by Reem Jarhum
Art is not something that comes to mind for an average Yemeni. The current situation has pushed Yemenis into survival mode with more than half the nation living under the poverty line. Trying to explain to people that you are an artist is as strenuous as trying to explain to them that the economy of Yemen could be better than that of the UAE in the near future. It is hard for this generation of artists to succeed because somehow art died in Yemen, with the brainwashing of extreme religious leaders of the 90s. Our Islamic teachers have raised a generation which believes that music can influence us negatively and that drawing faces on objects will turn such images into sinister creatures like ghosts. Even worse, they have forced us to change our colourful traditional dresses for black ones. We only learn about a handful of artists, and when you hear about a well-known Yemeni artist, you assume that they are over 50. Where are the young artists, those in their 20s and 30s?
Yemen artists face – and may continue to face – many struggles in their journey of using their creative intellect to help humanity. Among those challenges is the struggle of explaining why you did not choose traditional career paths like development or business; the struggle of making every piece of art acceptable both socially and politically. Sometimes, I would work on a project for three months, then wait for another three months to share it with the public at a propitious time. How can one share images from a body-painting photoshoot when a centre for the blind is being shelled? I go through a ‘battle’ of introspection every day, a battle that every Yemeni artist asks themselves at some point in their lives: ‘Am I selfish for doing art?’
When the Arab Spring started, I did not work on my art and had no particular interest in politics. In 2011, I participated in raising awareness campaigns and fundraising programmes for those who were affected by the conflicts. I also took part in distributing food and medical aid, and attending workshops to discuss the needs and demands of women and the youth during the transitional period. When the violence broke out, I was traumatised by the harrowing situation and felt hopeless.
Many people claim that the revolution has failed to liberate Yemen from the current hardship. But by 2013, we, the youth, have created a network: We found and contacted the artists in their 20s and 30s. We became a power, a voice of change through art. This war affected everyone emotionally and mentally; people are exhausted and traumatised. At the same time, the art scene that emerged during this time was spectacular, a period in which social norms were broken. Today, I believe we are creating a path for the younger generations to follow, encouraging them to break with tradition and aim higher.
Reem Jarhum is a freelance makeup artist, body painter and painter, certified from MUD Lebanon as a makeup artist. Born and raised in Yemen, she studied and worked in Yemen, Malaysia, Lebanon, Jordan, and currently Turkey. Reem tweets @.
Other contributions include:
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- Beyond the North/South narrative: Conflict and federalism in Eastern Yemen
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- Navigating the challenges of war through social innovation
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- Shall we think of war victims as humans, not numbers?
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