The words “the martyrs did not die in vain”, chalked on the gallery floor, have been scuffed by visitors’ feet; but not enough, apparently.
Nessrin Gebreel, one of the two founders of the new Noon arts collective, tells me that the intention of the artist, Hadia Gana, was that the letters would fade altogether during the course of the exhibition – that that was part of her point. She hadn’t expected the visitors to treat it with such respect. After all, it’s scattered around with rubbish – well, what appears to be rubbish. Close up, it’s plaster casts of crisp packets, drinks cans, and plastic bags, printed with the faces of the martyrs of the Libyan conflict. The title of the installation is “picnic” – the message that, now the revolution and war is over, it’s time to clean the country up.
The first show which Gebreel and Noon’s co-founder Najlaa El-Ageli have arranged in London hints at another side of the revolution’s aftermath: the beginnings of a new and compelling contemporary arts scene. “It was a creative revolution as much as a political one,” Gebreel told Middle East LDN. “There were so many creative people who came out onto the streets.” El-Ageli added that the lifting of artistic and cultural restrictions from the Gaddafi era have provoked an outpouring of new art – and if Noon’s first show is anything to go by, a lot of it is very exciting.
There are the etchings of Muktar Alshreif, which El-Ageli came across by chance being sold on the street in Tripoli; the striking photographs of Faten Baaba, and the colourful modern paintings of Mohammed Albadri, Yousef Fetis and Najla Shawket Fitouri. The show also includes both paintings and sculpture from Mohammed Bin Lamin, an artist imprisoned during the revolution who used to make sculptures in his cell, and Naziha Arebi’s powerful documentary short about an elderly Libyan woman who risked her life to sew rebel flags for her grandchildren.
The art and the stories depicted in ‘The Libyan’ exhibition are striking – despite the echoes of conflict and repression, they also leave behind a strong sense of optimism. As Gebreel and El-Ageli both agree, one of the best things about the exhibition has been the chance to showcase a positive side of events in Libya, outside of the political sphere. And they also agree that this show will be the first of many efforts by Noon to bring a glimpse of Libya’s fascinating new art scene to London.