Yemen’s Banksy Uses Street Art to Fight Sectarian Violence
by Laura Feinstein
While elusive British artist Banksy has kept a rather low profile since his controversial New York City residency in 2013, his “Middle Eastern counterpart” has been causing quite a stir. Murad Subay, a 27-year-old painter and former literature major from Yemen, has been making waves online and on the streets of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, with his politically-charged, crowd-generated murals. The city, which in recent years has seen numerous sectarian clashes, is a landscape of telltale bullet holes and battle-weathered buildings. As part of Subay’s creative call-to-action, he has spearheaded 2,000 murals across Sana’a and beyond in just over two years, inviting others to join and help in their creation.
“My campaigns would not be anything without other people,” he told OZY. “Even soldiers put their weapons down and took brushes instead.”
Often ironic in message, referring to incendiary issues like drone strikes and Yemen’s “disappeared” in irreverent tones and vibrant hues, his art may be reminiscent of Banksy but his tactics are fairly different. While there is currently an international manhunt on to locate and unmask the mysterious British artist, Subay works in broad daylight, and has frequently been photographed in action. Even more surprisingly, the government has done very little to censor or stop him.
“Yemen used to be a great civilization and now is at the worst point in its history,” the artist remarked to Ozy. In the last decade, the tiny peninsula country has become an Al Qaeda stronghold and a target of repeated U.S. drone strikes, a recurring motif in his work.
Subay was originally spurred to action by the rampant corruption and economic chaos he saw during the turmoil of 2011, when Yemen hovered at the brink of total civil war. During this time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down to make way for Prime Minister, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
“I thought, ‘Going to the street to throw stones is not enough, we won’t change anything. So what can I do? I can paint!’’’ said Subay. “I don’t need an hour-long lecture to convey a message, with street art I only need a split second.”
For his first project, Color the Walls of Your Street, Subay used social media to bring together a crowd to cover over “the scars of the clashes” in paint. Hundreds turned out, and a wave of brightly colored, flowered murals calling for peace soon appeared all over Sana’a. Subay was also encouraged to bring his murals to other cities in Yemen, including Aden, Taizz, Ebb and Hodeidah, often painting over hate-filled political sloganeering spray-painted on walls and streets.
Emboldened, he created The Walls Remember Their Faces, a series of portraits that draw attention to the many journalists, politicians, writers and activists who disappeared during Saleh’s regime. Believed kidnapped or killed, the official number is 102, but there are quite possibly many more.
“Terrorism and sectarianism had never been a problem in Yemen,” said Subay. “Now they’re growing stronger every day.” Currently, the weakened government has been left powerless to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has taken control of the eastern province of Hadramawt and imposed Sharia law.
In addition to drone strikes and sectarianism, Subay has also tackled gun control, child recruitment and corruption; projects that helped him win the “Art for Peace Award” from the Italian Veronesi Foundation this year. Subay has also received an offer of support from the United Nations, but declined in order to maintain autonomy. Instead, he accepts only the support of friends, family, and local fans, further fueling his sense of collective action, which leaves him “inspired rather than discouraged.”
All images by Jameel and Murad Subay.