Painting the Picture of Poverty in Yemen

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Graffiti Art: Painting the

Picture of Poverty in Yemen

Thi Yazen Alalawi

SANA’A, Yemen- Yet again, the people of Yemen are taking their political dissatisfaction to the streets, this time with paintbrushes as the tools of protest. The ongoing “12 Hour Campaign,” initiated by local artist Murad Subay, is decorating the streets of the historic capital Sana’a with socially conscious graffiti and an aim towards humanitarianism.

The movement has isolated 12 of Yemen’s most pressing political and social issues, one for each “hour” of the campaign, to project onto the busy city’s street-side walls. The hope is to engage millions of passerby through Subay’s artistic renditions and harness their awareness to affect change. Some of the already finished graffiti masterpieces confront the topics of gun violence, sectarianism, drone violence and civilian disappearances.

“Graffiti in Yemen, or street art, is a new device to communicate with the people,” according to Subay, who cites its efficacy as a product quickly accessing a mass audience. “In one second, you can send a message.”

Poverty, also something that touches the masses in Yemen, was the highlight of the sixth stage of the campaign, in an installation on November 21, 2013. One segment of this display includes the portrait of a small child, crying, “I am hungry,” in both Arabic and English. Accompanying him is a haggard-looking woman and the phrase “Poverty is such a heavy burden,” among other images.

Much like the child in the graffiti, a significant portion of Yemen’s population is severely affected by poverty and malnutrition. 43 percent of the population is officially considered food insecure, totaling 10.5 million individuals, two million of which are children under the age of 5. An even larger number of 54.5 percent live below the poverty line. Water scarcity is a fear faced by almost everyone nationally.

Such a drastic level of poverty is especially scary, considering Yemen has one of the highest population growth rates in the world in recent years. Although the Middle Eastern nation was struggling economically before, political instability and regional insecurity stemming from the Arab Spring in 2011 has greatly augmented the poverty problem and sent the country into a recession.

However, assistance from the World Bank and other international actors might provide an optimistic future for Yemen. The Interim Strategy Note (ISN,) approved in late 2012, promises job creation and financial safety nets, along with a focus on facilitating transparency and better economic management within the government.

It was also recently deemed eligible for funding from the International Development Association (IDA,) which delivers grants and loans to developing countries based on a commitment to social services. Through the IDA, Yemen will receive $66 million under the Second Basic Education Development Act and $40 million under the Road Asset Management Project.

Cultural forms of protest, such as graffiti art, speak to the financial status quo. Subay believes public demonstrations break down barriers of economic class and open political involvement to all. This is largely why he often invites onlookers to help him personalize his panels. His work and his message have caused him to be likened to Banksy, the United Kingdom street artist.

To quote Subay’s own description of his philosophy, “[Art] galleries in Yemen belong to one class. Graffiti is for all people.”

– Stefanie Doucette

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