Libyan art, from the heart

Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan meet Libyan graffiti artist Adnan Al Gargani at his home in central Tripoli.

Over the last four weeks I have crisscrossed what feels like the whole of Libya, but in reality is probably only half of it.

The one constant in every town I have visited is the sometimes extraordinary, sometimes awful graffiti that covers every white wall.

After the fighting (and probably during it knowing the fearless nature of Libyans), graffiti artists took to the streets and painted.

They painted massive patriotic flags with slogans that encouraged the rebels.

They painted downright crude and wicked caricatures of the Gaddafi family and regime that compared them to, well, rats.

It’s worth remembering Gaddafi called the rebels rats.

But one piece really caught my eye.

Silhouetted against the red, green and black of the Libyan flag was a scarf-wearing protester, her eyes full of the promise of revolution.

Of all the probably thousands of pieces of graffiti I had seen this one really stood out.  It seemed to sum up Libyan hopes and dreams. 

I had to track down the artist. We began by asking around the neighbourhood. Someone must know who painted it, surely?

After a couple of hours we gave up. In keeping with the secretive nature of graffiti art, he had simply painted and gone.

But in between the travelling and the deadline pressure of delivering news stories I never forgot those eyes. 

After three weeks of fruitless calls I had given up hope of ever meeting the artist behind the mural.  

Then a breakthrough. A neighbour returned a phone call with a location. Twenty-eight days after first seeing the piece, I had found the person responsible.

I met Adnan Al Gargani at his home in central Tripoli. He’s a quiet unassuming man and to see him, in smart shirt, blue jeans and shoes, he is as far removed from the stereotypical, hooded, paint-stricken London graffiti artist as you can imagine.

I ask him how he came up with the idea for the painting. 

“I saw an image of a woman protesting in a magazine. She was Libyan, but she was out on the streets fighting for freedom, and it struck me. I had to paint it”

It seems the photo had struck Adnan as much as his painting of it struck me.

I then asked him about what life, and art, were like under Gaddafi.

“There was nothing, no freedom of expression. I was offered lots of money to do paintings of Gaddafi, but I couldn’t. I could have been rich, but no.”

Adnan lives a modest life. His studio is dotted with canvas, an easel sits in the corner. On his shelves sit model planes, cars, guitars.  Everything that suggests a restless and creative mind.

I watch as he patiently paints on canvas his mural I so admire.

I understand that many street art purists will balk at the idea that I had Adnan paint me his mural on canvas.

After all, the point of street art is its temporary nature. It’s on a wall one day, painted over the next day.

The same fate awaits Adnan’s work.  I know one day that Libya’s graffiti will be painted over. 

The bombed wrecks of its streets will be repaired, the bullet holes filled in.

So, to have one example I can keep of this revolutionary art, a reminder of what once was, is important, to me at least – if only to remind me of my time in Libya.

When the painting is finished I offer Adnan money, after all this is his job, and I appreciate his hard work and time. 

He flat out refuses. Instead, in broken English he says, “This is a gift from me.”

I am both embarrassed and touched. 

My friend jokes, “Libyan art… from the heart” 

I laugh along, I don’t know why.  It’s a terrible pun. But one that sums up the graffiti I have seen in the country: From the heart. 

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