Elbohly is a street artist who works in the space between graffiti and calligraphy. His art displays the colourful culture of north africa and the arab world, street culture from denmark and spiritual dimensions of life.
Calligraffiti such as this is an artfrom born in the middle east and rapidly spreading all over the glob. Combining the traditional anchor of calligraphy and the postmodern notion of a glbal village, it allows a remix of culture and a hybridity of past rituals and traditions with contemporary art and expressions.
Originally from Misrata, Aimen Ajhani is set on chasing a big dream – to keep up the artistic political-resistance movement that began in Tripoli, Libya when he was just a teenage boy. His activity then started by creatively engaging against the repressive system which threatened not just his freedom of expression but that of his whole generation and killing off their innocent aspirations.
Inspired by the history and philosophy of the hip-hop counter sub-culture – that originated in 1970s New York – Ajhani was part of a group of 300 youths that included five girls. They used to gather in central Tripoli streets to practise their breakdance, rap-songs and spray the walls with graffiti as their way of voicing and exorcising their fears, worries and frustrations. Their collective journey would take many twists and turns from before to during and then after the February 2011 Revolution.
Ajhani’s great defiant energy started circa 2007 in Tripoli but has landed him in Denmark, where he is currently resident. Although he is working mainly as a graffiti artist, he is still determined to keep up the struggle that has had to be adjusted to an entirely different cultural, social and political context. Aimen Ajhani started as a Break-Dance chairty events organizer before the Revolution but eventually discovered the power of Graffiti to make a political statement. He was a member of different crews – including the Sharks and the Ninja Crew – but at that time it was all underground and funny because they were always running away from the National Security. “Some of us even got arrested as we were accused of bringing a poison culture to Libya. They called us different names and big words but we were just dying to practice and paint. Even just to buy colour spray cans, there was worry we were going to write something against the system.”
Emboldened by the energy of the Revolution, Ajhani’s first official graffiti was the word ‘Libya’ painted on a wall on 1st September Street – now renamed 24th December Street – in Tripoli. This was followed by his most original signature stencil of ‘Fatima’s Hand’ that basically sticks up the middle finger at the repressive regime and the ‘Owl’ that appears to ironically state ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.’ During the Revolution, it was all good as we got some positive attention and people started to accept new talents somehow. Elbohly also took part in a mural project called ‘Flame of the Capital’ that was against domestic violence.”
Ajhani at this point began to develop his graffiti by constant self-taught practice and using various techniques and styles. He fully participated in what seemed a lively hip-hop art scene in Libya when the youngsters could finally express their hopes and dreams for a better future; and, when their artwork and performances for a short time signalled a positive aspect to the Revolution. They no longer had to be underground but could be publicly enjoyed and celebrated. Ajhani liaised with many others based both in Tripoli and Benghazi and became known by his signature of ‘Elbohly’ that he still uses to sign off his work today. His rebellious graffiti became the colourful background wall to some music videos of Libyan and Arab rappers. He mentioned the names of several crews, DJs and MCs that included: Razor Record, MOBAKY, Shahin el3ab9ari from Egypt. “They called me Elbohly which means the crazed one. It started with the graffiti because whenever I do something, you can talk to me or call me but I will never listen to you. When I am in, I am in…. “ But sadly for Ajhani and his hip-hop mates, their big hopes were soon crushed as the political situation began to escalate in a newly menacing direction.
The threat this time was not the Gaddafi regime but the religious radicals – mainly the extremist group ‘Ansar Al-Sharia’ – who began to hound them, questioning what they did and branding them as unbelievers committing haram. Ajhani fate would also take an unexpected turn, as his graffiti work had caught the eye of a Danish organisation called ‘Turning Tables’ whose aim is to empower marginalised youth globally by encouraging expression through music and Film. They invited him to take part in an ‘Images Festival’ in August 2013 in Denmark, where Ajhani was the only Libyan with a few others representing Tunisia and Egypt from North Africa. At one point, Turning Tables had visited Benghazi and helped to produce a video clip with MC Swat in 2011 and in January 2012 supported a ‘Rebirth Music Festival’ focusing on the liberation of creative expression in post-Gaddafi Libya when at least 2,00 people attended.
They had also planned to give workshops but Ansar Al-Sharia threatened to kill them and confiscate their equipment, so they left and travelled back to Copenhagen. Now in Denmark, Ajhani no longer has to run from any authority when making his graffiti. He even expressed glee and surprise at how easy it is to ask for permission to do work in public spaces and that he gets commissioned and even paid to do it! With Arabic calligraphy now being one of his style fortes, he is thriving as an artist and offering something quite unique for a European audience with what he refers to as ‘Calligraffiti’. Ajhani: “It is now a great chance to represent my culture in a good positive way. Whenever I do something, I like to hear what people have to say. Instead of the traditional graffiti with English lettering, I am doing something different so people can see that the Arabic and Islamic culture can be artistic and that it is not all bad as you might think.” Ajhani is continuing with his artwork by taking part in several street projects that include three recent murals in Ringsted and one mural dedicated to the 18-year-old Libyan peace activist Tawfik Ben Saud who was killed this year in Libya for speaking up against extremist groups. The latter is a tribute to those who continue to fight for freedom, rights and justice in a dangerous environment. Recently, also, he has started to experiment with painting on canvass and drawing on the Callgraffiti and using it to create and manipulate form out of the written message. One of his latest works, for example, is based on a Rumi poem. A first canvass exhibition is also on its way, whilst teaching calligraphy in schools in Denmark and looking forward to taking part in the ‘Shubbak Festival’ in London in 2015.