A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
A girl’s story
image courtesy of Somaya Abdullah
A 6-year-old girl, papers and crayons. Holding pencils, the right angle, painting and coloring until her heart is content. The first encounter Shatha al-Towai had with drawing was during her early childhood. A kid mesmerized by the range of colors and the plain paper in her sight. “My parents realized my talent by mere chance, the first thing they noticed was my correct way of holding the crayons, then me drawing with them”, said Shatha. When children start to express themselves, they sometimes turn to nonverbal forms of expression. Painting and coloring are the building blocks of that communication.
Children who are encouraged show great development in their skills. Although art is revered around the world, its real value is still mysterious to us. “Although I was untrained, my family kept encouraging my talent by buying my paintings and giving me money to buy new colors. I felt like a real artist, selling some of my works and gifting others”, added Shatha. Growing up tends to be a tumultuous time, we lose connections with our childhood safe havens as we start to drift into serious adulthood. As she ventured away from painting and into adolescence, many aspects of her favorite art were forgotten. “I used to be front and center at every school art events, with multiple activities and many interviews in children’s TV shows. My paintings were featured in the hallways of my school; I was nicknamed the violet painter. Unfortunately, all that stopped as I became a teenager due the lack of a drawing institute to support my growing art”, explained Shatha. Shifting focus to her studies, settling into secondary school and then college, Shatha led a quiet life, settling down as a married woman after finishing her studies in information technology. However, her marriage proved to be a whole other adventure.
A boy’s story
image courtesy of Somaya Abdullah
A 5-year-old boy, a keyboard and musical notes. Tiny fingers dabbling on a keyboard, pressing levers to generate a world of amazement for a kid. As he played on his older brother’s keyboard, his six siblings, already immersed in music, helped shape Saber Bamatraf’s musical ear. “I never saw myself as a pianist, I always saw myself as a talented painter. Moving between the countryside and the city, and feeling scattered between my many interests and talents were the main reasons I couldn’t focus on music”, explained Saber. Noticing an ability to follow any musical note, he developed an ear for recognizing notes, melodies, harmonies, rhythms and tempos. “My brothers used to compete to play a very famous musical track by Ammar El Sherei. I can say listening to them play was the start of me developing my musical ear, as I practiced over and over.”
Constantly moving can be very illuminating and eye-opening for a child. “When we moved to my hometown, Gail Bawazeer, Hadramout, to finish my secondary education, my sister had a bigger keyboard. I spent years trying to depend totally on myself, teaching myself to play. With my older brothers out of the picture and the total lack of online resources, I depended totally on my ear, a gift that I realized not many possess”, said Saber. The lives of talented children are never easy: they are presented with a torrent of information flooding their brains, adding to the complexities of their lives. This is another layer that helps shape their talent. “Moving to Sana’a to complete my schooling, I managed the big city and school as a new challenge. Trying to compete with students who have a top-notch education, I was worried about facing new subjects and the environment. There was a monthly musical notes class, repeating tedious melodies with the teacher, shouting out loud the musical notes. Students didn’t care for music which truly surprised me. I was laughed at when I told them I could play the piano.”
A role model, a figure that you look up to, is a catalyst helping to shape the talent of youngsters. Often talented people are faced with the mockery of their peers and the reprimands of their superiors. “My teacher challenged me to play, and once I did, everyone was surprised, and I was asked to play for the rest of the class time”, said Saber. Saber was faced with another challenge, playing with both hands. He was skilled playing with his right hand, but needed to learn to be flexible playing with both hands. By immersing himself in Western and Yemeni classical music, moving smoothly between notes, by the end of secondary school he had, on his own, perfected playing with both hands. “Realizing I cannot get further without a real piano, I faced a major challenge. Having a big piano was a difficult venture because nobody saw its importance. Day-by-day I saved up to buy a digital piano, which enabled me to compose many of my current music.”
A joint road
Success and failure are judged by the steps taken to reach an end. Life is most laborious when conquered alone and best when lived in harmony. They say that communication and setting mutual goals are the hallmark of a successful couple: two individuals choosing to battle through a rough time together. “As a couple, we decided on the way each one of us wants to lead their life. Art was a mutual connection between us, and it helped us create a mutual grounding that led us to achieving our individual goals”, explained the couple. In a traditional society like Yemen, it is always difficult for women to get their full rights, use their voices and speak their minds. Art and mutual understanding have helped shift that environment to a common ground that helps the couple thrive. “Many see us as a model for them. Other wonderful marital models influenced us before marriage. We have completed four years of marriage and entered the fifth year. We have learned a lot, and every day we mature, living in harmony”, added the couple. Shatha sees in her husband his ambition and perseverance to achieve every goal he aims for. “These two qualities are a source of hope and strength that drive me to do more to be the one I have always dreamed of being”, explained Shatha. Saber sees in his wife an ability to advance in her field by constantly working on her skills. “For Shatha, there is nothing impossible. Although immersed in the visual arts, she took a new direction and began learning to play the violin, which is one of the most difficult musical string instruments. It is my biggest motivation to develop my abilities and passion for music”, explained Saber.
As an artistic couple, Saber and Shatha believe they have a cultural and social role. Culturally, in addressing society’s issues in a new style, both of them inspiring the art of the other. Saber translates Shatha’s paintings and expresses them as musical pieces, and Shatha visualizes Saber’s pieces and presents them as abstract paintings. They have a shared sense of art. The couple believe that it is necessary to offer a positive and honorable model to society and to highlight a married life filled with love and mutual respect. “We try as much as we can to erase the culture of shame and disgrace that invaded our society; all that is women-related is seen as shame. We try as much as possible to offer a positive picture; if women are given their full rights, freedom and self-confidence, people will continue to live happy married lives and society will certainly reap the benefits. We are soldiers; we stand by all the artist soldiers in the country, we work, we fight, we defend, we fight to preserve the value of humanity, namely beauty, because wars destroy everything beautiful”, the couple concluded.
Art is for everyone to experience: it is undefinable, it is ever evolving and the reason for creating art ranges from mystical to self-expression. The best definition of art is a story that is narrated from different angles. The writer of a story interprets a feeling, and the reader recognizes similar or complicated emotions. “Art is therapy, a relief, a hopeful light, a future glance, love, an expression, a scream, a pain, and a break from reality”, Shatha explained. In a constant state of disruption, with what Yemen is going through, it is difficult to find the light at the end of the tunnel. However, a firm belief that beauty is meant to conquer all cruelties in this world seeps into all the tired souls. “Music is an integral part of life. Just like food and water, people have considered beauty as a basic value in their lives; music is like oxygen to me”, explained Saber.
image courtesy of Somaya Abdullah
Society has a vital role in promoting an environment that incubates art. “My family and other great artists have always supported me; I have got to know them over the course of my work. However, I have found being an abstract artist is a challenge that I face every day”, explained Shatha. The art of transforming an empty canvas into a world of colors that catches every eye and touches the hearts and minds of millions. Not every artistic expression is supposed to be autopsied and understood, some need to be felt, while standing still and allowing the piece to speak to you. “Abstraction, to me, is an awareness”, said Shatha. Being a classical composer in a vibrant society which doesn’t appreciate all types of music is a challenge. Yemen has been known for its energetic music, a vibrant mix of instruments that creates enthusiasm in the soul of the listener. “The kind of music I play is not welcomed in a society revering traditional over classical music; this, no wonder, is a great challenge”, explained Saber.
A true artist finds inspiration in everything: a broken shard, or in the crooked smiles of children. Motivation is not linked with status or time; it hits like lightning. The creative processes leading to many great works of art have been labeled as messy and unpredictable. The act of creation is powerful and remarkable. “A great painter told us once to look for art catalysts, and I realized that my reality is my catalyst. The street, my friends, artists of all colors and their musical instruments, young people fighting to survive, my room and the broken house in front of my window, the entrance of my house and the remnant of shrapnel! Broken doors and windows. I see all that every day translated into notes between Saber’s fingers. I see the debris and hear hope at the same time. It’s art! When mixed with pain, it makes beauty.” Shatha is currently working on a series of paintings about internally displaced people (IDPs), depicting the tragedy and pain of displaced people, expressing them in an abstract light. “The current situation has affected my music, the more the conflict continues, the deeper the music that touches the suffering and tragedies in the country”, explained Saber. Currently, Saber is working on a series of musical pieces inspired by Shatha’s paintings of IDPs.
Art and love is a mixture that does not always work. When many people think of the word ‘love’, they inherently imagine the allure of fairy tales; exciting, captivating, uncomplicated love. The reality of it may prove to be different. Like every worthwhile human endeavor, it requires hard work. It is refreshing to see a great example of an accomplished couple living life and knowing how to manage careers while strengthening their marital bond. Maybe it is the magical stroke of a painter or the creative melodies of a composer bonding them eternally, or they have found the magical recipe through talking and keeping an open mind. The types of love we feel are as diverse as the people who experience them; it is another type of art that is explored and refined over time.