"People don't associate Libya with creativity," says Nessrin Gebreel, co-founder of Noon Arts. Many could be forgiven for agreeing with her, but following the 2011 revolution which ended Mu'ammar Gaddafi's 42-year dictatorship, Libya is continuing to undergo a huge surge of artistic expression.
Three years ago Nessrin found herself witnessing not only a political revolution but a cultural one too: "Libyans didn't just fight with guns and risk their lives, they also expressed themselves through the arts. With a newfound personal freedom, street graffiti, paintings and revolutionary music all exploded."
Najlaa El-Ageli is an architect by training and a fellow founder of Noon Arts. "Under Gaddafi everything was monitored," she tells me. "Art had been usurped as another means of propaganda and virtually nothing travelled abroad. Now there's a new sense of freedom and hope."
This pair of formidable women, both with creative backgrounds and a strong passion for the arts, came together to establish Noon Arts in 2012. Their desire remains to grant Libyan artists a much-needed international platform to present their works to the world.
Strolling around an arts fair in central Tripoli, Najlaa was struck by the wonderful pieces she saw and, "decided it was high time the world knew about us". Since its establishment following the revolution, Noon Arts has gone from strength to strength. Its first major exhibition took place in London at the Arab British Centre in November 2012. "We didn't know what to expect from London," explains Najlaa. "We simply couldn't believe the outcome and interest there, not only from Libyan expats in the UK but also from the London art scene."
An exhibition in Malta followed soon after; entitled "A Libyan Lamma" it was met with equal critical acclaim. "I think people were shocked by the quality of the talent," says Nessrin. "We were well received in Malta and hope to be back again in the future to contribute to the 2018 European City of Culture project taking place there."
Although Noon Art's primary focus is getting Libyan artists recognised upon the international stage, it is also keen to participate in the local Libyan art scene and has undertaken a number of projects here. These include collaborations with young Libyan architects on a building design project and curating the "Melting Pot" exhibition in December 2013, which contemplated and challenged the concept of a city, in this case Tripoli. Noon was also responsible for the hugely popular "Forgotten Chatter" exhibition which took place in June 2013. "We wanted to show that Libyans speak another language, not just violence and war," explains Najlaa. Noon Art has also been involved in contributing pieces from Libyan artists to the memory of US Ambassador Chris Stevens who lost his life in Benghazi in 2012.
Libyan artists selected to work with Noon come from a diverse range of backgrounds and ages both young and old, emerging and established. Although, as Najlaa comments, the spread between male and female is fairly equal, "I find our female artists to be the risk takers, approaching more complex subjects in subtle ways."
The exhibitions that Noon has curated have maintained an extremely high standard and always include broad multi-media exhibits including painting, sculptures, textiles, installations and photography. Nessrin explains: "We select artists based on the quality of their works and those who are prepared to work hard. We are drawing from a deep pool of local talent whose work has hardly been shown and never been properly credited up until now."
With a huge amount of success under its belt, Noon Arts is not slowing down despite its principals having busy careers and family lives; Najlaa and Nessrin are already planning further exhibitions in Amsterdam, Germany and the UAE. They are also hoping to work with London's Imperial War Museum. "We want our artists to push more boundaries; we don't want the revolution to be the only theme. We also want to reach a wider audience within Libya, not just Tripoli but Benghazi and Misrata too."
According to Nessrin there is a genuine interest for Libyan art as compared to other art coming out of the Middle East, not least because it's so rare. "It's also because the previous mechanisms for showing art work have been unsophisticated," she adds. When asked how they have time to achieve so much, Nessrin smiles: "We're women; we multi-task! Noon is a passion project for us both. We see how excited and proud the artists are at exhibitions and that always spurs us on."
Both women insist that they have not faced any resistance as females in Libya working to develop Noon Arts; in fact they have been pleasantly surprised by the support and interaction that they have received from the Libyan public. Equally, they ask the artists not to pre-judge the Libyan audience. "We're a nation with a diverse social fabric and that is reflected in the pieces presented," says Najlaa.
Noon Arts has raised the profile of burgeoning Libyan artists and has taken Libyan art work worldwide. "Pre-revolution it was just one man's voice, now there are 6 million voices and everyone wants to express themselves on their own canvases." It's time to take note of the artistic revolution taking place in Libya; Noon Arts is playing a pivotal role in raising the bar and providing a much-needed conduit to bring Libyan art work to the world.
The author is a British-Sudanese lawyer and freelance journalist. She has been based in Tripoli, Libya since October 2012. Follow her on Twitter
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.