The End of Censorship Releases Explosion of Street Art
LIBYA FREE, two words that captured the spirit of a revolution, one that started two years ago with a ‘Day of Rage,’ February 17, 2011. For the first time in decades, Libyans were at liberty to express their free will. With Gaddafi’s regime gone so went any possibility of censorship. There would be no more reprisals against those who chose to oppose him in public. Suddenly there was space for an independent media, for people to speak their mind and express creativity in any way they desired. Artists across Libya rose up alongside the rebellion’s fighters. They put their talents on public display using boundary walls or building facades as their canvas. The works were sometimes sophisticated, at other times basic and raw, but always the point was clear – we are free now the tyrant has gone.
They struck me the moment I first arrived, with several painted along the route from Mitiga airport to central Tripoli. Whitewashed walls shadowing the main coast road were covered in murals celebrating Gaddafi’s downfall. Many showed Libya’s new red, black and green striped flag, flying proudly alongside those of nations deemed to have helped end over four decades of despot rule. They came with misspelled English slogans screaming out, ‘Browd to be Libyan, my love is back’ and ‘End of a dictator, Libya is free’. Others depicted Gaddafi as a rat, running from NATO bombs or being crushed by rebel tanks.
I loved what I saw. Some real talent was on show, and free for all to view. For me they represented an important historical narrative, one deserving of permanent record their original form couldn’t guarantee given their street-side positions and accessibility to all. It seemed inevitable they’d be removed someday, so I started taking photos wherever I saw them, collecting images from towns throughout the country in the twelve months following Gaddafi’s capture and death.
My travels during that time took me the length of Libya’s coast and through much of its eastern desert. I visited the revolutionary hotbeds of Zintan and Misrata, operating like city-states in the post-Gaddafi era. I was detained by militia in Tripoli, robbed at gunpoint in the Sahara, and forced to take cover in a Benghazi hotel as protestors stormed the lobby. I walked through breathtaking Roman ruins, saw the oldest mosque in North Africa, and paid my respects at deserted, pristine World War II cemeteries outside Tobruk. The desert became a second home, with vast areas pancake flat and at times overwhelming, stark against the staggering scale of Great Sand Sea dunes.
Throughout it all, the revolution’s murals were a constant theme, uniting each location I visited and every trip to the country I made. Libya’s artists were inspired by this spirit of unity and their works motivated me to record them on camera. As insecurity continues there, amidst a still uncertain political future in a newly fractured Libya, my hope is this record remains to remind us all of the freedom its people fought for and those lives lost along the way.