Artists paint the many faces of Yemen
CAIRO - In their country’s ancient history and cultural heritage, Yemeni painters have found a haven through which they can escape the bitter present of their war-torn country, one devastated by four years of relentless war and that has left millions suffering.
They escape through paintings that call for life and shun death, that paint smiles rather than tearful eyes and that depict homes full of life and movement instead of abandoned ruins.
Nearly 120 artists took part in an exhibition in August in Giza, Egypt. Their brushes nostalgically archived the past and yearned for tranquillity, depicting plains, mountains, land and people.
The “Yemeni Art Caravan” exhibition represented the artistic spectrum. It included works from all Yemeni provinces, whether controlled by the Houthis or by the recognised government. There were pieces by Yemeni artists living in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Turkey, Spain, China and Britain.
Yemeni artist Mohammed Sabaa said the artists were free to express their mind without constraints or directives. The art caravan is not affiliated with any political entity. It sought to enrich the local art scene and emphasise the intellectual and philosophical freedom of expression of the participants in formulating the visual symbols and forms that represent Yemen in all its culture and beauty.
The diversity of the participants in the exhibition carried the message that art must be purified from politics and power struggles so artists can take in a full dose of freedom that is uncompromised by internal or external pressures from those serving narrow interests.
Sabaa said the exhibition embodied the creativity of Yemeni artists, bringing under one roof those representing every province and did not deal with the war, preferring to depict the diversity of the environment, the beauty of the architecture and elements of culture, heritage and folklore.
Organised by Yemeni and Egyptian cultural institutions, including the Yemeni Cultural Centre, the exhibition was not without elegiac paintings bemoaning reality indirectly.
Some artists pointed out that reality sometimes dominates their paintings. The heritage of their country cannot be approached without addressing the political strife and insecurity ripping their country or the practices that have affected the lives and health of millions of Yemeni citizens. How can an artist paint only happy faces when sadness is the dominant feature of his compatriots’ faces?
“Al-Bardouni” by Adel al-Majidi, who prefers painting through Arabic calligraphy, included dozens of subliminal messages that summarise the repeated conflicts throughout Yemen’s history. It weaves in the life of Abdullah Saleh al-Bardouni, whose polio-caused blindness did not stop him from becoming one of Yemen’s most famous poets and the most important historian of the conflict between the monarchists and the republicans.
The painting attempted to draw inspiration from Bardouni’s poems. Majidi addressed concerns and issues of his homeland and expressed the suffering of his fellow citizens, as well as the issue of national liberation. Through the painting, the artist considers that poetry has the task of expressing people’s concerns, conveying their feelings and depicting their times.
Ahlam al-Rifai drew a modern image of Yemeni women by painting an unveiled woman wearing a modern outfit and striking a bewildered pose. She titled it “Moklaf Aden” (“The Cost of Aden”), playing on the ambiguity of the word “moklaf,” which can mean either “financial cost” or “physical hardship” or perhaps refers in the local vernacular to divorced or widowed women who are burdened with life alone after losing a husband.
Rifai, who is known for her political activism and commentary on important events, said she presented a specimen of the beautiful Adeni woman who derives her beauty from her city and preserves her elegance through her insistence to live and survive despite being overwhelmed by suffering, sadness and hardship.
The Yemeni art caravan offered a full record of daily life and popular culture. It included paintings of men working in fields, girls shepherding cattle, women making household items or looking admiringly at the ancient ruins. There was a picture of a queen holding a torch, an image that emphasises the antiquity of the people and their ability to take off anew and rebuild.
Anfal al-Mughals, who lives in Guangzhou, China, demonstrated a rather singular technique in her work. She painted the face of a Yemeni girl in the place of the famous image of the girl found on playing cards, blending in a mixture of local Yemeni decorative elements to deliver the message that Yemen has a glorious past and that the success of the Queens Balqis and Arwa can be repeated at any time.
The “Yemeni Art Caravan” represented a title for a utopia, powered by art and based on a society devoid of hatred. That kind of Yemen would mean the Iran-backed faction there would have to give up its ambitions of domination for the benefit of the nation in the hope of reviving an ancient civilisation whose name was, for centuries, associated with happiness.