Is Art Resurging in Somalia?


A Jan. 1 article in the online journal Sabahi-Covering the Horn of Africa touts a new cultural life for Somalia since the U.S. and allies have chased the repressive al-Shabaab from the scene. This goes particularly for Mogadishu, the country’s capital and largest city.

As an example, the article Art in Mogadishu resurges as security improvescites one of the city’s popular art studios:

Story continues below.

Shik Shik Arts, one of the largest art studios in Mogadishu, was closed during the rule of the Islamic Courts Union and al-Shabaab, but is now experiencing renewed life, a sign of cultural resurgence as security in the city improves.

The article includes an interview with the studio’s Mohamed Hussein Sidow, who co-owns the studio with his four brothers. In a question-answer format, he tells the interviewer:

Arts and crafts are the two most important things to history and culture because if these two advance, then culture also increases. Art will teach you what people of the past did or used…

…Every situation had its impact, but the worst was in 2006 when the Islamic Courts Union ruled many parts of the country, including Mogadishu. At the time, they ordered us to close Shik Shik Arts studio, and they told us that the pictures we made were a sin that was forbidden in Islam.

The interview closes with Sidow summarizing the current political climate:

The situation in Mogadishu is improving day after day. We are really happy with the new government and hope that it will be able to do a lot about the security situation and to restore general civil service.

Since 1991, Somalia has suffered the constant pain of violence, ranging from warring clan militias to pirates, and famine. The militant Islamist al-Shabaab came into power in 2006. Somali army and Kenyan military forces-with support of American and European military-pushed al-Shabaab out in 2011. By August 2012, a new draft constitution appeared (to be voted on when security improves) and a new federal parliament convened. That’s “the new government” Sidow referred to.

Just how solid is security and the return of art and culture? We’d hope Sidow is accurate. But the reporting journal Sabahi has an agenda. It “is sponsored by the United States Africa Command, the military command responsible for supporting and enhancing US efforts to promote stability, co-operation and prosperity in the region,” according to the journal’s website. It’s important for Sabahi to report good news that makes the American military effort appear successful.

The United States has quietly stepped up operations inside Somalia, American officials acknowledge,” The New York Times reported in October. “The Pentagon has turned to strikes by armed drone aircraft to kill Shabab militants and recently approved $45 million in arms shipments to African troops fighting in Somalia.”

But those drone strikes have also killed up to 57 civilians through 2012, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. That may be a small part of the 1,000 civilians killed by American drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia together, but not if you’re one of the victims, or a relative or friend. Danger from drone attacks is not security, as the September 2012 NYU/Stanford legal report showed.

Too, The New York Times reports continuing threats in Somalia from famine and rape:

In February 2012, the United Nations said that the famine that killed tens of thousands of people had ended, thanks to a bumper harvest and a surge in emergency food deliveries. But conditions in Somalia were still precarious, U.N. officials warned, with many Somalis still dying of hunger and more than two million still needing emergency rations to survive…

…With the (2011) famine putting hundreds of thousands of women on the move – severing them from their traditional protection mechanism, the clan – aid workers said more Somali women were raped than at any time in recent memory. In some areas, they said, women were being used as chits at roadblocks, surrendered to the gunmen staffing the barrier in the road so that a group of desperate refugees could pass.

These are devastations that military occupation can’t repair. So the sense is that peace, security, and the consistent growth of art and culture-that can help nurture healing-may still be a distant hope. And if we can believe the artist Sidow, it’s a hope Somalis keep alive.