msafiri, is that, despite years of war, devastation and starvation, the old grandeur and greatness of Mogadishu can still be traced. Although bombed beyond recognition, one cannot help but notice that this was once a place of greatness and beauty. Sagal Jibril captures this vintage grandeur as well as the beauty and blossoming social life in both Mogadishu and Hargeisa in her photos giving audiences a view into a country that suffers from poor and negative representations.
Over the last months we have had a correspondence with Sagal about a selection of her photos, as well as her experiences and takes on various issues regarding contemporary Somalia. It’s not often one get to see fresh and refreshing photos from this neglected country, so we are happy to share both Sagal’s photos and her fascinating insights with you.
Many of your photos embody the old greatness and beauty of Mogadishu as well as life after the civil war. They capture the decay, but also the hope and new spirit that seems to evaporate life in the capital these days. How do you see the city bouncing back at street level in Mogadishu? Can you mention some particular examples or experiences?
I visited Mogadishu for the first time in 2012 and have since gone back five times. Every time I returned, I was in awe with all the changes taking places on a street level.
Amidst the years of destruction and intense poverty there was character and beauty. I encountered a hopeful environment that I saw immediately, through my interactions with youth, elders or even people who lived abroad and who returned to the country.
I was able to find inspiration for my photos from the bustling markets of Mogadishu, which is dominated by female run businesses, the sandy beaches of Liido and Jazeera where children played freely (especially on Fridays), vibrant street illustrations (i.e. murals, street signs, logos of businesses etc.) and construction taking place almost everywhere in the city.
The changes were very apparent in my subsequent visits to Mogadishu; traffic police are back on the roads, the airport was re-modelled, old historic monuments were re-erected, new cafes and restaurants were established which has become the hang out spot for many of the youth. The social scene has really picked up.
Through my street culture photos, I was able to record fragments of the old Mogadishu and recognize the change of the rising Mogadishu.
It is great to get a sense of Mogadishu’s vibe through your photos and words. Since our last correspondence, there have been new bombings in Mogadishu. Despite of the developments and hope, the country is constantly set back by these sudden attacks. How does the Somali people cope with this ambivalent and insecure state of the country, and how does it affect the otherwise blossoming social life?
Unfortunately, there has been an increase in major attacks and hit-and-run grenade attacks over the past few weeks. These series of attacks have intimidated Somali people and their everyday routines. Despite the violence, there has been rapid reconstruction and development and activities in the city, which certainly brings an increased level of optimism to the residents – an optimism that can be felt when interacting with people in the streets of Mogadishu. Relatively speaking, the city is experiencing its most peaceful time in years, and there is a renewed sense of an atmosphere of hope.
The sporadic strikes certainly affect the economic and social order of the city, while creating a sense of fear and apprehension. Though total peace has not been achieved as of yet, Somalis quickly return to the markets and their businesses as they had done in the past 24 years of civil strife. These strikes do not dampen the resilience and morale of the Somali people, and it just seems that the residents of Mogadishu are determined to participate and contribute in rebuilding their city. Moreover, there is a general sense that the Alshabab terrorists have been defeated militarily and are now breathing their last gasps of air.
It has been a long, painful and tragic march from anarchy along a dark tunnel, and there will be some setbacks along the way, nevertheless, there is a renewed optimism that the future is promising.
I am also very curious to hear your experience of the art scene in the capital. As you mention street art seems quite prevalent, which must mean that there’s a pool of artists and creatives in the Somali capital. Literature is the strongest and most renowned form of expression in Somali culture, but what is your take on Somali visual art? Any artists you would like to share with us?
The expression of daily life through art has been a constant feature in Somali heritage and as you mention, the use of literature has been the most renowned form of expression, as well as music. Nevertheless, the visual art scene in Mogadishu has witnessed a steady rise in popularity. Perhaps one of the most prominent visual representations of artistic expression is through graffiti; people demonstrate their daily life, politics, hopes and dreams on the walls lining the streets.
Mogadishu’s arts scene has been picking up pace in the last year or so, which is really cool to see. Somali people posses a very rich culture and the country enjoyed the talents of many artists, poets and musicians prior to the civil war. People had a very strong appreciation for drawings, paintings, photos, printmaking, beautiful crafts and bold architecture but that idea of art somehow got lost along the way in the chaos of the civil war. Additionally, in recent years radical groups with distorted views banned all forms of artistic expression on the false pretext that art is un-Islamic, conveniently discounting the fact that there is such a genre of art dubbed Islamic art.
Now that the city is relatively safer, a few artists are back on the streets using namely paintings and drawings for advertisements, civic engagement and promoting peace. Muhiyidin Sharif Ibrahim, Mohamed Ali Tohow, Ahmed Mohamed Mudey and others have created artwork along Maka Al Mukaram road near Kilometer 4, which is one of the busiest streets in the city. There are also a few of their works near famous monuments and inside ministries.
What I think is missing from this emerging arts and cultural sector is photographic interpretations of life in Mogadishu, a new generation of young artists and collaboration between Mogadishu artist and Somali artists in the diaspora. The other missing link is an educational institution dedicated to the pedagogy of art such as fine art, graphic design, literature and music.
On your most recent blog post of photos from Mogadishu, you write “Can’t stay away from you too long”. Do you wish to return to Somalia permanently? And if so, which role do you picture for yourself in Mogadishu in the future?
Although I was born abroad, I have always had plans to move to Somalia someday. My recent travels there have been positive and I have gained invaluable experience. As a result, I am more open to the possibility of moving there even sooner. Until then, I am hoping to explore other parts of Somalia. There is a lot more to see and experience than just glorious Mogadishu.
A business-woman, for sure! Somalia is filled with new business optimism right now and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. I would like to get into manufacturing, agriculture or even tourism to boost the economy and generate jobs for young people.
Aside from business, I am really interested in the arts and have an appreciation for photography that extends from childhood. I hope to continue this as my art expression and connect with artists and mentors to develop art spaces in Somalia without relying on foreign institutions. Somalia is an inspiring place and young people need spaces where they can think critically about arts and use it as a platform to evoke open dialogue on various topics, from identity to aspirations, from politics to peace and develop and nurture their artistic skills.
East Africa’s art scene is getting a lot of recognition globally. It would be great for young Somalis to contribute to Somali arts and join in on this evolving scene.
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