Yemen is a land overtaken by war, literally and figuratively, so much so that the mere word does not conjure up actual images of the country in one's mind - and perhaps this is of no fault of our own - but of national and humanitarian crises: famished children, soldiers, blood, war-torn houses, ash, death.
While the land itself might have been forgotten by some, its people continue to try and make themselves heard. It was after years of organising rallies and calling for congressional resolutions for the United States to stop supporting the war as part of the Yemeni Alliance Committee – a coalition of American Yemenis across the U.S advocating for human rights in the cause for Yemen – that Yemeni-American social entrepreneur Hanan Ali Yahya felt the need to search for other avenues to help make her voice heard. “I feel like I have exhausted all means [in the cause for Yemen] and then I started discovering these artists and thought, here is a powerful way to raise awareness, to share human stories and evoke emotion and call people to action, through art,” says Yahya.
...they’re sharing the beauty and the talents of Yemen, but then at the same time they’re documenting the daily struggles, and what it means to be a young person stuck in the conflict of the older generation.
Starting from Michigan, U.S., Yahya brought to six different locations - eventually going to New York as part of a Muslim convention - an art exhibit comprised of work from 24 Yemeni artists. Moving across the land which has become home to an estimated record of tens of thousands of Yemenis for well over a century, the exhibit showcases the roots that the diaspora has all over the U.S., especially since after the conflict, when their numbers increased exponentially.
The “Yemeni war” and the “Yemeni conflict” are phrases that are thrown around often, but more so without context. It is as though there is a war, but it exists in a land far away from the rest of the world. The reasons for this are not unknown: the lack of media coverage on the war is staggering, and Yahya reiterates this: “There isn’t enough media coverage. There is no media coverage, period. And if it is, it’s focused on the wrong things. And it manipulates the reality of the situation.” What is the war, though, and how has it come about? What are its impacts? How do Yemenis feel about it?
There isn’t enough media coverage [on the Yemeni war]. There is no media coverage, period. And if it is, it’s focused on the wrong things.
Located now in Michigan and piloting in Dearborn, the city reported to house the largest population of Arab Americans in the U.S., the exhibit actively tries to answer these questions through its booklets, talks, and discussions, which include a brief educational piece on every opening night delivered by assistant professor at Michigan State University, Dr. Shireen Al-Adeimi. Far from a typical art exhibition leaving a room of people to roam around, take photos and leave, this one has a clear and defined purpose: to engage and educate. It leaves people with more knowledge about the Yemeni war than they had before, and that would become the stepping stone for more direct and informed action and support.
“If we didn’t have those [educational] pieces, people will enter the space and leave it with just emotion, sorrow, and sadness, and we don’t want that. We want them to feel on some level inspired, empowered to do something, and that their voice matters as well,” says Yahya. “We have people anonymously write down their thoughts, feelings and reflections [on notecards], and we gather them at the end and read through them […] One person’s notecard would say, ‘this is the first time I learned about anything related to Yemen or the crisis. I had zero knowledge walking in and now I’ve walked away with a more comprehensive understanding of what it is, what’s happening and who these human beings are.'”
With the booklet provided at the exhibit, the educational piece that leads it, and the talk-back that concludes it, Yahya ensures that this is not merely an event to highlight the suffering and misery of the Yemeni people, but an opportunity to find potential amidst all the undeniable horrors of the crisis, and to recognise that there are concrete actions and steps that can be taken to show support and help make their lives easier. Highlighting the artistic renaissance born out of the crisis also reminds everyone of Yemenis' diversity and talent, both having been buried under the mounting images of death and war – the only images that continually circulate in international media coverage.
You have so many parties playing with Yemen as if they’re just toys and the people are like little soldiers... and they’re not listening to the voices of the real Yemenis, [the ones] who make up civil society
The art scene in Yemen has long been quashed by the unstable politics of the country; even Yemen's art history is not as known or as celebrated as that of other parts of the Middle East, such as Syria, for instance, which has given birth to famous artists like Fateh Moudarres and Louay Kayali, or Iraq's Jewad Selim, all of whom still have paintings sold for tens of thousands of dollars until the present day. International cultural organisations have been absent in Yemen since the beginning of the war, and there is a large dearth of art exhibitions in the country. But this does not mean art production has stopped altogether - on the contrary, with the Yemeni diaspora stretching across continents, Yemeni art is continually produced and dispersed around the world. However, like most art produced out of the Middle East, it is at risk of being reduced to just politics - art that is "inherently" political, as though other art is not.
The diversity presented in this exhibit, however, allows for more than just politics to take center stage - these works revolves around identity, peace, and existence. Understanding the full situation in Yemen, as catastrophic as it is, requires an understanding of its complexities and the fact that for the amount of death that occurs on a daily basis, there is as much amount of life struggling to break free of the violence. “In telling their stories, the artists are sharing the beauty and the talents of Yemen, and we see that visually,” says Yahya. “But then at the same time they’re kind of documenting the daily struggles, and what it means to be a young person stuck in the conflict of the older generation.”
Artwork entitled Sylla Sanaa by Mazher Nizar depicting Sanaa City, Yemen. Courtesy of: Mazher Nizar
The uprisings that eventually led to the war were a result of decades of built-up discontent over corruption, the economic state in the country, as well as unjust politics. They culminated in the ousting of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, who was then replaced by his vice, President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, in an election where he was the only candidate.
Since then, corruption and economic instability continued to take reign, with the Yemeni Houthi movement, a Shia armed group, taking advantage and seizing several cities in Yemen from the hands of what they often refer to as a “weak” government. Saudi Arabia, backed by the U.S., responded with military attacks against Yemen that continue to this day.
Tightrope by Nasser AlQirsh. Photo courtesy of Hanan Ali Yahya.
Because the artists come from all over the diaspora and from Yemen itself, their experiences of the conflict manifest in their art in very different ways. “The Yemeni identity is not just one thing,” Yahya says. “Some of the pieces touch on identity as Yemenis, but also for some people, the hyphenated identity, me as a Yemeni-American, or artist Nasser Alqirsh whose drawing is of two individuals having to live in two different lands, balancing these two identities.”
[There are always] some people who have questions, who say, ‘I can’t believe the U.S. has a role in this; we had no clue that our tax dollars are going towards this.'
On the walls of the exhibit hang 43 works that range from photographs to graphic design images and even letters. Displayed on the walls are the raw, honest feelings of Yemeni children expressed on paper, either calling for an end to the war or simply describing the sorrow they feel on having fled their home countries. There are also songs and films, including award-winning film And Hope Remains (2015) by Dares Qaid, a silent short film depicting the sectarian and religious conflicts in Yemen and the burdens such conflicts leave on Yemenis themselves.
Letter written by Mohamed, a Yemeni child, displayed at the exhibit. Photo courtesy of Hanan Yahya.
“You have so many parties playing with Yemen as if they’re just toys and the people are like little soldiers and they’re just playing around with them, and they’re not listening to the voices of the real Yemenis – not to say the other Yemenis are not real – but the everyday Yemenis who make up civil society [are not heard]," explains Yahya. While thoughts on the war may vary, she emphasises that there are many people who just want nothing to do with the war. And although those who reside outside of Yemen might have some form of privilege over those who are not able to flee, she also emphasises, as the exhibit shows, that the experience of diaspora is in no way less painful and traumatising. “Everyone shares the same pain, and [the same] kind of underlying story. I think that’s also a unique thing. [The exhibit] is cultivating community, it’s cultivating stories, and in a lot of ways it talks about things that aren’t talked about, and I think that was my goal. We are all inevitably connected to the conflict and to Yemen, and we’re all deeply, deeply concerned and feel for the people, and support and do what we can.”
While the typical art exhibit rarely involves much engagement, acting rather as spaces where people can freely explore and come up with their own interpretations of the works, 'Stories Never Told' roots itself squarely in politics and encourages engagement and connection, not just with the art, but with others – in this case, Yemenis. With that, it also fills the gap in the U.S. where the Yemeni conversation should be. Although the U.S. is directly involved – through its backing of the Saudi-led coalition – Americans themselves often remain unaware of the circumstances of such interference. “[There are always] some people who have questions, who say, ‘I can’t believe the U.S. has a role in this; we had no clue that our tax dollars are going towards this.'”
Through the educational, artistic, and conversational value of the travelling exhibit, people are allowed to come out feeling empowered and informed enough to know what their options are, and they are given such options at the exhibit itself through optional donation to the The Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation as well as simply through discussing with actual Yemenis who have been through the impacts of the war and are ultimately the best sources to listen to.
Child of Rubble, mural by Yemeni contemporary street artist Murad Subay. Photo courtesy of Murad Subay.
The artistic renaissance, born out of conflict, is a loud scream from the Yemenis in the midst of what often seems like a deafening vacuum of silence. The power of media in controlling the narratives of war and foreign interference remains continually contested by the power of the political in art – whether in its striking beauty or in its jarring visuals – to disrupt any narrative asserting its dominance.
You can follow Stories Never Told on Instagram.