Graffiti gets political in Yemen
Since the youth uprising in 2011, there have been many street graffiti initiatives and campaigns in Yemen. As armed groups and fighting spread, and the regions outside the state’s control grow, graffiti campaigns are increasingly used as ways to resist the violence and address the political conflict through art.
Caricatures: from newspapers and magazines to the street
A few weeks ago, young painter Dhi Yazan al-Alawi launched a drawing campaign in the streets of Sanaa. The “Street Caricatures” campaign is characterized by candor, simplicity and a focus on highlighting local imagery using common clothing and facial features.
In addition to their cynical and sarcastic commentary, the drawings that make up this initiative express the concerns of the public. The first week focused on prices and the lifting of subsidies on petroleum products, while the second week was dedicated to the killing of soldiers and al-Qaeda attacks, which have escalated in the past two years. The third week revolved around art and life. The faces of 22 prominent male and female Yemeni artists were drawn on the streets.
Alawi told Al-Monitor that the initiative “seeks to bring caricatures out of the pages of newspapers and magazines and onto the streets, where all the people can see them, both the educated and the illiterate.”
Open Book: a “mobile bookshop”
Four neighborhoods away from the “Street Caricatures” team, more artists paint excerpts from the books and writings of Che Guevara, Abdullah al-Baradouni, Gandhi and Mahmoud Darwish on the walls of Kuwait Hospital, near Change Square. Young Tammam al-Shaybani and four other painters launched the “Open Book” campaign 10 weeks ago. Every week the campaign chooses a wall and announces a meeting time over social media. The next day, young men and women gather to create murals.
What is new in this initiative is that the words are more important than the image. The campaign is a platform for reading, a “mobile bookshop” to urge people to read and acquire books. Passersby are visually stimulated to read brief excerpts from writers, philosophers and well-known figures as they walk or stop their cars at traffic lights.
“We try very hard to choose the streets that have the most traffic and activity, or where cars and buses constantly stop. For instance, cars stop at traffic lights for three minutes every day at the Baghdad Roundabout. I think about how many people read the murals closely, either sitting in their cars or from behind the bus windows, and then decide to go to the bookstore to purchase the book. It’s a delightful feeling,” Shaybani told Al-Monitor.
Art is an important tool for expression and change
The first graffiti campaign dates back to the 2011 youth uprising, when young painter Murad Subay launched the “Color the Walls of Your Street” initiative. At the time, Sanaa’s streets were covered with political slogans such as “Execute the butcher, he won’t leave,” and other slogans expressing feelings of hatred and verbal violence. Buildings destroyed during the fighting and other eyesores dominated a number of neighborhoods, particularly the Kentucky region (al-Zubayri Street). In 2011, that street was the dividing line between the half of the capital controlled by forces loyal to the former president and the other half controlled by the revolutionary forces. This was the beginning of Sanaa’s transformation into an open-air studio.
The influence of the “Color the Walls of Your Street” initiative spread to several other Yemeni cities, most notably Taiz. Subay, the campaign’s founder, won the 2014 Art for Peace prize. The Italian Veronesi Foundation awards the prize to artists who have shown a commitment to a culture of peace. Subay’s campaign was ranked fifth in a list of campaigns around the world that have sparked change.
Subay’s second campaign, called “The Walls Remember their Faces,” was an initiative to depict the faces of those who had disappeared and whose fates are unknown, as a way of remembering the victims of the successive political regimes. The most notable faces were those of soldiers and politicians who had disappeared, or were perhaps killed, following the assassination of the young President Ibrahim al-Hamdi in 1977. The campaign also featured civilians and soldiers whose relatives claimed they had disappeared following the summer 1994 war, victims of the National Democratic Front rebellion and victims of the failed coup attempt against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1979. The attempt was made by the Nasserist Unionist People’s Organization, whose leaders were executed and their families are still requesting that the state hand over their remains.
Subay’s third initiative, “12 hours,” is the most mature and professional yet. Each week was devoted to a particular issue that he and others would express in drawings. Topics included the abduction of foreigners, raids by US planes, child labor and carrying arms. One week’s artwork depicted the faces of victims of theattack on the Ministry of Defense complex and Ardi Hospital on Dec. 5, 2013, the most hideous al-Qaeda terror attack in Yemen. The attack left 56 dead, including civilians and military personnel of various nationalities. In addition to Yemenis, the victims included two Germans, an Indian nurse and a doctor and two nurses from the Philippines. The project expressed both gratitude and grief for the lives of the victims and their families.
“Art is an important tool for expression and change. The most important part about campaigns to draw on walls is the people’s participation. The wall no longer remains a static or negative concept,” Subay told Al-Monitor.
Collaboration and funds from abroad
In light of the numerous wars waged by the Houthi group Ansar Allah in the north of Yemen and the outskirts of the capital, the clashes between the army and al-Qaeda in the south and the organized attacks on oil pipelines and electricity pylons, the initiatives calling for people to draw on walls and revive musical events have become a form of struggle.
The most important issue raised by the “12 hours” initiative was the collaboration and funds from foreign countries. Some forces linked to Saudi Arabia have even bragged about receiving foreign funds.
At the end of Hael Street (al-Rabat), in the center of the capital, four murals concerning such collaboration with foreign states have been destroyed by vandals. One mural depicted the currencies of Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States as the most prominent states pumping in political money and influencing Yemeni decision-making. The three coins appear as icons, idols or a holy shrine, and two men are drawn in front of the coins, bowed down as though in worship. Subay painted them with their backs to the viewer and their faces hidden, as if to call to mind Handala, the heroic figure featured in late artist Naji al-Ali’s works.
The artist’s skill shines in the small details and the symbolism of the mural. The first of the two men is wearing traditional clothing (a long gown and a dagger), a reference to the tribal sheikhs and leaders. The other represents an educated civilian in jeans and a shirt. This is a deliberate reference to the fact that foreign funds do not go to tribes and sheikhs alone. The traditional man appears larger than the other, a reference to the disparity in financial allocations between the two. The prominent currency in the mural is that of Saudi Arabia, expressing the historical influence the country has wielded in Yemen. The Iranian and Saudi currencies on the mural are of equal size, a reference to the strong competition between them in Yemen, which has become an arena for regional conflict.