Meet Nujuum, a Young Artist Painting Her Way to Happiness

Celebrating creativity here needs tenacity as well as talent.

Jan 29, 2023
Special Collections: CHANGEMAKERS
Meet Nujuum, a Young Artist Painting Her Way to Happiness | Celebrating creativity here needs tenacity as well as talent.

Najma Hashi, aka Nujuum, is a respected  female artist, whose vibrant paintings are gaining a global following. But Najuum is not your typical next-gen rising star. Nuguum, 26,  grew up in Somalia, a country that has experienced turbulent times, and where budding artists, especially female ones, are discouraged to pursue art, and so a rarity.

It all started in childhood
“I remember when I was little, I used to have these kinds of fantasies of creating my own world in my mind,” Nujuum recalls in our United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) video.

Since she was seven, everywhere Nujuum went, she felt moved to paint. As a child, on her way home from school, she would sit by the shore and draw pictures in the sand. Her motivation for doing this? “I was thinking of creating my own little world, skipping from the reality, on the ground.” As she went through school, she drew a whole city on her bedroom wall using her school pencils.

And this young artist grew up with much to escape from. Her childhood had a harrowing backdrop that she has compared to watching a horror movie: the ravages of war, drought,extreme poverty and displacement included. Through the civil war and unrest she was witness to, which saw her family uprooted multiple times in and around her country’s capital, Mogadishu, Nujuum continued to create art. As she tells the BBC World Service: "Art has always been a form of relief for me… During periods of intense fighting, drawing pictures of normal, peaceful life calmed my nerves."

Even when the country’s situation quietened down, this fledgling artist continued to use art as a means of coping with stress, for instance that caused by an aggressive teacher. 

When she was younger, her late father acted as her art teacher, as he liked to doodle.  But Nujuum was well aware that art isn’t a revered profession in her country and that she had to forge a career by overcoming deep-seated  prejudice regarding her choice. “Art in general, in [the] Somalian community, they think it’s not a good thing to do, ” she says. Her mother did not share her dreams, nor did her neighbors who considered them un-Islamic.

This pressure saw her abandon art for a while in favor of nursing studies. However, artistic expression, she shares, was too much a part of her to be suppressed. Or in her own words, as explained in the SEEN africa Facebook clip above, she realised that she had a choice: “Either I continue drawing and painting and create a beautiful life or I stay miserable for the rest of my life.”

Breaking free through art
Eventually, it dawned on Nujuum that she could turn her passion for self expression through art into something she could make a living from. 

Today, based in Hargeisa, in Somaliland to the north of Somalia, Nujuum is able to support herself and her extended family through various art projects. She is given work by government departments and international organisations as well as individuals. Nuguum also partners with the UNDP to provide art for creative projects.

Recent commissions include a mural for a woman-only media house in Mogadishu in which she has delicately placed herself, a figure contentedly painting under the shade of a tree. She also illustrated a campaign initiated by Somaliland’s education ministry to get more girls into school. Of one of the paintings, she told the BBC “This girl is doing her homework while she tends the family's goats after her long walk home from school. I wanted to show that girls can study alongside their household duties."

Nujuum is also inspired to spotlight environmental challenges through her art, including drought and environmental degradation, through more abstract compositions. 

Nujuum famously painted her own fight against the Covid virus, covered in ADF Magazine, in an image showing her boxing against the cartoon-like, spiked ball of the global scourge, a determined look on her face. This painting led to requests from others about how she herself overcame the illness, and a broader social media following. At the time, she emphasised how art is an expert visual communicator, especially when most people are illiterate, as they are in her region.

Painting tomorrow
Nujuum is thrilled to be leading a new generation of local painters to create for themselves, saying: “It is really amazing that I started inspiring others so that they can also do what I’m doing.” 

Describing herself as a “free-minded” artist, she enjoys going out into the countryside to capture the hidden beauty of Somali life, “far away from the stereotypes of war, famine and disease.”

Her social media exposure led to greater recognition back home, and a chance meeting during a work project in 2021 with European Union staff in her home country, who encouraged her to apply to study in Spain, which saw her welcomed on art courses there.

Najuum dreams of opening a school one day for other accomplished local artists, enabling them to choose art as a career too. Insead of a vocation to be avoided at all costs, Nujuum is convinced of its value and insists: “Art is a very powerful tool, and I think art is very crucial in every part of life.”

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.
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