In Somalia, a Female Artist Creates an Image of Peace

31 October 2021

The east African country of Somalia is slowly leaving behind years of war and Islamic extremism.

The arts community is just now beginning to find its voice in society – a victim among many of those difficult years.

Somali artist Sana Ashraf Sharif Muhsin, 21, works on one of her paintings at her home in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)
Somali artist Sana Ashraf Sharif Muhsin, 21, works on one of her paintings at her home in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

In Mogadishu, the capital, a 21-year-old female painter continues to face a lot of criticism and opposition.

Sana Ashraf Sharif Muhsin lives and works in the remains of her uncle's building. It was partially destroyed during Mogadishu's years of war. Despite her surroundings, and other difficulties, such as finding paints and other tools, she is content.

"I love my work and believe that I can contribute to the rebuilding and pacifying of my country," she said.

Sana is just one of two female artists in the country known to Abdi Mohamed Shu'ayb, a professor of arts at Somali National University.

Shu'ayb said Sana is unusual "because her artworks capture contemporary life in a positive way and seek to build reconciliation," he said, calling her a national hero.

Sana is also an engineering student. She began to draw at the age of 8, following her uncle, Abdikarim Osman Addow, a well-known artist.

She would draw on the walls of the house, "drawing my vision of the world," Sana said, laughing.

She received art lessons and put together a book of drawings of common objects, such as a shoe or a container of water.

But as her work brought her more attention over the years, problems followed.

Some Muslims believe that Islam bars all representations of people. Others believe a woman should not have a profession.

"I fear for myself sometimes," she said, and recalled a problem she faced during a recent art show at the City University of Mogadishu.

A male student began shouting "This is wrong!" and university officials tried to calm him, explaining that art is an important part of the world.

Many people in Somalia don't understand the arts, Sana said. At art shows, she tries to make people understand that art is useful and "a weapon that can be used for many things."

A teacher once demanded she prove her skill by asking questions and requiring answers in the form of a drawing, she said.

"Everything that's made is first drawn," Sana said. "Our paintings talk to the people."

Her work at times explores current issues in Somalia. It includes a painting of a soldier looking at the ruins of the country's first parliament building. It shows the political conflict between the federal government and opposition, she said, as national elections are delayed.

Another painting examines abuses against young women. And another shows a woman in a dress popular in Somalia years before another form of Islam took hold. After that, women were urged to wear the hijab, a head covering.

Sana tries to make her work beautiful because she believes her people need beauty.

"We have passed through 30 years of destruction, and the people only see bad things, having in their mind blood and destruction and explosions," she said.

Sana said she hopes to show her artwork more widely, beyond Somalia and neighboring Kenya.

Sana named several Somali artists whose work she admires, but they are all men.

I'm Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

uncle – n. the brother of your father or mother or the husband of your aunt

contribute – v. to help to cause something to happen

pacify – v. to cause (someone who is angry or upset) to become calm or quiet

contemporary – adj. happening or beginning now or in recent times

reconciliation – n. the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement

draw – v. to make a picture by using writing tools on a surface

vision – n. something that you imagine : a picture that you see in your mind

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