In this episode of the Gallery Girl podcast we are joined by Tewa Barnosa, a Libyan Tamazight artivist based in Berlin. She is also the founder and curator of Waraq Art Foundation, a foundation that aims to support the Libyan art scene locally and in diaspora through encouraging socio-critical dialogue between artists and audiences.
Tewa was always experimenting with different things growing up. “I’ve always had an interest in curating without understanding that this is curating”, she says, “In a professional view it was around 2014 that I started acting on it.” That same year though, life changed for many Libyans living in Libya. “The revolution happened in 2011. I was quite young at the time. In 2014 there was another civil war. It was really brutal and cruel…our lives stopped for a few months”, says Tewa, “I was supposed to travel and continue my education abroad. That didn’t happen…all of that anger in that time allowed me to put it in an artistic form.”
Growing up, Tewa found the art scene in Libya to be limited. “Libya was a very isolated country”, she says, “Even internally, we don’t know much about each other from one city to another. The cultural sector was not prioritised at all, it was oppressed. When I grew older I started digging deeper and finding my own way and finding artists and references. You have to find the knowledge yourself.” She started Waraq in Tripoli at the age of 17, with little idea of what she was doing. “I wanted to travel and study. I was thinking of studying either contemporary art or something related to curating…of course there was a lot of bombing and shelling. It was impossible to travel anymore. My family had savings for my education, that also started to lose its value because of the changing of the economic scene. We had this budget and I wanted to find a way of having something for myself”, she says, “I figured since there were no spaces for emerging artists, why not create it myself? It was a way of learning by doing and navigating different alternatives on how to create an art scene that focuses on young artists.”
But how was the response to the art space? “There were different layers, because for young artists and young people it was welcomed, it was needed, being exposed to art for the first time”, says Tewa, “It started contributing to bridging the gap between the young generation of artists working in libya and the older generation.” That said, she found the project challenging. “It was also very challenging. I had no idea how to communicate with all these social taboos and do exhibitions that were quite provocative at the time, for instance about human rights violations”, she explains, “There was also this response that this is a place where genders mix and it’s not allowed to operate.” Thus, the space shut in 2017, but Tewa explains that she and her team learnt a lot during that experience. “We learnt not to confront society in a very direct way”, she says, “It takes baby steps.” But when the space closed, Waraq didn’t. Tewa sought alternatives to targeting the public, not just those interested in art and began curating projects in public spaces in Tripoli’s old city, which had always been a cultural space where Waraq hosted a series of exhibitions, film screenings and talks in different alleys in a bid to engage with people.
Now though, Tewa is based in Berlin, though Waraq is still functioning from Libya. She explains that in Germany she continues to be confronted with people telling her “this is the first time i’ve met a Libyan.” Tewa’s own artwork tackles the idea of identity, what it means to be Tamazight and from Libya. “This is an issue that increased when I came here”, she says, “There are always labels that you’re an Arab, but no I’m not.” Her work comments on issues related to Tamazight civilization, incorporating the Tifinagh calligraphy. “I started writing the language a few years ago. It’s my mother tongue”, she says, though she was never taught to read and write because the language was oppressed. In one particular work, Tifinagh Evidence, the Tifinagh letters are placed in plastic bags like crime bags. ““It shows how this language was seen as a threat”, explains Tewa, “It’s an ongoing conversation. There are many uprisings for tamazight rights and they’re ongoing.”
And during pandemic? “The idea of being on lockdown somewhere is not new”, she says, “We had to live it at home. When there’s an ongoing war you might take a month where everything stops.” She is currently working on an exhibition opening in August at 68 Project Space in Berlin that tackles the theme of protests which began in response to uprisings in Sudan, Lebanon and Chile. “I was personally interested in navigating silence as a metaphor of protest, and how would people actually speak out when they do not have the ability to speak”, she says. She is working on two installations, one of which focuses on texts written on Libya’s walls. “They give this perspective of what Libya is at the moment and what they suffer”, adds Tewa, “How walls are protesting, listening, silencing and absorbing.”
But what about Waraq? Tewa speaks about her hopes for more art projects in Libya. “After a whole year of shelling and bombing there should be some culture activity”, she says, “We expected that the pandemic would calm the situation in Tripoli, but the exact opposite happened. Hospitals were bombed, neighbourhoods planted with mines, it was really intense to see what was going on and adding the corona layer.” During this time Waraq has been working on a project called Kashkoul, which is the Arabic word for first ideas. Since April the team have gathered visual and text contributions from people living under shelling, bombing and corona. In the second phase they are inviting artists to work collectively to produce a publication. “I feel if something is not documented, it is denied”, explains Tewa.
So, where does Tewa see herself and Waraq in 5 years time? In the immediate future Waraq is expanding to focus on projects related to the African continent and the Middle East, with the foundation’s next step being to establish themselves in Berlin. And as for Tewa’s own practice? “I’m taking each phase at a time, I’m not rushing with anything”, she says, “I want to give everything enough time to be well-cooked.”