A war that is not documented artistically or culturally will be denied or forgotten.
Tewa Barnosa

Tewa Barnosa

from Libya, born in 1998, artist, curator, cultural manager, came to the Berlin-based host organisation coculture e.V. in January 2019 as an MRI scholarship holder.

‘I think war makes you grow up faster’, says Tewa Barnosa. At the age of seventeen, one year after the beginning of the civil war in Libya, she founded the country’s first art and cultural space that provides a platform targeted to young emerging artists in the capital city of Tripoli. She had actually wanted to study art in the traditional way and enrolled at the university. But after two semesters she was excluded. ‘I said to myself: if I want to be an artist, I need a basis’, recalls Barnosa. ‘And if nobody offers me that, then I’ll create one myself.’

WaraQ Art Foundation: contact point for young artists

In 2015, with the support of her parents and friends, she therefore set up the WaraQ Art Foundation, a contact point for young artists to exchange ideas, discuss, organise exhibitions and activities. ‘At that time I had absolutely no idea about cultural management, and approached our activities very spontaneously.’

In spite of this, or perhaps precisely because of it, the WaraQ Art Foundation quickly gained popularity – also among established artists, who brought to it the benefit of their experience. Central topics addressed at ‘WaraQ’ are the country’s civil war, violation of human rights, questions about origin, identity, diversity, and how to deal with conflicts.

The power of calligraphy

These are also the core themes of Barnosa’s art. It combines Arabic calligraphy with painting, photography, visual arts and digital media, and repeatedly uses elements of the Tamazight language, which was banned in Libya until the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011. Barnosa comes from a Tamazight-speaking family.

Early on, Barnosa’s work sparked interest outside of Libya. Barnosa held exhibitions at the P21 Gallery, the AWAN Festival in London, the Casa Árabe in Madrid and the Galleria delle prigioni in Treviso/Italy. In addition, she curated exhibitions around the world.

The message of the walls of Tripoli

In her work Infinite Silence, for example, in order to visualise the different forms of silence that she perceives surrounding war and war atrocities, Barnosa converted the last letter of the Arabic word for silence into a sign of endlessness and set it as a neon light on a chalk board. For the series Silenced Protests, she used calligraphy to re-write graffiti from walls in Tripoli onto bricks, which she then arranged in four thematic complexes (‘The Chaos’, ‘The Structure’, ‘The People’, and ‘The Scale’). ‘Wherever open protest in the streets is persecuted, people need walls’, says Barnosa. ‘They say walls have ears, but they can also speak.’

A new voice in Berlin

Thanks to Barnosa, the walls of Tripoli are now also proclaiming their messages beyond Libya: she created both works in Berlin and exhibited them there in August 2020. At the beginning of 2019, the young artist came to the city on a scholarship from the Martin Roth-Initiative. For a year and a half, she worked with the host organisation coculture, curated and organised exhibitions, developed her own art and showed it in numerous European countries.

At present, Barnosa cannot work in her home country. With the increasing success of the WaraQ Art Foundation, it became a target. Militia attacked the centre and its surroundings several times. The first major attack was a reaction to the 2017 exhibition The Warning.

Continuing regardless, so as to reach people

‘I thought a lot about whether I should stop so that no one would be hurt’, says Barnosa. ‘But we carried on, and took our activities outside, into the public sphere. Public places belong to everyone. It was a statement. And it was a life-changing experience.’ Outside, the young artists reached even more people: residents, among them families who came to the activities with their children.

After the attacks by militia, Barnosa went to Berlin on an MRI scholarship. It was time for a break, she says, to think about what the next step should be. In Berlin, she was able to work with international artists for the first time, developed new perspectives, and made contacts abroad. ‘That helped me a lot.’ But her heart’s desire is one day to be part of a cultural scene in Libya that can work without fear and exchange ideas with a critical, open-minded public.

coculture cooperates as a host organisation with the Martin Roth-Initiative. Coculture is a non-governmental organisation founded in 2017 by the artist and activist Khaled Barakeh. It supports artists in exile and promotes the local cultural scene.

(translated from German into English)

Text: Marion Meyer-Radtke; editing: MRI

Photos: Rolf Schulten; archive images in audio slideshow: Tewa Barnosa

Audio slideshow design: Johanna Barnbeck

Artists

For more portraits of MRI scholarship holders please click here.