In the Midst of War, Yemen’s First Contemporary Art Gallery Hopes for New History

Thoughts of Yemen may lead all too quickly to what the United Nations has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Since 2014, the country has been mired in a state of civil war, with ongoing fighting between Houthi militias and those loyal to the country’s exiled president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Some 24 million Yemenis—around 80 percent of the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance, and, as noted by UN Secretary General António Guterres in 2018, the conflict has resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, outbreaks of disease, and millions of children prevented from going to school in a country suffering from famine and cultural devastation.

Such conditions might not seem conducive to a new gallery for contemporary art, but against the odds, Arsheef recently launched as the country’s first such enterprise in the Yemeni capital of Sana. “Our aim is to promote the work of contemporary Yemeni artists in times of conflict and unrest,” Ibi Ibrahim, a Sana native who opened the operation with London-based critic and curator Lizzy Vartanian in November, told ARTnews. “We want to show the world a different view of Yemen, one that doesn’t revolve around just war.”

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Arsheef, which translates as “archive” in Arabic, opened in November with a group show, “Turning The Light On,” that presented works by emerging Yemeni photographers Asim Abdulaziz, Somaya Abdulla, Ammar Abbas, Bashayer Mosen, and Shaima Al-Tamimi. “Photography needs light; you’re turning the light onto an art scene most people don’t know exists and onto the lives of people most people don’t know about,” Ibrahim wrote in a description of the show, which ran through mid-December. “You’re making the invisible visible and offering them the respect they deserve.”

Shaima al Tamimi’s So Close Yet So Far Away (2018), which featured in the Arsheef exhibition “Turning the Light On.”

In a bustling area of Sana, a city with a little over 4 million inhabitants, Arsheef operates in what Ibrahim describes as “the melting pot of Yemen.” Here, bustling city life continues amid the devastation of war. Shops and large marketplaces continue daily business, even under constant threat. “It’s a place where life meets death in the most poetic way,” Ibrahim said. “All borders between people now vanish into a camaraderie of survival.”

The gallery is open by appointment only, due to periods of unrest, and Arsheef engages with the public primarily through an Instagram account to showcase its artists and interact with potential collectors. Visitors can schedule time to see the gallery by sending a direct message on Instagram, and otherwise the account is filled with images of daily life in Yemen: still lifes in old deserted buildings, shoes left outside during the call to prayer, children holding hands while walking on a seemingly infinite highway. Through such images, Arsheef offers the rest of the globe windows into the lives of Yemenis today.

Asim Abdulaziz’s Untitled (2019), which featured in the Arsheef exhibition “Turning the Light On.”

“Instagram is the number one tool for me to follow and engage with what other artists are doing around the world from Yemen,” said Ibrahim. “Yemen has the slowest internet speed in the world—plus Instagram is often blocked, requiring the constant use of VPN [virtual private networks]. Yet the youth and creatives find a way to get connected, share, like, post, and showcase their creations. That in itself is the most inspiring thing ever.”

Arsheef is what Ibrahim calls a “social enterprise” that aims not only to sell contemporary Yemeni art but also to help foster a market for it at home and abroad while seeking out exhibition opportunities for its artists and educating them on how to present themselves and their work. “The art market in Yemen was once quite vibrant—there was always some sort of an opening, whether at a foreign embassy, a culture center, a café, etc.,” Ibrahim said. “I recall a time when one would need to make a choice. One hopes that the war will end soon and life will go back to normal. All markets will eventually return, including art.”

Ibrahim, who is 32 years old, is an artist in his own right, predominately in film, music, and photography. His work has been exhibited at the Queens Museum in New York (in the 2018 exhibition “Executive (Dis)Order: Art, Displacement, & the Ban”) as well as Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordon; the Barjeel Foundation in Sharjah; the Beirut Art Residency; and the Bernheimer Contemporary in Berlin, among other locations.

In the spring of 2018 he returned to Yemen after four years in Berlin. “I came back to Sana as the situation started changing,” he said. “There was and still is war, but things have gotten a bit better—life is coming back, and I haven’t been able to leave.”

The year he returned, he founded the Romooz Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and development of Yemeni art and culture. “Today [many people] don’t think of Yemen prior to 2014,” Ibrahim said. “Romooz, like Arsheef, provides a platform for an alternative narrative.”The foundation has been the recipient of numerous grants, including the Prince Claus Fund Next Generation Award during the summer of 2018 for its poetry project In the Land of Shattered Windows: Young Voices from a Broken Yemen, for which poems where exchanged between young Yemenis from opposite sides of the conflict via audio recordings of poems sent via WhatsApp. The aim was to shed light on the human aspects of daily life in Yemen that are missing from the international headlines. Romooz also received a grant from the Arab Fund for Art and Culture to run a creative writing workshop in Sana, the result of which was a book titled Conflict: The New Literature in Yemen.

Emerging Yemeni writers in the workshop that resulted in the book Conflict: The New Literature in Yemen.

Staging art events in Yemen is not easy. “We must obtain permits and approvals from the authorities,” Ibrahim said, “and oftentimes it is really difficult for us to explain the importance of these projects to them. They’ve been rejected with the excuse that ‘we are in a humanitarian crisis and, if this is not a humanitarian project, it is not going to be approved.’”

But perseverance is important. “I always say that, if the system is difficult, then we as creatives and artists have to be far more difficult to survive,” Ibrahim said. “I hope Arsheef’s presence will encourage more commercial art spaces to open up in Sana.”

Opening next week and running through February 13, the gallery’s next exhibition will feature work by multimedia artist Afraa Ahmed exploring her current relationship with her Yemeni homeland. Now based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Ahmed uses the moon as a metaphor for Yemen in her ethereal new work for an exhibition titled “When The Moon Fell From The Sky, It Broke,” which references ancient architectural sites and the damage they face from ongoing war.

“You see the moon from afar and it’s so beautiful [that] you almost want to go there,” said Vartanian, the other gallery founder who curated the show. “But when you see it up close, it’s got craters on it. It’s not perfect—it’s been bashed.” From a different vantage, Ahmed “sees Yemen from afar and misses it and wants to touch it,” Vartanian said. “It’s beautiful and it’s her home, and it’s kind of fractured.”

As for how fractured, “It depends on where you live,” Ibrahim said. “The country is divided more than ever. An artist from the north is governed by an entirely different government than an artist in the south.”

Ibrahim hopes work by the artists on show at his gallery might help bridge the divide, but consideration for all is paramount. “We’re still at the early stages of Arsheef and uncertain what we might face,” he said. “One thing for sure: we have to think twice about everything we do before it goes out.”


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