The lost art of Somalia

Ali Said Hassan

Ali Said Hassan risked his life to save precious art from war-torn Somalia, now he needs a home for the collection. He speaks to Yee-Liu Williams.

Ali Said Hassan lives in hope that a 34-piece collection of Somali art, rescued from the debris of the Golol Art Gallery in Mogadishu, some day will be exhibited in a British museum for the public to view. It is the story of one man’s quest to save his country’s past, culture and identity. He has saved the art pieces bringing them safely across from war-torn Somalia, Africa and through Europe to London.

‘Art is Peace’ – a story of one man’s quest to save Somali culture.

 

Thousands have fled across the world to seek refuge from the brutalities of Somali’s civil war. He recalls how ‘all the artists had to run and flee for their life’. With the paintings looted, destroyed or damaged, Ali salvaged what he could from the debris of the only art gallery in Mogadishu.

Months later when he returned to witness the utter devastation, a woman who sold tea regularly outside his gallery had saved six of the paintings. With tears in his eyes, he tells me. ‘I knew every painting and every artist from the start of the brush to its hanging on the wall’. Ali is in contact with only three artists with no news as to the fate of the other 30 artists. He managed to save only 34 pieces from 1,112 pieces of art and sculpture that used to hang in the gallery.

Ali founded the Golol Art gallery in 1987 for Somali artists who had talent. It provided artists a space to display their work, provide them with the materials and a means to earn a living. He tells me how he encouraged artists to chronicle significant events, the scenes that shaped the country’s turbulent times symbolically representing culture, the politics, the people and life in Somalia.

He laments that the pain is great in his quest to find a place to preserve and exhibit the collection. ‘I am not afraid of death and returning to Mogadishu. They [Al-Shabab] can do to me what they want but what pains me is that I’ve gone to hell and back to preserve these national treasures that will be lost when I am gone.’

He recounts his perilous escape overland from Mogadishu to Nairobi; journeying through Europe via Italy and Germany and now living as a refugee with his family in London. The art is in a hidden place with Ali as guardian to Somali’s lost ’national treasures’. He says, ‘it is not the right place to preserve; they need to be exhibited and seen.’

The elders from the Horn of Africa who regularly meet as part of the Agenda for Reconciliation programme at Initiatives of Change in London reflect and discuss what can be done. Around the table they pose the question of how can they ‘rebuild’ and bring peace to their home country?

Like so many refugees Ali yearns to return to his homeland. ‘It is my dream to work with Somali young artists again and rebuild the Golol Art gallery – rebuild it in Mogadishu,’ he says.

There are still so many threats to Somalia’s future with the need ‘to make documentation’ he observes. ‘Stories tell the truth of what happened. During the civil war I took my camera and recorded every day what went on and what was happening. I knew they were going to kill me. I knew the warring factions were lying to the world and to the people. But the recordings tell a different story.’

Ali is determined to find a place to exhibit and preserve the Somali paintings for everyone to view. He is looking for space and sponsorship where he can run regular art workshops in London. The vision is to teach young people in the UK and Somalia that art can be used for dialogue, to build peace and avoid extremism.

The Somali community is over 300,000 in the UK but he says this ‘art should be for everyone’ to appreciate. His hope and vision is that through this art form it is possible to build in dialogue between communities to reclaim its culture and identity.

The perception is that Somalia is a breeding ground for terrorism. ‘Young people in the UK only hear of war and terrorist activities. ‘Art is peace … through dialogue and after dialogue I think then the divisions maybe can disappear.’