From Yemen to the world: Yemeni artists highlighting displacement
The war in Yemen is approaching its four-year anniversary, yet still Yemeni voices are not being heard. Global media is failing to document and share the country’s perils - but this doesn't mean others can’t find a way. The lack of noise and coverage has inspired a Yemeni art-collective with a goal to highlight the voice of Yemen to the wider world. ‘On Echoes of Invisible Hearts: Narratives of Yemeni Displacement’ is an art instalment, curated by Lila Nazemian with thoughtful pieces from Yemeni artists including Ibi Ibrahim, a visual artists, filmmaker and musician and director of Romooz Foundation; an independent, non-profit dedicated to the promotion and development of Yemeni Art and Culture.
Nazemian and Ibrahim, alongside other Yemeni artists, Yasmine Diaz, Saba Jallas, Arif Al Nomay, Eman al-Awami, and Habeeb Abu-Futtaim, have taken their work to Berlin, and will soon showcase it in Beirut and Doha. The exhibition aims to examine, highlight and showcase the war in Yemen and the subsequent displacement of its people, from a personal perspective, but at an international level.
We spoke with Nazemian and Ibrahim, to better understand their inspiration, goals and hopes for this arts initiative:
‘On Echoes of Invisible Hearts: Narratives of Yemeni Displacement’, the name says a lot. Can you tell us in your own words what this arts initiative is about and what led you to create it?
Ibi Ibrahim (II): This project is the creation of our curator Lila Nazemian. Diwan Al Fan is the art program of the Sana’a based Romooz Foundation. We offered a platform to Ms. Nazemian to develop her project; in total the project took 24 months of research and production. Prior to the launch of Romooz earlier this year, Diwan Al Fan began its activities as an initiative in 2017, The program supports visual artists, music and film from Yemen through local and international projects- including exhibitions, art residencies and music productions.
You work with other Yemeni artists, who are they and why did you choose them for this project?
II: We started the foundation to better help the contemporary art movement in Yemen. For this particular exhibition project, the selection of the exhibited artists was based on the decision of the curator, Lila Nazemian (LN). It was bittersweet to see how our small show brought together Yemenis from different geographical backgrounds.
What are the themes of the group show, in relation to both the artist’s experiences in Yemen, and in the wider world?
II: The show reflects on the current instability in Yemen and the greater refugee crisis throughout the region, On Echoes of Invisible Hearts features artists in Yemen and the diaspora whose works explore themes of loss and estrangement.
Lila Nazemian (LN): The main theme of show explores the concept of ‘Displacement,’ both literally and figuratively. My intention was to discuss the conflict in Yemen in terms of experiences of individuals rather than the kinds of narratives that are presented by media (if they even cover Yemen). Through the exhibition, viewers are presented with a variety of different perspectives from artists whose works in one way or another, touch upon this theme. The works are diverse in terms of medium, but more importantly in terms of their approach to the theme. By challenging the dominant narratives about Yemen and its peoples, the exhibition draws attention to the discrepancies that exist between public and private knowledge of events unfolding in Yemen daily.
Does the exhibition focus on experiences as Yemenis, or as displaced individuals, or both?
LN: The exhibition is not an overarching presentation of Yemenis, it presents perspectives from six artists whose works reflect upon the theme of displacement. It was important to include artists based in different parts of the world so that they could bring to the table some of the complexities of the current political situation that has brought about the displacement of millions of individuals. Arif Al Nomay lives and works in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia while his family still live in Ibb, Yemen. Habeeb Mohammed Abu Futtaim is based in Qatar, and Eman Al Awami and Saba Jalas are based in Sana’a. Taking into account the current political tensions, there exists yet another layer of reality reflected in the dispersal of Yemenis throughout the region and the world.
You have both been involved in the arts scene for many years, why is this project so important to you now?
II: I’ve partnered with my best friend to put together this project; this itself makes is an important aspect. This is our first group art exhibition in which we were able to bring Yemeni voices from variety of backgrounds together in one space.
Can you talk us through the artworks, and what they means to the artist, and what they hope to represent to the world?
LN: In her neon piece [above], Hanna Bint Ghamar, Yasmine Diaz takes on a personal subject matter with larger social repercussions which affect many Yemeni mothers. It is common for mothers in the Arab world to be referred to as “mother of (name of eldest son)” as opposed to their first names. Here, Diaz reverses the common patronymic tradition, changing it instead to a matronymic statement reading: “Hanna daughter of Ghamar.” Stating a mother’s first name aloud could be deemed as shameful, and many children abstain from mentioning their mother’s name in public. Beyond this specific issue, this piece is critical with regards to conceptualizing issues women face daily, as the bearers of familial honor. Across most countries, women are seen as representing the foundations of cultural identity and customs; often times, the home and domestic spaces, which traditionally reflect women’s realms, have been seen as havens of such societal codes. Because of this, in times of political and social instability, women have often come under harsher patriarchal scrutiny, with little prospects of progressive change.
It is important to keep in mind that while countless Yemenis are suffering the consequences of the current war, women and children are the most vulnerable. I hope that through the exhibition, viewers begin to understand the complex web of geo-global players and economic factors that sustain the war in Yemen.
Let me speak about other artworks too; in terms of directly addressing the theme, Eman Al-Awami [above] documents camps of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and questions the methods and representations that Western NGOs use in order to raise funds for humanitarian projects. Ibi Ibrahim’s video superimposes excerpts from conversations between Yemeni women in Jordan unable to return home upon the start of the war. In her collages, Yasmine Diaz targets the lack of coverage that the conflict in Yemen has garnered in Western media sources. In her neon piece, she comments on the continuities and shifts of women’s place in Yemeni society, furthermore in crisis due to the escalating current situation. Habeeb Mohammed Abu Futtaim’s works use physical elements such as salt and water as symbols for nationalism and displacement in his video, sculptural and installation works. Saba Jalas creates interventions on photographs taken with mobiles moments following air raids in Yemen by superimposing cheerful and playful digital drawings to evoke resilience and hope.
Presenting the most metaphoric works in the exhibition, Arif Al Nomay’s photographs [above] underwent a technical digital glitch which resulted in fragmented amalgamations of various photos taken at a 2014 Yemeni cultural festival in Sana’a. The result is a ghostly compilation of iconic landmarks, silhouetted objects, unidentifiable individuals and hazy landscapes.
The first international showcase of your exhibition was in Berlin, why here?
LN: We chose Berlin as the first location to showcase this exhibition for several reasons. Berlin is one of the global centers of contemporary art and it was important that the artists be presented in a professional and intellectually rigorous environment. Furthermore, we were sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), a German political foundation which funds development and humanitarian projects around the world, including in Yemen. Most importantly, the show was conceived to be presented in Berlin so as to further connect to the greater refugee and immigrant experiences that have been at the forefront of current-day political discourses throughout Europe. With the current immigrant crises that have dominated Western media and current-day political discourses, it is imperative to connect these issues to the various wars being fought in the Middle East, among other regions, such as the African subcontinent.
Any why Beirut and Doha next?
II: We would like to take different iterations of the show to as many cities as possible. Its important that Yemeni artists have a space for their narrative and voices to be heard. Beirut came first and now Doha. We hope our project will continue to be welcomed at different art centers, galleries and institutions elsewhere.
Where in the world do you spend most of your time now?
II: This year, I am spending much of my time between Berlin and Sana’a.
And where do you call home?
II: I’d like to say that Sana’a will always be home. The answer to this question often changes, depending on my emotions and state of mind. For now, I am happy to offer this as an answer.
You still frequently travel to Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city. How is life in capital today?
II: The war has damaged the city and the entire country to a great deal. When I speak about Sana’a, I try to focus on the changes I see, the desire for people to live and for this war to end. My friend Amr Gamal’s film ‘10 Days Before the Wedding’ continues to play in local cinemas in Aden for 4th month in a row. It has gone over 180 screenings; the desire for the people to live, to see art, entertainment is stronger than this war. This is the message I am trying to send out when I am asked about life in Yemen 4 years into this horrible war.
Growing up, did you travel a lot within Yemen? Can you share a couple of stories from your internal travels as a child?
II: Not as much as I would’ve loved. We were not as adventurous as other families and groups who would travel +12 hours by car. We wouldn’t go beyond +5 hours. We would organize small trips outside of Sana’a to family friends’ farms. As I grew older, I wished I could travel within Yemen but the older I got, the worse the situation become.
Socotra, a Yemeni island, is one of the most unique and biodiverse places on our planet. Have you been?
II: I will go. That day is yet to come.
Back to the show; what are your hopes for this show; what do you want it to bring to the world?
LN: There is no doubt that the foundations of Yemen’s society have been pushed to the brink of implosion. As of 2018, there are over 10,000 civilian deaths, over 3 million displaced and uprooted individuals, and over 17 million people who rely on humanitarian assistance. In addition to this, Yemen is facing the worst cholera outbreak in modern history and is on the verge of famine. Despite these dire conditions, Yemen is rarely mentioned in the Western media. Publicizing the urgency of Yemen’s deteriorating state has been the focus of numerous local and international humanitarian organizations. While this needs to be more prevalent in daily mainstream news, addressing the crisis solely through the media may not be enough to engage and inform audiences around the world. Approaching Yemen and the experiences of its people through the realm of arts and culture, can also help bring the discussion into the everyday lives of Western citizens, in addition to introducing more critical and nuanced understandings of their governments’ roles in worldwide hostilities. Once the ramifications of these conflicts take on a personal meaning and responsibility for international citizens, government representatives and administrations will hopefully be pressured to take more ethical and just steps with regards to the conflict in Yemen and beyond. One such example is the case of the German government who, in January 2018, announced that it would no longer sells arms to countries involved in the Yemen war. While this resolution raises several questions regarding past sales, among other caveats, it is nevertheless an exemplary step in the right direction for other governments to follow.
What’s next, either for ‘On Echoes of Invisible Hearts: Narratives of Yemeni Displacement’ or any other projects you have in the pipeline?
LN: My goal is to continue presenting perspectives from Yemeni artists through location specific versions of this exhibition. The first show was conceived to be presented in Berlin/Europe, and as a result I had a European context and viewership in mind. I am currently working on the second edition of On Echoes of Invisible Hearts which will be presented in various cities in the Middle East and as such, will include a different central theme with new artists and artworks.
Ultimately, I hope that the works in these exhibitions challenge the ideas that viewers have of Yemen and the current conflict, and above all, that they humanize the experiences and lives of Yemenis.
II: Invisible Hearts will travel to Beirut then Doha in 2019. Lila, our curator is working on a specific iteration of the show as it opens in the Middle East. In terms of other projects, Romooz Foundation is currently working on two; a poetry dialogue project and a creative writing project. We’re investing all our efforts to become a strong platform for Yemeni creatives; artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers, writers, etc.
Our government failed us, but luckily we have each other.
- Interview by Katie Silcox my