21-year-old painter Sana Ashraf Sharif Muhsin lives in Mogadishu, Somalia. She wants to help her country – which has been ravaged by civil war on and off over decades – through her paintings.
Art in many countries still suffering a shadow war, is seen by dictatorial and violent regimes as an expression of dissent.
Artists are rare in Somalia, a once-taboo profession which managed to only just survive through conflicts and Islamic extremism.
Years of insecurity marked by devastating attacks by the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group have plagued the country.
Sana Ashraf Sharif Muhsin has suffered more opposition than most. She lives and works amid the rubble of her uncle’s building that was partially destroyed in Mogadishu’s years of war.
“As a Somali woman and artist I love my country and since we have passed through 30 years of destruction, and the people only see bad things, having in mind bloodied with destruction and explosions. I believe that I can change that through my arts to let them see something beautiful and build their morale,” she says.
Despite the challenges, that include the belief by some Muslims that Islam bars all representations of people, and the struggle to actually get hold of materials to produce the paintings, Sana is optimistic.
“I love my work and believe that I can contribute to the rebuilding and pacifying of my country,” she says.
Sana, a civil engineering student, began drawing at the age of 8, following in the footsteps of her maternal uncle, Abdikarim Osman Addow, a well-known artist.
She started off using charcoal on the walls of her house, then progressed to forming a sketchbook with depictions of household items like a shoe or a jug of water.
But as her work brought her more public attention over the years, some tensions followed. “I fear for myself sometimes,” she says, and recalled a confrontation during a recent exhibition at the City University of Mogadishu.
A male student began shouting “This is wrong!” and professors tried to calm him, explaining that art is an important part of the world.
Many people in Somalia don’t understand the arts, Sana says, and some even criticize them as disgusting.
At exhibitions, she tries to make people understand that art is useful and “a weapon that can be used for many things.”
A teacher once challenged her skills by asking questions and requiring answers in the form of a drawing, she says.
“Everything that’s made is first drawn, and what we’re making is not the dress but something that changes your internal emotions,” Sana says.
“Our paintings talk to the people.”
Her work at times explores the social issues relevant to Somalia, including a painting of a soldier looking at the ruins of the country’s first parliament building.
It reflects the current political clash between the federal government and opposition, she says, as national elections are delayed.
Another painting reflects abuses against vulnerable young women “which they cannot even express.”
A third shows a woman in the bare-shouldered dress popular in Somalia decades ago before a stricter interpretation of Islam took hold and scholars urged women to wear the hijab.
But Sana also strives for beauty in her work, aware that “we have passed through 30 years of destruction, and the people only see bad things, having in their mind blood and destruction and explosions. … If you Google Somalia, we don’t have beautiful pictures there, but ugly ones, so I’d like to change all that using my paintings.”
Sana stands out for breaking the gender barrier to enter a male-dominated profession, according to Abdi Mohamed Shu’ayb, a professor of arts at Somali National University.
“The arts can be used as a weapon or in a positive way. The arts and paintings can build an entire country and can also destroy a country depending on the person making the painting,” he says.
Sana says she hopes to gain further confidence in her work by exhibiting it more widely, beyond events in Somalia and neighboring Kenya.
But finding role models at home for her profession doesn’t come easily.
Sana named several Somali artists whose work she admires, but she knows no other female artists like herself.