Art

Yemeni Artists Reflect on Their War-Torn Homeland

In a Beirut exhibition, artists displaced by the civil war in Yemen broaden our collective understanding of one of the 21st century’s most dire humanitarian crises.

Rahman Taha, still from Mr. Ali (2019) (all images courtesy Diwan Al Fan)

BEIRUT – The front page of a newspaper dated August 10, 2018 is pinned to a wall. The articles have been cut out and the newspaper’s name removed so that the sheet is completely blank and devoid of content other than the date. Yasmine Diaz’s “August 10, 2018” (2018) is a comment on a Los Angeles newspaper’s complete lack of reporting on the airstrike that hit a school bus in Dhayhan, Northern Yemen the previous day, resulting in 50 civilian deaths, many of them children, from bombs made by US weapons manufacturers.

Diaz, who lives in Los Angeles, is one of six artists from Yemen and its diaspora featured in On Echoes of Invisible Hearts: Narratives of Yemeni Displacement. Curated by Lila Nazemian and on view at STATION, a cultural center in Beirut, the exhibition reflects on how image-making, reporting, and archiving shape our collective understanding of war.

Though none of the artists reference Lebanon explicitly, the exhibit draws connections between Lebanon and Yemen by alluding to the fact that both Arab nations have been rocked by civil wars. And, as mammoths like Lamia Joreige, Walid Raad, and Akram Zaatari have emerged as the “war generation” of Lebanese artists, this Beirut show paves the way for artists directly affected by the war in Yemen to create their own footprint.

Focused on archiving and memory, the exhibition is heavy on film and photography. Rahman Taha’s film “Mr. Ali” (2019) documents the experiences of the oldest man working on a farm in the mountains of Northwestern Yemen. “Ali” describes the farmer’s experiences of civil war — both now and during the 1994 Yemeni Civil War — and how it has changed his relationship to the earth.

Similarly, artist Ibn Seera looks at societal changes in Yemen since the 1990s. “(de)Constructed Heritage” (2019) is a research-based video work that follows the artist’s computer screen as he goes through images on his desktop picturing alterations made to the traditional architecture in the port city of Aden, including mosques, schools and mashrabiyas. The video subtly reflects on the desire to maintain and restore these landmarks instead of rebuilding them. Exhibited in a city that has become famous for knocking down historic buildings damaged by civil war and replacing them with modernist structures, the work highlights poignant similarities between Aden and Beirut.

Thana Faroq “Untitled 18 (In Search of Lost Photographs Series)” (2018)

In “Untitled” (In Search of Lost Photographs)” (2018), artist Thana Faroq attempts to recreate a lost archive of snapshots she took of her neighborhood and the people she grew up with in Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, before leaving in 2016. Superimposed with soundscapes of Sana’a, the resulting hazy footage of 18 rotating images illustrates the mutability of memory and the struggle to preserve the past.

Arif Al Nomay’s “Corrupted Files Series” (2014-2018) is also based on photographs taken during the artist’s last visit to Yemen, during the Sana’a Summer Festival in 2014. The digital files were all corrupted, resulting in the images bleeding into one another. Printed small-scale, the images have been distorted by an all-consuming glitch, serving as an oblique visual metaphor for Yemen’s recent past and current state.

Alia Ali, “Under Thread Series” (2019)

With an added focus on Yemenis in diaspora, Yasmine Diaz and Alia Ali comment on a Yemeni-American experience. Alia Ali’s “UNDER THREAD” (2019) is presented within a binder of articles that the artist has been collecting about Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen since the war started in 2015. Immersed within the cuttings — which viewers are encouraged to flick through — are black and white self-portraits of Ali’s face tightly bound in thread. The images illuminate the artist’s internal conflict as an American citizen paying taxes that contribute to wars in her home country, leaving her feeling trapped and helpless. Ali’s “Jenaza” (2019), an installation of 42 sets of folded white cloth laid out on the floor of the exhibition space, replicates an Islamic burial tradition, serving to commemorate the lives of those who were killed in the Dhayhan bombing last August.

The exhibition concludes with Yasmine Diaz’s collages, “Averting is Easy” (2018) and “Fools Gold” (2019), which, like “August 10, 2018”, confront the American media’s coverage of the war in Yemen. “Averting is Easy” is an explosion of articles written since the war started, illustrating the scarce coverage of one of the 21st century’s most dire humanitarian crises. The exhibition catalogue references an article in Salon, which reported that MSNBC did not mention the war in Yemen once during the same one-year period in which it aired 455 segments on Stormy Daniels.

Yasmine Diaz, “Fool’s Gold” (2019) Collage, glitter, powdered pigment, and composite gold leaf on wood panel (18 x 24 in_45.7 x 61 cm)

Along similar lines, “Fools Gold” is a gold leaf-covered graph comprised of newspaper cuttings. It charts how US media outlets started paying more attention to the war in Yemen following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi — an elite Saudi journalist critical of the Saudi regime — and then resumed ignoring the war  after reporters moved on from Khashoggi’s death, suggesting that the US only cares about the war in Yemen when it affects US-Saudi relations.

On Echoes of Invisible Hearts challenges viewers to question how the media determines what we see and don’t see. By creating their own visual archives, and illustrating the complex relationships Yemeni citizens have to their war-torn homeland, these artists attempt to fill the holes in our collective understanding of the conflicts playing out around us.

On Echoes of Invisible Hearts: Image Making and Popular Archiving in Times of Unrest, curated by Lila Nazemian, is on view at STATION, Beirut until May 5, 2019. 

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