By Noor El-Terk

A new exhibition of pop-art from North Africa at London’s P21 Gallery hopes to challenge misconceptions of the region.

Libyan writer Ghazi Gheblawi recently talked about the history of satirical cartoons and their relationship to modern art forms in Libya as part of the Pop-Art from North Africa exhibition at London’s P21 Gallery.

The show, which is open until 4 November, features a striking collection of works ranging from paintings to digitally manipulated images, music, animation and street art. 

Libyan writer Ghazi Gheblawi gives a talk on the history of satirical  cartoons at the P21 Gallery in London (Photo courtesy of Ghazi Gheblawi)

The cartoons of Mohamed Zwawi, for example, played a major role in chronicling the social, cultural and political facets of life under Muammar Gaddafi. He was viewed as the father of Libyan cartoons.

A depiction of a cloaked skeleton asks, “AIDs is among our children – who is responsible?” (Photo courtesy of P21 curators)

Gheblawi points to a cartoon by Zwawi from the Libyan magazine La which means NO in Arabic. The cartoon features a cloaked skeleton holding a blood-filled syringe over a crying baby. Underneath is written: “AIDS is among our children – who is responsible?”

It is an angry reference to a scandal that rocked Libyan society to its core in the late 1990s. More than 400 children were infected with HIV in al-Fateh children’s hospital in Benghazi. 

When details of the contamination began to emerge, Gaddafi’s government was quick to try cover up the story. Husbands were told to have their wives checked, implicitly suggesting that they were the source of the infection. 

In a rare instance of defiance, families stormed the hospital and staged protests, calling for an investigation and demanding the details of what had happened. Fearing the stigma, many families chose to remain quiet, while others went public with their pleas for help. 

Faced with public anger, the government tried to appease the families and sent the children affected abroad for treatment. Criticism of the hospital, however, was not allowed, and five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian intern shouldered the blame entirely. They were sentenced to death by a firing squad before a deal with the EU secured their release. 

Hasan Dhaimish, known as Alsatoor, “the cleaver,” similarly changed Libya’s political art scene. “He cleaved and chopped, no one was safe from him,” Gheblawi explained.

Alsatoor is remembered for his piercing commentary on the harsh reality of Libyan life and unapologetically holding politicians up to scrutiny regardless of state censorship.

Alsatoor migrated to Britain in 1975 and settled in Burnley, a post-industrial town in the north. At the time, he was not interested in political activism. However, a trip to London changed that when a Libyan opposition magazine caught his eye. He contacted the magazine and started publishing satirical cartoons, and thus began his foray into the public sphere.

It is the Libyan people’s responsibility to liquidate crazy Gaddafi,” Alsatoor wrote in text accompanying a caricature of Gaddafi in response to the deposed Libyan president’s statement: “It is the Libyan people’s responsibility to liquidate such scum who are distorting Libya’s image abroad.”

Gaddafi was the longest-serving leader in both Africa and the Arab world, having ruled Libya for 41 years before he was killed. He was seen being mocked, beaten and abused before he died. 

Haja Hurriya is a digitally manipulated image of a Libyan ‘Lady of Liberty’ (Photo courtesy of P21 Gallery curators)

Political opponents were ruthlessly crushed under his reign. Cases of torture and disappearance were also reported under his rule.

In May 2011, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, sought the arrest of the Libyan leader for “widespread and systematic attacks” on civilians.

Alsatoor remained unknown beyond the persona he created, and despite the Gaddafi government’s best attempts, they were unable to identify him. Libyan dissidents were labelled “stray dogs” by Gaddafi, and assassination squads were sent after them around the world. During this period, Amnesty International listed 25 such killings, but Alsatoor was not identified.

Curator Najlaa al-Ageli hopes the exhibition will ‘challenge dominant misconceptions of a region in crisis’ (Photo courtesy of P21 Gallery curators)

Alsatoor was never a member of any opposition group; he was a free spirit who didn’t want to be tamed,” Gheblawi said. “The online sphere gave him the opportunity to flourish and grow. He introduced satirical forms in digital ways.”

It is the Libyan people’s responsibility to liquidate crazy Gaddafi

Hasan Dhaimish, artist

The growth of the internet and the tools it made available meant that Alsatoor was able to be innovative. “He was technologically sound and used different mediums like gifs, animations, videos. Think – a comic strip but in gif form!”

Today, with the internet and increasing globalisation, we are introduced to the likes of modern artists such as Alla Abudabbus and Malak Elghuel. Abudabbus’s bold commentary tackles the Libyan mindset with wit and irony while fusing traditional artefacts.

In Khosh – Khasha, Malak Elghuel’s animation narrates the story of a woman’s solitary evening after giving her mother and mother-in-law kosh khasaha (Photo courtesy of P21 Gallery curators)

From collage prints to video art, Elghuel explores Libya’s historical culture. In the exhibition, Elghuel’s animation narrates the story of a woman’s solitary evening after giving her mother and mother-in-law kosh khasaha, a traditional sleeping aid made from fermented poppy powder for a peaceful night.

But satirical art has not been confined to cartoons. More recent adaptations can be seen in Libyan street art. Elements from both Zwawi and Alsatoor can be found in the modern street art that emerged after the Libyan revolution began in 2011. Some of the earliest revolutionary street art was produced by the cartoonist Kais al-Hilali.

“Gaddafi calls himself the king of kings of Africa; I say he’s the monkey of monkeys of Africa,” al-Hilali said in an interview with the French TV channel TF1 before he was killed in March 2011. One of his most iconic images depicts Gaddafi as a monkey.

According his mother, the 34-year-old was shot dead on his way home, after drawing a caricature of Gaddafi on a wall in Benghazi.