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TRIPOLI: A seemingly ordinary villa in the heart of Tripoli houses a lifetime’s worth of works by the late Libyan artist Ali Gana, whose family transformed his home into a unique museum.
In the North African country, which is still struggling with divisions and conflicts following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, “art comes last,” said Hadia Gana, the youngest of the artist’s four children.
In a decade of preparation, with the help of volunteers, she transformed the classical-style Tripolitan villa of her father, who died in 2006 at the age of 70, into “the first and only museum of modern art in Libya,” Gana said.
Bayt Ali Gana – in Arabic, “Ali Gana’s House” – finally opened this year and aims to offer both retrospective and hope in a country constantly threatened by violence and where art and culture are largely neglected.
“It is seen as something superfluous,” says Gana, adding that galleries in the country often focus only on selling artworks and not on making art more accessible.
Behind a lush garden, visitors reach the museum’s permanent exhibition of paintings, sculptures and sketches by the master Ali Gana.
Other rooms contain changing exhibitions and offer space for seminars and topic-related workshops.
Attached to one wall, an old shipping container houses an artist residency for “curators and museologists” whose skills are rare in Libya, said Hadia Gana.
Libyan artists were subjected to censorship and self-censorship for long periods during Gaddafi’s four-decade rule, and “we were not allowed to express our political views,” recalls 50-year-old ceramic artist Gana.
Art “must have no barriers,” she said, proudly embodying the artistic freedom of the family space.
Bayt Ali Gana appears timeless, although the villa shows some traces of the unrest that followed the overthrow and death of Gaddafi.
At the gate that separates the museum from the private residence hangs a bullet-riddled traffic sign.
Inverted mortar shells stand among the flowers in the garden, where visitors are offered cold drinks or Italian espresso in a setting modeled on the Café Said that once belonged to Ali Gana’s father in Tripoli’s old medina.
During the unrest that began in 2011, Hadia Gana said she feared she would “lose everything if a rocket hit the house.”
Then came the idea of ​​founding a museum to preserve her father’s valuable works and archives.
Isolated fights, water and power outages, and forced isolation due to the Covid pandemic posed major challenges to the family’s mission. In order to preserve the independence of their young institution, the Ganas also refrained from seeking state funding or investors.
Little by little, the house was transformed into a cultural center that celebrated Ali Gana’s calling “to teach and educate through art,” his daughter said.
It is “not a mausoleum” but a center of creativity and education, she said.
The Gana archives also document traditional crafts and trades, some of which have now completely disappeared.
After his coup in 1969, Gaddafi banned all private enterprise, and “for 40 years, handicrafts were a banned activity,” says Mehdi, the late artist’s eldest son, who now lives in the Netherlands.
He said that during his lifetime, Ali Gana made it his mission to “build archives to link Libya’s past with a possible future.”
It is “in the nature of the family” to preserve and pass on knowledge, said 84-year-old matriarch Janine Rabiau-Gana.
Hadia Gana lamented that although museums should also be educational spaces, “here in Libya we do not yet have this concept.”
She said she wanted to avoid “turning it into a museum where everything is rigid.”
Instead: “I wanted something lively, almost playful and, above all, a place that arouses curiosity in all its beauty.”

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