Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Libya's Search for a Cultural Identity

Like many others, I was appalled to hear reports of military snipers picking off mourners at a funeral in Tripoli. It didn't stop there, as yesterday Libyan warplanes opened fire on protesters in that same city. Some of you may remember my post on modern art and fashion in Egypt during the recent revolution there ("A New Vision of Egypt"), and today I thought I'd take a similar look at the contemporary arts in Libya.

    R. Ben Barka                           H. El Shaery                         M. Bin Lamin 


Rabia Ben Barka was born to a wealthy family in Tripoli and had the opportunity to study fashion in London, Milan, and Rome. During Gaddafi's 1969 coup d'etat, her family was stripped of everything and Ben Barka found herself living in Rome and managing to get by in fashion by working for other designers. Outside her home country she felt unable to realize her dream of fusing Libyan and western fashion.

In the 1980s, Gaddafi's daughter became interested in her designs, and over time with contacts such as these, Ben Barka was able to return to Tripoli and start her label, designing pieces which blended traditional Arabic elements with modern western characteristics. Just take a look at these frocks, paired with Converse-inspired shoes.

She has even designed for Gaddafi himself, a bitter task undoubtedly, but she refuses to mix art and politics. In fact, she won't say a single thing about the regime or Libya's current state. But considering her battle to return to her country and then open its fashion to the outside world, one can only imagine the inspiration she will derive from the drastic changes in coming days.


Hamid Al Shaery is credited with completely re-envisioning Libyan music. From the 1980s to the present day, he has sought to modernize Arabic music by incorporating western elements while staying true to traditional instruments and styles. Here's one of his hits:

Like Ben Barka, he focuses on blending western and Arabic music to create something new that still somehow manages to be distinctly Arabic. But unlike Ben Barka, he is very outspoken about the current state of affairs in his home country (he lives in Egypt now). He has repeatedly stated his support of the revolution and is seeking ways to bring food and aide to the masses being brutalized in Tripoli. In fact, Rahad FM, a radio station owned by El Shaery has officially proclaimed itself pro-democracy live on air. For El Shaery, art and politics are clearly inseparable.


Mohammed Bin Lamin is an extraordinary, self-taught artist whose works seem to create another world, one that is deeply spiritual and full of a sort of wizened peace. Solara Sabah writes that "his works look as if they are a legacy from a great civilization that is vague" and writer Ethan Chorin claims, that though he can't quite put his finger on it, there is something quintessentially Libyan about the haunted paintings.

So here we have a Libyan artist who cannot be said to blend western and Arabic influences. Instead he seems to envision a new world that is grounded in history and has actually learned from it. Perhaps then Bin Lamin, though his works are the least overtly "Libyan" or Arabic of these three artists, is showing us the true Libya.

From that perspective, it is not about how art and politics influence each other, but about the whole they represent. In this case, that whole is a civilization that has not yet found itself (it only became independent in 1951, and Gaddafi has ruled since 1969), but which holds extraordinary promise.

Those of you who follow my blog know that this section is usually reserved for fashion items based on the day's post. I decided to open it to some other items this time around, to give you a better sampling of the region since purely Libyan fashion pieces are tough to come by. You'll find jewelry and fashion pieces inspired by northern Africa and the Sahara, an extraordinary board game, a photo of Tripoli with proceeds going to a charity of your choice, and of course some fabulous handmade pins to show your support. Enjoy!

Proud Libyan Six 1 inch Button Pins 
Libyan Stamp Necklace ANCIENT BOARD GAME: Helga (Libyan Desert, Sahara, Africa).
Arabic Large cotton thobe or Tunic dress oriental print Vintage 70s Dashiki Maxi Boho Hippie Angel Sleeve Batik Caftan Dress
Tribal Tuareg Cross pendant african necklace multicolor jasper brown silver SAHARA DESERT
African embroidered caftan dashiki dress, made in Ghana neutral wrapped stone pendant necklace - Tripoli
13 Apr 10 - 6x9 Fine Art Daily Photo

Handmade Proud Libyan 1" Pins by A Crafty Arab $8
Libyan Stamp Necklace by Camp Spearnak $12
Ancient Board Game: Helga from the Libyan Desert by Kurna $125
Vintage Arabic Tunic Dress from Magpie's Shop $37
Vintage 1970s Caftan Maxi Dress from Love Street Vintage $65
Handmade Tribal Tuareg Cross Pendant by Zahira Bazaar $38
Sahara Desert Ring by Metals by Ash $48
Vintage African Embroidered Caftan Dashiki Dress from Time Lords Vintage $58
Tripoli Neutral Wrapped Stone Pendant Necklace by cooljewelrydesign $42
13 Apr 10: The Wonderful Mess of Tripoli fine art photograph by The Daily Foto Project $20 


  1. Culture and fashion collide...love it! Many thanks for including my Tripoli necklace on your lovely blog ... am among such honored company.

  2. Thank you for including my Libyan pins. I am very proud to be a Libyan and pray for my country's freedom soon! Please find me on twitter: acraftyarab to keep up with the latest news of what is happening in our country.

  3. Check out this important link:


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