A symphony of colors plays on the burnt-out walls of an improvised gallery in the eastern city of Benghazi, where Libyan artists display an abstract mood in the wake of revolution and war.
Sculptures forged out of bullet casings and metal springs trace the silhouettes of soldiers in the courtyard of what was once a palace for King Idris I, whom Muammar Qaddafi deposed in a bloodless coup in 1969.
On the first landing of the seafront villa, which was set ablaze during the 2011 conflict that toppled Qaddafi, an oil painting captures the chiseled faces of Bedouin horsemen launching a charge in the desert.
Inside, wooden masks and metal figures add a touch of life to charred walls.
But it is on the pristine white facades of the second story where abstract art makes an explosive appearance with colors rooted in the ochre palettes of a desert land and sapphire hues taken from the Mediterranean.
“I feel optimistic and alive again,” says Ali Enessi, the eldest artist on display. “Under Qaddafi, art had to be very clear and specific. There was no room for experimental or abstract art, for hidden meanings.”
His paintings mix bright colors and sharp shapes with handsful of sand.
“Now we have the freedom to express and experiment,” says Enessi, delighted.
He is one of dozens of artists who have been working away in this gallery-cum-studio where the culture ministry announced on Wednesday its decision to make Benghazi the cultural capital of Libya in 2013.
The space is steeped with history. The late monarch announced independence from Italy from one of its balconies. And this is where cartoonists have made a mockery out of Qaddafi.
One of them, young Qais al-Halali, paid with his life for his art.
Ali al-Wakwak, a bearded man pushing on in years, was launched to fame by turning the debris of war into art, crafting masks out of helmets and reptiles out of the remains of heavy weapons.
“The message is we’ve made life out of destruction,” says the artist whose bags are packed for a Rome exhibit.
“We want to show people that there is freedom in art. Before you had no chance of making it as an artist unless you glorified Qaddafi or paid lipservice to the Green Book.”
A painting by Abdelqadr Badr captures 42 years of repression and marginalization through a small island of jagged shapes, the contours of Benghazi, a “City Forbidden from Dreaming.”
“In the beginning it was all about revolution but now we are trying to change the mood of the people,” says Badr, who has taken a bold plunge into abstract expression but also likes to weave in narrative elements.
Mohammed Barnawi, 33, has gone all out in paintings in which brave brushstrokes of cool cerulean blue and warm amber convey emotions ranging from the incertitude’s of “Waiting” and the harrowing loss of a “Martyred Groom.”
The work is a massive departure from his canvasses that sought to capture the faces of the 2011 revolution, including relatives of the prisoners of Abu Slim, a spark for the uprising, and his brother who died on the front.
“Abstract is an opportunity for beauty,” says a contemplative Barnawi.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to tell a story but behind every color there is an idea,” he confides.