We had jumped at the chance to live and work in Libya when the opportunity presented itself. Sherri’s job would take care of us while we were there, and I was convinced that I could make art anywhere in the world. I had tried hard to find out as much as possible about the arts of Libya before leaving, particularly any contemporary visual arts and crafts, but there was almost no information available, so I really didn’t know what to take with me in the way of art supplies.
|Evgeni at the ruins of Sabratha.|
Once we arrived in Libya, I set out to learn as much as I could, but with difficulty. To begin with, there was no local Chamber of Commerce, no Yellow Pages, and few street names, and no address numbers. Sure, some of the larger streets had names, but we needed to describe directions to our drivers based on landmarks. The easiest way to do this was to tell them the name of the nearest mosque. To make this more interesting, there isn’t a functioning postal service. So, where to begin? I started by asking our drivers where I could buy art supplies and tools. This raised an interesting problem; most of them didn’t understand what the term “art” meant. I tried using the Arabic term for sculpting, which is “naHt” and most of them hadn’t heard that term either. I knew that the government of Libya had officially discouraged “the arts” for many years and that art was something that was a part of Libya’s colonial past; there were also strong Islamic restrictions on artistic imagery.
|Delphine outside Casa Lounge Art|
Fortunately I was scheduled to take a course that was offered to all employees and dependents of by my wife’s company; this was a great help. Teaching the course was a wonderful couple, Sami and Yolanda. Sami is Libyan, and Yolanda is Italian/English. The two had met in college and have made a life for themselves offering services needed by foreigners to understanding Libya and to Libyans trying to understand foreigners - it’s a perfect niche. The two of them were wonderfully forthcoming and provided me with a lot of information. They recommended several publications that might help.
|Farah and Ameen|
One of the online publications they suggested was Look Out Libya, which had just run an article on a Bulgarian painter who had lived in Libya for 14 years. I immediately contacted the publishers and asked them to leave a comment for the artist with my name and phone number. I also found his name on Facebook and immediately friended him. Not much later, Evgeni called me and arranged to meet. We met at a local coffee landmark and talked for about an hour, and I showed him photos of my work, which he liked very much and asked me for digital copies. Evgeni spoke pieces of several languages, including English and Arabic, and he offered to help me to find what I needed. We climbed into his PT Cruiser, and he drove me to the ART House Gallery, a combination gallery/art shop run by a local art entrepreneur, Ahmad. He also looked at photos of my work and made several suggestions as to where I could go to find sculpture tools. I felt as though I was finally on my way. Over the next several weeks, Evgeni took me to stationary supply stores and tool shops and posted examples of my work on his Facebook. He never ceased to be helpful, and he and his wife, Sylvia, became two of our dearest friends.
|Muhammed B. discussing his work|
Not long after that, another expat friend suggested that I visit Casa Lounge Art, a gallery run by a French woman. I called and was invited to an opening that was taking place in a few days. When I arrived, there was an exhibition of prints by Muhammed B., an art instructor from El Fatah University. I complimented his work, and although we did not share much of a common language, we have stayed in touch. I also met Delphine, the young soft-spoken gallery owner, and I soon had to admire her efforts to bring contemporary art to Tripoli. She introduced me to her two gallery assistants, Ameen and his sister Farah, who took time to look at my work and immediately asked if I had any of my work in Libya. Their intention was wonderfully clear; I was being offered a show. It was with regret that I told them I was still trying to set up a studio.
|Ahmed at Casa Lounge Art opening|
At that first opening, I met several artists and collectors and talked with many of them about where to find art supplies, tools, studio space and artist co-ops. One of those artists was Mirja, a Dutch weaver, who offered to introduce me to some artist friends. Besides weaving, Mirja had written several books on indigenous weaving techniques from South America. She had also studied Classical Arabic for many years. Her language skills gave her immediate respect from anyone who heard her.
A couple of days later, Mirja picked me up, and we drove to meet Ginny, a retired art teacher from Canada. Ginny created handsome hand-built ceramic sculpture, and the three of us spent a delightful morning over coffee and art talk. It had taken Ginny time to identify resources in Libya but she had managed to find clay and a place to have it fired. I began to take great hope from these energetic ladies.
The gallery also gave me the name of an Iraqi sculptor named Ahmed, and I contacted him and scheduled a visit. Ahmed lived in a single room that was full of drawings, paintings, sculpture maquettes, a bed and a hot plate. In spite of his modest surroundings, he always appeared quite dapper in a clean white suit. His English was not very good, but he invited me in for a soda and we talked at length, with my driver’s help. He agreed to show me where I could buy tools for working stone. I had seen large trucks full of boulders coming into Tripoli from the mountains, and I knew that large amounts of Italian marble were imported for building materials. Carving stone would be a good possibility for me. Ahmed directed my driver to several shops, but all I could find were tools for cutting and polishing flat stone; there were no carving chisels to be found. Checking online and with carvers on the island nation of Malta also failed to produce the needed tools. It was not until we returned to the U.S. for my stepson’s wedding in September that I was able to order carbide tipped chisels and stone mallets, which I had rushed to me before we returned to Libya. We packed them in our suitcases, which got our checked baggage searched at the airport.
After my many adventures in trying to find art supplies and materials, our local drivers began to understand what I was trying to do. We always made a point of inviting them to the exhibitions and introduced them to the artists that we met. Out of kindness, the dispatcher would usually assign me a driver that had reasonable English skills and who enjoyed my strange foreign interests. Soon all of our drivers knew that driving Sherri and I to an event would usually mean that something out of the ordinary would take place, and we became known among them as Mr. Boob and Madam Sherri. Yes, I was Mr. Boob! There are issues in Arabic when pronouncing my name, so I came to refer to myself as “The Boob.”
Our drivers were often well educated in areas like engineering or teaching; however, they made better money driving us around than they could working for the government. Two of our drivers proved to be especially open and fun to talk with. Walied would drive me during the day when we lived at the guest house in Tripoli, and Khaled would drive me after we moved out to a company villa near the airport. There were several Khaleds among our pool of drivers, but this Khaled was always called “Big Khaled.” Big Khaled was large for a Libyan, standing well over 6 ft. tall and probably weighing about 250 lbs. Khaled took a special interest in Sherri and I, and he was always ready to do more than simply drive us around; he had a good sense of humor and a down-to-earth approach to life. I never worried about Sherri going anywhere unaccompanied if Khaled was driving. He would also remain close by whenever we visited shops and restaurants and would always call immediately to find out what had happened if we failed to meet him at a scheduled pick-up time. When I visited a cash machine, Khaled would stay close by and make sure that no one took an excessive interest in what I was doing.
It was especially easy to have Khaled along when I went shopping for stone. When we arrived at a stone shop, he took the time to explain to the proprietor what it was that the crazy American was trying to do. He followed his explanation by showing them pictures of my work and exaggerated my reputation as an artist. I had the feeling that Khaled’s presence also carried an unspoken sense that it would be in their best interest to help me, as if I was someone who had important connections. Once everyone had a thorough understanding of why I was there, they would then offer us tea, show us examples of their work and give us a tour. After I picked out a nice slab of Libyan limestone, I asked them how much it would cost. I was surprised when they asked me, “How much would you like to pay?” After a moment of stunned silence, the proprietor offered me the stone for nothing, conditional upon my returning to patronize his shop at a later time. Yes, Khaled had been the perfect person to take stone shopping.
|Carving the stone|
After wrestling the heavy stone into the van, we headed home to our villa, and I immediately placed the stone on one of the plastic garden tables and began laying out my design. I worked intensely for the next two weeks, loving every moment of the sweat and limestone dust I created. Sherri’s co-workers and villa staff came by daily checking my progress as I managed to generate two pieces. The first was a small nine-pointed star that I carved to find out about the nature of the stone. The second was a large stylized relief that I called The Eye of Truth. It was a sculpture in which I tried to capture some of the feelings of the ancient Roman sites, like Sabratha and Leptis Magna. I worked hard to finish this piece by a certain date; Delphine had arranged for an exhibition to be held at the Radisson Blue Al Mahari Hotel in Tripoli, and she agreed to let me exhibit.
A show of this kind was unique in Libya, and it was well received. I got to know several Libyan artists better and made new friends. Ameen worked hard to find a buyer for “The Eye” but the issue of weight and shipping was always a problem. As my Libyan visa ran out, I had to schedule my departure for the day after the exhibition closed. Ameen agreed to help Sherri with the packing and shipping, and I left confident that I would be able to exhibit the piece in other locations. As time passed and Sherri began to run out of time, we realized that the only sure way to ship was in a full container; even then, we would never know what the Libyan customs agent who inspected the piece would charge us. It looked like the minimum cost for packaging and shipping would be about 4,000 LYD, not including the customs fee.
|The Eye of Truth|
To this day The Eye of Truth remains in Libya, safely in Evgeni’s garage while Sami and Yolanda work to find a way to make it a gift to a Libyan government museum, or some other organization. If it never finds an owner in Libya, I have thought about the possibility of having it buried close to the unexcavated area of Roman Sabratha. It gives me a perverse joy imagining the look on the face of some poor archaeology student who digs it up 50 years from now and then tries to explain my name carved in the lower right corner.