A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
“I know two artists, one works in a restaurant and the other works as a house painter”, says artist Amna al-Nasiri.
When she was in the second grade, she failed art. The teacher asked the students to copy a drawing of a tree, but she added branches to her tree – and that is why she failed! Since childhood, she has had a different idea about art. She believes that art is an essential for a society to be healthy. Even the simplest societies, create their own beautiful music, songs, dances and poems. For her, art in all its forms adds color and taste to life. It’s as important as bread.
In this interview with al-Madaniya magazine, Amna al-Nasiri, the artist, author, critic and Professor of the Philosophy of Aesthetics at the College of Literature, Sana’a University, talks about the reality of fine art in Yemen.
Al-Madaniya: First, tell us about the artistic reality and its relationship to what is happening today in Yemen, economically and politically?
Al-Nasiri: For a long time, the main problem was that Yemeni society did not consciously value the importance of art. When the artist creates a painting, she or he knows that only a few people will understand the paintings. This persuades the artist to draw very simply, for example folk fashion, or scenes from the Yemeni landscape. In fact, the job of fine art is not to document as a camera. Contemporary painting is difficult to understand and not clear to the audience, which makes it hard for people to appreciate its value. Recently, the situation has worsened because there are no customers, even for simple paintings, as a result of the weak economy, which has made citizens worry about their livelihoods.
At the same time, the war has taken many artists away from the art world. “I know two artists, one works in a restaurant and the other works as a house painter.” It’s impossible to keep art alive in an economically collapsed country. Not only is art a personal project but also a state project. Today, our neighbor Oman owns luxury theaters and art galleries; this is what makes Yemeni artists shine abroad more than in their own country.
Al-Madaniya: When did you feel that you are a professional artist? What was your first step to success?
Al-Nasiri: The beginning was when I started participating in exhibitions inside Yemen and in other countries.
Al-Madaniya: How did you break into the world of fine art and philosophy in a male society that does not even believe in the importance of education for women?
Al-Nasiri: Two factors helped me: the first is my family. My mother was an educated woman. She reads a lot and believes in the importance of education for both women and men. The other factor is related to fine art itself. In Yemen, it is appreciated more than other kinds of art, like singing and acting. Throughout my artistic career, I have not encountered any harassment from the community. On the contrary, I was encouraged and rewarded from the beginning.
Al-Madaniya: What difficulties did you face during your career?
Al-Nasiri: Initially, the difficulties were financial. Tools used in art are expensive. Also, when I was travelling, shipping paintings cost me a lot. Once I became a well-known artist, I received plenty of support. Difficulties exist in all aspects of life. However, with an artistic career, we need strong faith in what we have. Those who leave their fingerprint in the art world succeeded without the help of the state. What distinguishes fine art from other areas in life is that the public care about the artistic values of the artist, not her or his social values.
Al-Madaniya: Artists always have a subject, which they embody through their paintings and exhibitions. Tell us about the subjects that you have shared in your shows and how they changed from your artistic beginnings up to today.
Al-Nasiri: I have embodied a lot of issues in my paintings. In the beginning, I was very preoccupied with women’s issues, especially the tragic side. Women in both Yemen and Middle Eastern countries are all my concerns. My first exhibition, ‘Closed World’, was about women’s fears; the work revolved around issues of a woman’s appearance. Then with time, I became aware that my subjects as an artist should be wider than this. So, the issue of women started to vanish, moving to wider humanitarian concerns. The study of philosophy played a vital role in changing my vision. I have paid attention to the surrounding world, oppression and injustice. In my exhibition ‘Sieges’, that was held in 2010, I showed the sieges created by us. For example, when a person lives with different fears, such as fear of the unknown or a woman’s fear of her community.
Al-Madaniya: Unlike in the past, a considerable number of women join schools, universities, and the labor market. In some areas, the number of women exceed the number of men. Do you think that women have better chances than before?
Al-Nasiri: Never, the large number of women in the labor market doesn’t mean the situation has improved in the community. Only when we find effective women in social, political and economic life would it improve; when we find female ministers in areas like culture, economy, planning, or find a prime minister. However, these positions are reserved for men.
Political and social systems use women only for beautifying. When they form a new government, they put a woman as they put a strawberry on a cake; they choose one or two for ineffective ministries, such as the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Human Rights in a country where human rights are absent. Women do not have the same rights as men. If she gets some rights, she has to fight, resist and go through many battles.
Al-Madaniya: In the context of talking about the ongoing war, are the harsh conditions experienced by Yemen today affecting the composition of your paintings or in your technical performance?
Al-Nasiri: Among all this darkness, I try my best to focus on the light. Art has an important role in giving hope to people. So, I have to activate this role. I considered fine art as an indirect language that expresses what is happening in a beautiful way.
The artist ‘Amna’ does not stop. However, I’m not planning for any exhibitions. The country is economically collapsed, and there is no possibility of holding an art exhibition. The work of the Ministry of Culture is completely absent from the artistic scene. I was invited to hold many exhibitions abroad during the last three years, but I couldn’t travel because Sana’a Airport is closed. Travelling is only allowed from Aden or Sayun Airports, and it’s very difficult to travel from there with the closed shipping companies. My last exhibition was ‘Inner Perspective’ in Taiz 2014, and in Germany 2015. A collection of new books are will be published soon.
Al-Madaniya: Your city Rada’a is full of contradictions: there is the tribe, revenge, weapons and also the ancient architectural heritage? What has affected you most, tribe or Ancient Islamic Heritage?
Al-Nasiri: I did not live long in Rada’a, but I’m part of all these things. I have acquired a lot of things from my mother who came from a fierce and ancient area. I still keep in my mind the view of women making porcelain and folk embroidery. On the other hand, my overseas studies and the travel opportunities I have received made me stand in the middle of the world.
Al-Madaniya: Because of the poor conditions, traveling is the dream of most Yemenis these days. Do you think of migrating and living away where there is security, safety and a respectful law?
Al-Nasiri: There is a chance to migrate and live abroad, but as an artist, I feel Yemen is my topic. The obsession of traveling was never inside me. I could have succeeded in my homeland. My relationship with my homeland is not only words. Outside, without doubt, I would be a stranger which frightens me most. There is no war or violence there, but for sure I will not be myself.
Al-Madaniya: Are you satisfied with yourself today? What things can’t you achieve?
Al-Nasiri: I can say yes, but a human by nature does not reach a complete sense of satisfaction. There is still the desire to accomplish more. I’m still looking forward to becoming better at the humanitarian and artistic level. Also, create new experiments, as well as changing my drawing practice, using new types of unfamiliar art in Yemeni society.
Amna Al-Nasiri’s first exhibition was in 1986, when she left her country carrying her paintings to Mesopotamia. She has held 16 exhibitions in Yemen and in other Middle Eastern and European countries; she has also participated in tens of group exhibitions. She has written three books; the first is an artistic work and contains drawings and poems by the poet Ahmed al-Awady; then Maqamat, and Matawalya (Old And New Sequence).
She was born in Rada’a City, lived with a small family, a sister, two brothers and her mother. Unlike many mothers in Rada’a, her mother was literate, reading and drawing, so she was the first to teach al-Nasiri how to paint. She was also the first to raise a law case against her husband, who wanted to prevent his daughters from studying. Unfortunately, she lost the case, so she took her daughters and went to Egypt to live there for four years.
Al-Nasiri’s life in a different county changed her personality. She returned to Yemen to complete her secondary school education, and then went to study philosophy at university. After she graduated, she traveled to Moscow to study art for ten years as she could not find the opportunity to study it in Sana’a. In Moscow, she received her PhD in Philosophy of Aesthetics. She is now a Professor at Sana’a University, teaching Philosophy of Aesthetics and helping the youth there.