THE CRIES OF A NORTH AFRICAN ARTIST — MIXING COLORS WITH HIS TEARS
By Vincent Lyn
Last year June, 2020 I wrote an article about Algerian artist Chemsou Belarbi “From Abject Poverty One Artist Dreams Are Realized”. We have stayed in close contact and like all artists COVID-19 has had a severe impact on us all. Whether one is a successful artist or entertainer we’ve all been affected but certainly no more than already struggling artists like Chemsou. I wanted to follow-up with him and see how he’s coping. One thing is for sure no matter what the circumstances as artists we must always keep perfecting our craft. Invariably in the toughest and darkest of times it can bring forth our greatest inspirations.
Chemsou was born on February 14, 1987 in municipality of Ain Tadlas of Mostaganem, Algeria. The oldest child of a family of six. His father tirelessly worked hard and despite his old age was afflicted with many health problems. His brother became seriously ill from hard strenuous work and it caused a severe disability in his ability to walk. Chemsou was mentally affected by what he saw and it put extreme pressure on him. His art was his way out and how he put his emotions to his palette. As a young boy he was mesmerized by the huge posters that hang inside the doors of the cinemas. He would run home and from memory draw the scenes he had witnessed in the movies. Some of the movie posters that stuck in his memory and have remained etched are, Operation Condor, Rush Hour, Batman and other films.
Living in abject poverty there wasn’t even enough money to buy food for the family so affording art supplies was completely out of the question. He worked whatever odd jobs he could find in order to buy tickets for the cinema hall. Many times being taken advantage of by corrupt and greedy bosses. Chemsou suffered a lot as a young teenager and his childhood became a state of survival. But all he dreamed of day in and day out was to find a way to draw and paint the images he saw inside the cinema. It would allow him to drift into a fantasy world far away from the reality he was living.
He decided to build a small workshop in the middle of the family house. As he had no money for art supplies he would produce colors from leaves of trees and flowers. Drying and extracting red and yellows made for good painting. The drawing feather was made from old tattered clothes that were thrown into the trash. He followed up with sending messages to American film production companies. But nothing comes easy and an artists life is never paved in gold. It requires tenacity, due diligence, discipline, passion and a never giving up mind-set. Life was brutal and most of the work he could find to afford time to devote to his art was hard labor at construction sites, heaving rocks and stones back and forth. Like anybody even in the best of circumstances it affected his overall health and mental focus. It became so bad that he spent two months in hospital with a stomach disease.
After leaving hospital he was even more determined and started showing his art anywhere he could even exhibiting them on the street. Which led him to decorating local shops. With patience and concerted effort his work was recognized by some film directors and he was able to design more than 15 international movie posters.
Like most everyone, all we want is to take care of ourselves and our family and not be a burden on society. A job that would guarantee enough money to build a solid future, to get married and have children to make their lives easier. To feel happy and proud of our life’s achievements, so that we can pass down life’s lessons to our offspring and eventually retire. Chemsou dreamed of eventually becoming an old man and with that would to go from house to house carrying his Oud (the oud is a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument) offering joy with music from Arabia, China and classical musical pieces. As a young boy life was was not easy on Chemsou and it seems life has no mercy on many lives around the world. He begged for mercy and would pray and plead for forgiveness. All he wanted was a little help to achieve his dream but unfortunately life doesn’t work that way. Like the people in the fields toiling under the hot sun day in day out with no light at the end of the tunnel. With Chemsou it was carrying hot metal ladders back and forth all day long until his hands were seared with burns certainly not a good start for an artist who prides himself on the beauty of the poetry of his hands.
Chemsou tried to forget the bad memories that haunted him and started praying, reading verses from the Holy Qur’an and then would draw characters on the walls of abandoned dwellings that were built from clay. He used to draw the characters from the films that stuck out in his memory. He remembered about my parents and my father who was in the British Royal Air Force… “and when I drew them, I cried, because I imagined them in the Arabian desert with the features of their good faces”. He felt a strange feeling as if they wanted to say, “Yes this is life and we are all human beings — equal under the sun”.
Chemsou painted actors and public figures that inspired him Michael Jai White, Richard Norton, Don Wilson, Mohamed Qissi, Jimmy Gourad, Mohammed Ali, Sir Sean Connery and former President Barack Obama …. Regarding technical relationship with politicians, it was complicated. He met with former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as was his first appearance on Algerian television … he also received a call from Mustafa Obama, brother of U.S President Barack Obama … where Mustafa told him that he was eager to work on a documentary about his artistic career …. He also received an encouraging message from the Belgian Minister of Culture, Fadila Lanan, and also received a letter from the Belgian politician Martin Mambaka …. Chemsou dream is that his life story will be translated into a documentary or feature film with the participation of Jackie Chan, Vincent Lyn and other Hollywood actors.
If you’re going to dream, dream big, and reach for the stars. You never know where life will take you and you just might catch one of those shining stars!
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street New Agency