Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 15th November 2021

by Friends of South Yemen

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War cannot silence Yemen’s artistic output

“Before unification there was a big art movement, especially in the South,” recalls Saber Bamatraf, a musician. “We had theatres and a strong music scene, which influenced other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It was very progressive. But after unification the theatres closed and art classes were suspended.”

Unity was a disaster for the thriving arts scene in South Yemen. Speaking at an online conference on “The Case for Southern Statehood” organized last year by FOSY, lawyer Linda Mohamed Ali Hussein described the repressive measure of the Northern regime including obliterating cultural monuments, closing theatres, cinemas, public libraries, museums, musical bands, theatre groups and all forms of art, literature and other creative endeavours.

But today, even in the conflict-dominated environment, a revival of the arts may be possible in the South. In a paper Voicing Grievances and Hope through Art: Yemen’s Youth Empower Themselves, Larissa Alles pointed out that the uprising in 2011 opened up new spaces for various forms of civil society activism and provided a vital ground for artists.

Adult education and workforce by Abbās al Junaydī
Adult education and workforce by Abbās al Junaydī

The demands of the protesters have been largely sidelined by the war and the humanitarian crisis from which no Yemeni can escape. Yet, as Alles says, youth activists do not accept that what had been “their popular revolution” has been simply taken over by the old guard. Instead, they claim back public spaces through forms of art. “In doing so, they keep the discourses about political and social change that started in 2011 alive. They refuse to be silenced by those in power. In self-funded, zero-budget campaigns, the artists-turned activists strive to show a more diverse picture of Yemen, emphasising the perspectives, aims, hopes and actions of the Yemeni population. The strength of their activities is that they reach out to address both local and international audiences and create pieces of work that can be largely consumed and understood by people regardless their educational background.”

In January 2021, the ‘Usaylan Cultural Festival in Shabwa organized by ‘Usaylan Association for Heritage and Culture used arts and culture to bring together people from all the districts of Shabwa with the aim not only of maintaining local cultural heritage but also enhancing relationships and peace among the Shabwani tribes.

Meemz, founded in 2017 in Hadhramaut by six young people active in the cultural sector, organized a dance performance in Mukalla and showed how sectarian differences can be resolved through dance. One of Meemz’s founding members, Shaima bin Othman, said the group felt driven to do something about the lack of arts and cultural activities in their governorate, especially following the impact of the AQAP takeover of Mukalla. “Our main objective is to harness the arts to bring about positive change, and to create a safe space for young artists to express their thoughts, concerns and ideas through arts of all kinds and make their voices heard in the world,” Meemz Othman explained. “In Hadhramawt we don’t have any artistic institutions or places where artists can go and get training. We don’t have theatre we don’t have a cinema, so basically we don’t have any form of art here.”

The bleak picture painted by Othman is changing with the reopening of the Jameel Ghanem Institute of Fine Arts in Aden, where young people are able to study music, theatre, painting art and dance. Music courses are the most popular, followed by drama and fine arts. “The youth of Aden are looking for art and life,” said Fouad Muqbil, the institute’s director. He believes that the institute also carries a healing message of spreading tolerance in the community, and of encouraging young people to work together to rebuild their nation and society.

After the Houthis were driven out of Aden in 2015 the years of fighting between the forces of the Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) strengthened the hand of extremist groups like al-Qaeda which promote hard-line interpretations of religion that devalue art and impose gender segregation at schools and universities.

“Despite al-Qaeda’s threats not to open the institute and their customs and traditions that prohibit the arts, we are not afraid – we feel sick of death.” Asrar Abdo, a teacher at the institute, said.

There is a possibility that the institute will receive government funding – which was withdrawn after the 1994 war – from the IRG. The STC is also supportive of the institute’s work and has promised to fund training courses and support the gallery.

Yemen did not have formal academic studies of the arts until the second half of the 20th century, after South Yemen gained independence from British rule in 1967. The establishment of the Jameel Ghanem Institute dates back to the 1970s. It was the first of its kind in the whole of Yemen and played a prominent role in the emergence and flourishing of art in the country. An art movement had begun in South Yemen in the 1930s during the period of British colonialism and focused on painting, which remains the most visible and recognized of all disciplines.

A student plays the guitar at the Jameel Ghanem Institute
A student plays the guitar at the Jameel Ghanem Institute

Free workshops (al marsam al hurr) began in Aden in 1976 as an initiative of the Ministry of Culture and Education. They were the first space that provided a diploma after three years of study. The workshops started with a group of 30 to 40 Yemeni students taught by the Egyptian artist Abdul Aziz Darwish, who like many other foreigners was employed by the state as part of an effort to expand education. Organized as an evening workshop, these classes continued until 1978, when art classes were also being taught at the state-run Jamil Ghanem Institute of Fine Arts by Egyptian, Palestinian, Iraqi and Russian teachers and artists.

During the 1980s the artistic movement located in Aden grew and expanded, in part through the establishment of professional associations for artists. For instance, the Association of Young Plastic Artists (jama'ia al tashkilin al shabab) included 80 members whose works were exhibited in Yemen and outside the country. Commercial galleries, set up by painters, also started opening during this decade.

It was also during these years that the largest group of Yemeni students to have studied abroad left the country to pursue Fine Arts-related degrees in the former Soviet Union. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, state scholarships were provided to pursue arts studies, and students returned to South Yemen after having earned qualifications ranging from Bachelor's to Doctor of Philosophy degrees. Trained artists also worked in the art department of the military and national museums established during the 1960s in Aden and which before and after unification made use of painting for political purposes.

Yemeni artist Abd Allah Ubayd in Kiev in 1988 as part of a cultural exchange with the USSR
Yemeni artist Abd Allah Ubayd in Kiev in 1988 as part of a cultural exchange with the USSR

Anahi Alviso-Marino, author of Impact of Transnational Experiences: The Case of Yemeni Artists in the Soviet Union, interviewed artist Abbās al‑Junaydī, who told her: “In Aden we all left together, painters, dancers, musicians, through the cultural cooperation mechanism, which was a cultural agreement with the Yemeni Republic in the south. This was in 1978 but before that, we had studied in the Free Workshop (al‑marsam al hurr) with Dr. ‘Abd al‑Azīz Darwīsh, an Egyptian professor who came to Yemen to help with the renaissance of a Yemeni artistic movement. The first step was when the Ministry of Culture opened this Workshop and studies began in 1976. We studied there in the evenings, from 1976 until 1978 and when we were in the third year at the Workshop, we obtained the scholarships to study in the USSR. We began to travel there in 1978. In this period what is now called the Jamīl Ghānim Institute for Fine Arts (ma‛had Jamīl Ghānim li‑l‑funūn al‑jamīla) opened in Aden with the help of teachers and cadres who came from Egypt and Palestine. By the mid‑1980s as Yemenis who had studied abroad started to return to Yemen, we started to replace these foreign teachers.”

Throughout Yemen’s modern history, there has always been a strong bond between Aden and music. The strength of this bond was first manifested in the 1940s and 1950s, when Aden offered the platform needed to host the creativity of many of North Yemen’s most prominent singers and musicians as well as those coming from Hadhramaut and Lahij. The city has been described as “the oasis of arts” as singers from North Yemen sought a peaceful haven there to live their passion after singing was prohibited by the imams in the North. Notable singers and musicians of southern regions, like Abu Bakr Salim, found Aden the epicentre of music and arts, with ample opportunities for promising careers.

The period after the unification of North and South Yemen in 1994, until the Houthi coup of 2014, was a bleak time for the arts, which the Northern regime squashed, suppressing the vibrant arts scene in south Yemen. But even during this time a women’s only art group was established in Aden.

After the coup the Bander Cultural and Arts Forum was established in Aden to promote art, literature and culture by respected literary and artistic individuals including Professor Salem Al‑Awsagi and Dr Hadi Al‑Awlaki. The forum seeks to reject the culture of violence, extremism and terrorism and to spread the culture of love, cooperation and peace, which allows creative people to flourish and serve South Yemen. “We hope to revive the culture of openness that was lost in the South,” the founders said in a statement.

Asrar Abdo teaches painting and drawing at the Jameel Ghanem Institute of Fine Arts in Aden (Photos courtesy of the Jameel Ghanem Institute)
Asrar Abdo teaches painting and drawing at the Jameel Ghanem Institute of Fine Arts in Aden (Photos courtesy of the Jameel Ghanem Institute)

In 2020 the Assembly of Single Young Men (AOSYM) organized a camping trip to the island of Dunafa. “It was the trip of all trips,” one of AOSYM’s founders, Muhammad Ihab, told the authors of a report Broken People Can’t Heal a Nation – the Role of Arts in Peacebuilding in Yemen. “We had more than 1,600 young men from Aden and from other different governorates. Some were also from northern cities like Taiz, Sanaa and Ibb. Many of these young people have political affiliations or may support different political sides, they come from different places, but it was music that united them all. There was no discussion of politics, or the hardships of life; rather, all wanted to listen to music, to sing, and to dance. It was a clear expression of how young men and how people in Aden promote coexistence, believe in peace, and want to have lives free of violent conflicts.”

Khalid Waleed, a guitarist, said: “Look at how people get excited when they learn there will be a musical event at Crown’s resort or at any other place; families go there in large numbers. If you want to see youth energy at first hand, if you want to see hope, peace, and understanding, attending one musical event in Aden will suffice.”

The constraints and horror of the current war have resulted in a fresh wave of Yemeni artists who tend to be young – typically under 35 – and who are wary of being framed only within the context of the conflict. They do not work in calligraphy or anything that could conventionally be called Islamic, or Middle Eastern art: instead, they often choose photography, film or new media. Many joined the 2011 protests in Sanaa’s Change Square, but do not want to be only defined as the product of just another war-torn country.

The output of this small but determined group, several of whom live and work overseas, has been celebrated across Europe, including exhibitions in Berlin, Beirut and London. The British Museum organised a symposium as part of the Shubbak Festival of Contemporary Arab Culture, highlighting the art of four artists of Yemeni origin – Selwa Aleryani, Rahman Taha, Ibi Ibrahim and Murad Subay.

To illustrate the very human impact of the war Oxfam invited Yemeni artists from all over the country to submit pieces demonstrating how the war has affected women and girls. The artwork produced demonstrated that in times of war, despite a lack of stability and materials, the creative spirit continues to flourish. And overwhelmingly, the submissions Oxfam received not only portray why peace is necessary now, but point to women as harbingers of the way forward.

The report Broken People Can’t Heal a Nation concludes that there are a number of different ways in which the arts can make a direct and indirect contribution to peacebuilding in Yemen, and that creative arts can also help broaden out peacebuilding efforts, away from the more traditional focus on institution building, military and political arrangements and top-down negotiation frameworks. Dealing with violent conflict is essentially dealing with brokenness – brokenness of society, community and individuals – and art and cultural activities provide an essential space for society to begin to mend itself.

Pain & Hope by Nada Jalal Al-Saqaf highlights the plight of women
Pain & Hope by Nada Jalal Al-Saqaf highlights the plight of women

A work from Rahman Taha's series From Mountains To The Sea, which explores Yemenis' relationship with the landscape
A work from Rahman Taha’s series From Mountains To The Sea, which explores Yemenis’ relationship with the landscape

A portrait from The Walls Remember Their Faces by Murad Subay drawing attention to Yemen’s disappeared
A portrait from The Walls Remember Their Faces by Murad Subay drawing attention to Yemen’s disappeared

Melancholy & Homeland by Eyman Mohamed Ramadhan
Melancholy & Homeland by Eyman Mohamed Ramadhan

Street art by Murad Subay
Street art by Murad Subay