The walls remember their faces
The street artist capturing the impact of the war in Yemen
Using stencils and spray paint, Murad Subay creates haunting figures, portraits and motifs
FREQUENT VISITORS to the skatepark on London’s South Bank may have noticed two new works of art among the decades-old graffiti. Both spray-painted in black and white, one image depicts a naked and emaciated mother clutching a newborn; another shows a starving boy, his hair on end, listlessly picking at his hands. Entitled “Hollowed Mother” and “Lost Generation” (pictured), the figures are cadaverous and haunting, with dark empty holes where their eyes should be.
Similar works of street art can be found in Hodeida and Sana’a, cities in Yemen: on the wreck of a door, now in a garbage dump, or on the last standing wall of a house reduced to rubble. “Faces of War”, a project by Murad Subay, a Yemeni artist, seeks to draw attention to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Since the outbreak of civil war in 2014 between Houthi rebels, a Shia militia backed by Iran, and government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia, the water, power, health-care and education systems have failed. The country has suffered the worst cholera outbreak in modern history and faces famine. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the population of 28m need some sort of assistance.
Mr Subay’s works convey this desperation. “Devoured”, (pictured below) an installation commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, depicts a skeletal, one-armed man with the same cavernous eyes as the mother and boy in South Bank. He sits, cross-legged, biting into himself; a crow perched on one knee pecks at his gaunt thigh. The image calls forth “The vulture and the little girl”, a Pulitzer prizewinning photograph taken by Kevin Carter in 1993, of a starving Sudanese child (actually a boy) and a vulture stalking close by. (The memory haunted Carter, who took his own life the next year.)
Mr Subay began painting when he was a teenager, though he has never been formally educated in it. He first gained attention in 2012 with “Colour The Walls of Your Street”, a campaign in which he invited friends, passers-by and strangers on social media to paint bright murals in areas of Sana’a that had been affected by conflict after the Yemeni uprising in 2011. For “The Walls Remember Their Faces”, launched two months later, he created black-and-white portraits to memorialise Yemenis thought to have been detained or killed by the government in the past five decades. As the situation in his country darkened, so did his subject matter. “12 Hours”, about child soldiers, drone strikes and corruption, followed in 2013; “Dawn Sculptures” and “Ruins” in 2015.
Mr Subay has been compared to Banksy, a street artist based in Britain, in his use of stencils and choice of subject matter. He says his style is most influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. “Hollowed Mother”, in particular, is reminiscent of van Gogh’s “Sorrow”, as both artworks take a mother in distress as their subject. Mr Subay says his figure is meant to stand for an entire country—vulnerable, voiceless—that no one seems to care about.
Another series, titled “Bon Appétit”, was inspired by Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, and it likens the sales of arms to that of mass-produced junk food. “Arms Corporations around the world deal with weapons as a…commodity,” Mr Subay writes on his website, “exporting them to all parts of the world with no responsibility.” Bold and chunky, the paintings depict a rocket and a hand grenade mid-detonation (the grenade, called “Good Business”, can be seen in the skatepark).
Mr Subay chose to present some of his work in London, near Parliament, for a reason. Since the start of the war in 2014 Britain has licensed the sale of at least £4.7bn ($5.69bn) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. In June those exports were ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal on the grounds that ministers should “not grant a license if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international human rights law” (IHL). “Evidence would suggest that in the early months of 2016 there was either a decision, or a change of position, so that there would be no assessment of past violation of IHL,” the judgment said. While the government prepares to challenge the ruling, a new report by Global Legal Action Network, a non-profit organisation, and Bindmans, a British law firm, on the bombing in Yemen observes that Saudi Arabia has been unlawfully “targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure”.
Mr Subay is pessimistic about the future. Halting the supply of weaponry is not going to end the war, he says. Even so, British politicians have sent “a terrible message worldwide that will encourage warring parties to carry on war crimes”. Nor is he convinced about the impact of his own work, despite winning an Art for Peace prize in 2014 for “spreading the culture of peace” and an Index on Censorship Award in 2016. Art can “raise awareness of what is going on back in my country,” he says, but it “doesn’t have [the] power to change anything”.
“Hollowed Mother”, “Lost Generation” and “Good Business” are on display at the South Bank skatepark now. “Yemen: Inside a Crisis” continues at the Imperial War Museum, Manchester, until January 26th