Sana Ashraf Sharif Muhsin is a rare female artist from the conservative Horn of Africa nation. She lives and works among the rubble of her uncle’s building, which was destroyed during Mogadishu’s war years.
Despite the difficulties she faces, such as the belief that Islam bans all representations or people and the need to find brushes or other materials for her art, she remains optimistic.
She said, "I love my job and believe I can contribute to rebuilding and pacifying my country."
According to Abdi Mohamed Shuayb, a Somali National University professor of arts, Sana is the only female to break the gender barrier and enter a male-dominated field. He only knows of one female artist in Somalia. The other is from the Somaliland region.
Yet, Sana is a unique artist "because her artworks capture modern life in a positive manner and seek to foster reconciliation," he said. He called her a national hero.
Sana is a student in civil engineering and began drawing when she was eight years old, following the example of her maternal uncle Abdikarim Osman Adow, an internationally renowned artist.
Sana laughed and said that she would use charcoal to draw her vision of the world on the walls. She received more instruction and eventually made a book out of her sketches of household items, such as a shoe or a water jug.
Nevertheless, her work has brought her more attention over the years and there were some tensions.
She said that she sometimes fears for her own safety and recalls a fight during an exhibition at City University of Mogadishu. Professors attempted to calm a male student who shouted "This is wrong!" but were interrupted by a man shouting "This IS wrong!"
Sana stated that many Somalians don't know much about the arts and some people even find them disgusting. She tries to convince people that art can be useful and "a tool that can be used for many purposes" at exhibitions.
She said that a teacher once challenged her abilities by asking questions and demanding answers in the form a drawing.
Sana stated, "Everything is made from the first drawing. And what we're making here is not the dress but something that changes internal emotions." "Our paintings speak to the people."
Her art explores social issues in Somalia. One example of her work is a painting showing a soldier looking at the ruin of Somalia's first parliament building. She said it reflects the political conflict between the federal government, opposition and current national elections, which are being delayed.
Another painting depicts abuses of vulnerable young women, "which they cannot even articulate." The third picture shows a woman wearing the bare-shouldered Somalian dress that was popular decades ago. Scholars encouraged women to wear the hijab.
Sana strives for beauty in her work even though she is aware of the destruction that has occurred over 30 years. People see only bad things. They have seen blood, destruction and explosions. ... You can Google Somalia to see that we don't have beautiful photos there. I would like to change that with my paintings.
Sana stated that she wants to increase her confidence in her work through exhibiting it more widely beyond Somalia and neighbouring Kenya.
However, it is not easy to find role models for her profession at home.
Sana cited several Somali artists she admires but doesn't know of any other female artists like her.