Sana'a-based Yemeni photographer Ibi Ibrahim: ” I live between the choice of struggling as an artist, or struggling as a Yemeni artist.”
I don’t know how it happened; all I thought about was my desire to show visible signs of anger in my studio. I threw the glass frame as hard as I could onto the opposite side of the room. Small pieces, big pieces of glass, were suddenly born.
Before this, I was reading an article in Canvas, an art magazine, about collectors from the Middle East, their passion for supporting artists in the region, and their joy in travelling to discover new talents and buying works from emerging artists around the Middle East. None of that applies to me, or to any artist in my country, I thought.
âªYesterday, a German diplomat was shot dead outside the doors of a busy supermarket in Sana’a. There was an attempt to kidnap him, although once the kidnappers failed, they decided instead to shoot him and flee. Indeed, they did so, but apparently that wasn’t enough; the kidnappers later drove around the capital until they found another victim – an employee of the United Nations on his way to the airport – and boom: they kidnapped him as well. Instead of the airport, he was taken to only God-knows-where.
Today, I sit in my Sana’a studio – just a three-minute walk from the supermarket where the German was killed – continuing to apply all the skills I learned in New York. I watch my model apply make-up, before styling and photographing her, and later colour-correcting my photographs. Afterwards, I visit a printing house, print and frame a piece, and hang it in my living room.
“I am not selling at the moment, because there is nowhere to print my pieces.” Doesn’t that break your heart? To live in a place where you can never see the true final outcome of your work? That is the struggle of the Yemeni photographer.
There are no curators here in Sana’a; hell, there are no galleries here either. My living room has become a gallery, and with time, so has my bedroom. They hold pieces by me, as well as paintings I’ve purchased from Bombay and a small drawing I found in Istanbul. I don’t only take photographs here, though – I curate, too. Whenever I produce new works, I take down the old pieces, and frame the new ones. However, due to my circumstances as well as a lack of frames, I am obligated to print in small sizes. The frames in my studio are beautiful – I purchased them in India simply because finding art gallery-quality frames here is nearly impossible; and, as we’re talking about the lack of availability when it comes to finding art supplies and the like, I should mention that the Canvas magazine was found in Istanbul. Ha.
The Yemeni photographers Bushra al-Fusail and Sharaf al-Houthi have also given me some artworks as gifts. They say my apartment has a nice and artistic feel to it, and that they would like to see some of their pieces hung here. I encouraged this idea, because at one point, I thought I would invite foreign diplomats and NGO officers living in Sana’a to visit my studio, and try to capitalise on the trend of Westerners supporting Yemeni artists by acquiring their works. Sadly, though, these days, such patrons are on lockdown, and due to security reasons, cannot pay me a visit. There go all the studio visits I’d hoped for.
âªI wake up anxious to have a cup of tea. Drinking tea is my favourite part of the day: I carefully select my desired flavour, taking my time – I’m no rush whatsoever. After pouring myself a nice cup, I sit back on my sofa to enjoy a painting by Nasser al-Asawadi. It’s a beautiful piece he gave to me on my birthday. I remember telling myself that I must find daily pleasure in looking at it. It’s gorgeous, and I can never tire of it; even if I do, I must fake doing so. There are no museums here where you can see great works like this one. The talented artists have all left, or if they exhibit, they show their best works abroad. No one cares here, and those who do are trapped indoors. Go figure.
I’ve posed for the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat in the past, who gave me two of her photographs of me. I’ve left these with a friend in New York, as I wasn’t sure how long I would last in Yemen; five months later, I’m still not sure. I did, of course, ask for the piece, and have found a place for them in my living room. I can’t wait to receive them … I need new work here. I am tired of my own pieces. I want to question the meaning of an art piece done by someone else.
âªAll artists struggle, but I am deeply certain that us Yemeni artists struggle in a completely different way. I met the photographer Osama el-Eryani yesterday for the first time. Like me, he also studied in New York. I asked him about a piece of his that I liked and wished to buy. He responded by saying, ‘I am not selling at the moment, because there is nowhere to print my pieces’. Doesn’t that break your heart? To live in a place where you can never see the true final outcome of your work? That is the struggle of the Yemeni photographer.
The only art centres that have supported the works of such talented artists have either been French, German, or Spanish – how shameful. Even when it comes to art, we await the help of the Europeans, because we can’t afford a building with white walls. We can afford to open a museum for our former president, equipped with the best frames, installation supplies, and security; yet, we can’t afford a simple gallery for our own artists.
âªI gather the broken glass in one in spot, and take it to the kitchen. Fixing what’s left of the frame, I use it to hang a new piece I’ve just finished. My kitchen is a huge mess, but my living room is ready for guests. I still have hope that a gallery will open tomorrow; that the owner will be interested in my work; that my government will provide better security systems so that art curators from anywhere in the world will be able to safely visit my studio in Sana’a; that the Ministry of Culture will be more supportive of the arts than corrupt, and that the Ministry of Education will implement more art programs into our curriculum rather than hiring a minister who only cares that girls over the age of ten must wear headscarves.
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Do I leave, or do I stay? I live between the choice of struggling as an artist, or struggling as a Yemeni artist.
I have to stop writing as my model has just arrived. We will shoot today, and finish everything by tomorrow; I will have the pieces printed, framed, and hung. My studio will always be ready to receive those who admire art. I’m flying out to Beirut soon to buy ink and apply it in my new body of work, and I’ve also informed my fellow artists in case they are in need of particular art supplies they can’t find here. When I need something, I am obligated to wait for months in order to obtain it; it’s a struggle, but I live through it.
Originally published on REORIENT