They will be as forgotten and isolated as they are now
Janine Di Giovanni on the life and death of a young artist whose graffiti inspired Libyan protesters @ Granta. The drive to Benghazi from the Egyptian border is long: hours through a stark undeveloped land, rapids over deep ravines, then barren desert. When we reach the city, it is something of a surprise – a decrepit, Mediterranean town cradled by a magnificent seafront, the blue-green coastline stretching to Tunisia. Not many people are swimming. Once or twice I see men wading in fully clothed, but never a woman. From the moment I arrive, I can see Kais al-Hilali’s rage and isolation written on the city walls. On 17 February – the ‘Day of Rage’ – Kais fought alongside the Shabaab (the angry Libyan youth whose protests sparked the rebellion) inside the Katiba army base. In the early days of the uprising, this impoverished thirty-four-year-old street artist and sign painter found his voice. Prowling Benghazi like a commando, along with other underground artists who had begun to taunt and torment their tormentor, Kais used his brushes and paint to boost the momentum of the revolution. His first political graffiti – a leering, buffoonish, venomous Gaddafi – was close to his apartment. He painted voraciously, and violently – attacking Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam, depicting them as monkeys, scratching lice. Gaddafi as a villain, Gaddafi as the devil.