Untitled, Undefined: A Perspective on Art

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Between countries, languages and ethnicities lie identities. Can we consider a person more authentic and true if they show an inclination towards one piece of their identity and shed the rest? Identities form, piece by piece, over time. They are never rigid: they are vital and adjustable. Your identity is a collection of different flavors that make you relatable in some aspects to one group and to another in other aspects. It is the calibration and adjustment of time that makes you a uniquely defined individual, yet a relatable human being.

This year, five Yemeni artists contributed their work to two exhibitions to explore themes of identity, diaspora, Arab women’s empowerment, stateless individuals, and the Muslim ban – or as the show curators like to call it, ‘Muslim Ban 1.0’.

In January 2018, one year after the travel ban, United States’ President Donald Trump’s first executive order in office, a group exhibition, ‘Before We Were Banned’, curated by Brooklyn‑based Iranian duo Kiana Pirouz and Mahya Soltani in partnership with SHIM at ArtHelix, featured works by several artists as a response to the ban. The exhibition aimed to undermine the ban, by bringing together original work from inventive artists from the seven different countries affected by the ban. The exhibition provided a platform for those artists to tell their stories and paint their realities.

 Layali al-Sadah, installation shot, image courtesy of @beforewewerebanned Layali al-Sadah, installation shot, image courtesy of @beforewewerebanned

The exhibition featured the work of several artists – multimedia installations, video art, photography, printmaking, collage and painting. It presented the work of three Yemeni-American artists, exploring the identities of immigrants to the US before and after the ban was announced and the meaning of being rejected and in a stateless position. It looked at the meaning of home, and how strong emotions engulf a person when the meaning of belonging changes and the place you call home has rejected you, on unfounded, controversial grounds. Further, it explored the incongruity between identifying yourself as part of a community that finds itself in limbo, and a country that opposes your existence.

“The show completely humanized these countries and brought to light all these worlds trying to live and love from within the borders of this ban. For me, conversations and protest around our fate’s detrimental discourse hold their own respected roles in our seemingly never ending coping processes, but seeing contentment in art created by the same angry minds from those spaces, holds a different type of emotional connection”, said Layali, a Yemeni-American artist, of the impact the show had.

 asiya al sharabi, installation shot, image courtesy of @beforewewerebanned asiya al sharabi, installation shot, image courtesy of @beforewewerebanned

Her experience was different to most, enduring the pull and push between two countries, Yemen and the USA – a struggle she has always had to go through, but was heightened after the ban and because of the war in Yemen. “The emotional turmoil of my identity has been longstanding. It affects me now, and has always affected me, distinctly, at different points of my entire life.” The struggle of finding and conforming to identity was striking in her artwork: “With the war, the pain dynamic changed; it was no longer exclusionary related. It became a very real death at the hands of my ancestral blood. I was very aware of colonialism’s and orientalism’s impact, which was already rampant. Which contributed to a constant self-rejection of my whiteness. But when looking at it with the lens of my father’s country, and her history being murdered by my mother’s countrymen and a family of veterans loyal to this distorted idea of American freedom, it became a hyper-sensitive personal affliction.”

In the midst of international fears of immigration and refugees, a more complicated fear is ignored. Identities are complex and their formation is not limited to internal feelings, beliefs, ethnic and cultural traditions. But now we find it affected and shaken by so many external factors; in the face of mixed up identities, you are asked to shed half your heritage and stand with one half against the other. What if the identity formed is a mixture of the best of both, how can anyone entertain the question of accepting one side of their selves and simply hide and suppress the other? “The systematic oppressive thumb minorities live under is not only suffocating the physical and financial elements of livelihood but it is a blockade to emotional and mental growth; if we are not our own safe spaces, no one is going to help us do more than just survive. Although I recognize that survival alone is enough some days”,  Layali explained in words that could summarize the conflict ravaging the Middle East.

The ‘Perpetual Movement’ exhibition  (London, March 2018) shone light on the artistic work of seven Arab women: its main goal was to promote an understanding of the different realities and concerns of Arab women. The exhibition explored art highlighting the relationship between migrations, memory and the diaspora in connection to the Arab world. The memories created and attached to places, the memories transferred from one generation to another, the fading memories, the glorified memories, and the gaps that leave many unanswered questions, were all themes showcased through the artists’ work.

 Brika, Yumna al-Arashi, 2017, image courtesy of Yumna al-Arashi  Brika, Yumna al-Arashi, 2017, image courtesy of Yumna al-Arashi

“The festival, as a multidisciplinary arts festival of women artists from the Arab world, is necessary to exist in a multicultural city like London. It is important for Arab women to deliver their voices and showcase their work to a global and diverse audience. I do think that this is such an important opportunity for me and for everyone participating. It allows for connection, understanding and exploration for an artistic relationship between the Arab world and the West”, said Thana Farooq, a Yemeni artist, reflecting on the importance of the exhibition. She featured her project ‘The Passport’, which examines the experiences of people who are hindered by their passports.

 The passport, Thana Faroq, 2017, image courtsey of Thana Faroq.  The passport, Thana Faroq, 2017, image courtsey of Thana Faroq.

When your homeland becomes the one thing that determines your validity as a human being, you are allowed passage not because you are human but because you are a citizen of a certain country. “As a Yemeni, I have always wondered how such a small piece of paper like a passport can define a person? How does a legal document shape us? How does it control us? Why in some airports should I be held aside for another round of security screening just because my passport says Yemen? And thus, the passport becomes not a symbol of identity and pride, but a source of angst, a burden and a catalyst for desperation”, described Farooq, of the emotions she has gone through while documenting the suffering people endure because of their passports.

The ’Perpetual Movement’ exhibition addressed a multitude of reasons for and the impact of migration, and investigated the fragmented memories that are created and passed on as a consequence of these actions. Movement can be both positive and negative and there are many reasons why it takes place, but it is always happening. The exhibition delved into themes of dimensions of hyphenated-identities, struggles of leaving countries torn by wars, rejection when seeking refuge, diaspora, achievements, nostalgia and women’s empowerment.

The exhibition was well received by the British public. It has juxtaposed what is seen in the media about Arab woman. “I would hope that this work, which is for the most part not political, would subvert the stereotypes of Arab women in the west”, says Lizzy Vartanianthe, the exhibition curator.

In a world plagued by wars and conflict, where values of human beings are measured by so many specifications that exclude humanity and include aspects that are hard to comprehend, art reminds us that we do not have to be armed to the teeth to make or resolve conflicts. It is a means by which to face tyranny and to express opinions by emotional connection. The invisible link that moves our hearts and encourages our brains to find a solution. There is no stronger cue than art to remind us that we are all human beings no matter the race, color or allegiance, we all belong to one heritage and one race. It preaches the story of standing together by bridging the gaps and extending hands to help each other out of dilemmas and dead ends. The emotions and defiance I found in the work of these artists are better described in Layali’s words: “The affirmation of happiness being possible despite being so justifiably angry was extremely cathartic. It served as a reminder to mourn our own mortalities while still embracing our defiance. Finding joy by and for one another is just as revolutionary as binding arms.”

As artists around the globe use their art to express their opinions and emotions, their works are a management toolkit to help audiences better understand different parts of the world and people with different backgrounds.

 Lila Nazemian, Image Courtesy of Hadieh Shafie Lila Nazemian, Image Courtesy of Hadieh Shafie

An exhibition featuring the work of between eight and ten Yemeni artists based around the world will take place in Berlin in September 2018. The exhibition will be organized by Diwan al-Fan, a Yemeni artist-run initiative that aims to promote contemporary art, music and film from Yemen, with the support of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, a German political foundation which has been active in Yemen since 1997 and a regular supporter of Diwan al-Fan’s cultural and art projects.

“This exhibition is important because it intends to shed light on the current state of Yemen as a whole”, said Lila Nazemian, the exhibition curator. She hopes that this exhibition would be an enabling point to shed a better light on Yemeni art and as a starting point to support Yemeni-led initiatives as a whole. She feels “it is important for Yemeni artists to seize this moment when the spotlight is on the region”.

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