Many artists have left the country, but those who have stayed are becoming increasingly resourceful
While months of political unrest in Yemen had already led to the closure of many of the country’s museums and foreign-run cultural centres, the threatened escalation to a full-scale proxy war this month will threaten the country’s last independent art spaces.
The Basement Cultural Foundation in the capital Sanaa remained active until at least 20 March, when horrific bombings at local mosques killed 142 people. But with schools and universities now shutting down, the popular underground art centre is unlikely to risk staying open, said Ibi Ibrahim, a leading Yemeni-American artist and photographer.
Saudi Arabia launched a bombing campaign in Yemen on 26 March aimed at northern strongholds of the Shiite militia known as the Houthis. The Houthi take over of Sanaa in September, and the continuing risk of terror attacks from Al Qaeda affiliated groups, had already led to the closure of many of the country’s museums and foreign-run cultural centres.
Yemen’s artists, with photography a prominent art form that has produced several significant female photographers, were still working and producing interesting art, curators say. But “it is quite a challenge to be an artist in the country,” says Ibrahim, speaking from Berlin. Ibrahim, whose photographs and films have probed the dangerous subject of sexuality and gender, left Yemen after a display of his work in London last year provoked shocked reactions back home including death threats.
Numerous public institutions have closed in recent months. They include the National Museum of Yemen in Sanaa, which is located on the central Tahrir Square making it a high-profile target, and the Yemen Cultural Centre run by the Ministry of Culture, which has stopped hosting exhibitions. Cultural centres run by European embassies including the French Cultural Center and the German House have also stopped holding shows.
As a result, the Basement Cultural Foundation had become a main gathering point for Yemeni artists in Sanaa, where artists still felt free to show and discuss their work. It is “the place to go for artists, painters and photographers, to look at work and discuss it,” Ibrahim says. “For me it was the only place where I was comfortable enough to display and talk about my work.”
In the absence of venues to show their work, artists have been resourceful. One group of female photographers recently used a cafe to host an exhibition marking International Women’s Day. And some foreign organisations also remain active in the country. The British Council staged a three-hour pop-up art show in a local hotel last month and now plans further exhibitions online.
“Yemeni artists and the art scene here have [matured] in the past four years, there is more freedom, and everybody has started to believe that they can do something [to change things]. Artists now are less shy than before, they want to learn more,” says Aziz Morfeq, one of the administrators of the Basement Cultural Foundation. Under the three-decade rule of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the government “would never show your art in public museums if they didn’t like it,” Morfeq says. Only landscapes, horses, villages, mountains, or portraits of the president himself were approved, he adds.
However, most Yemeni artists of note have left the country says Janet Rady, whose eponymous gallery in London displays art from the Middle East. “They are extremely talented and not afraid to question their identity, although perhaps unlike artists from other countries in the region they are not so keen to bring politics into their work.” Rady will soon start collaborating with the painter Nasser Al-Aswadi, who first exhibited in Sanaa in 2001, and now lives between Yemen and France. His abstract work is inspired by stories of shepherds from his home village, along with old legends or tales of animals, sometimes taken from the Koran.
The art scene in Yemen itself was already small, with support and sales for artists scant. With the situation escalating rapidly, Ibrahim says: “I’ve been rather numb the past few days, just like any person with family in Yemen. I think the last thing I think about now is my career. I just pray for safety for my family, loved ones and my land. If there is one thing I felt the past few days as I look at different Facebook posts from people inside and outside Yemen, it is how much we love our country. This land unites us in its tragedy.”