This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)
What if we lived throughout our childhood in a house where the walls are covered with artistic pieces and antiques that we collect from a different location in Yemen every summer? What if we expressed our opinions freely within the family? What if we spent our evenings as a family painting on glass, paper and wood? All of this happens in the fine artist Yassin Ghaleb’s household.
Yassin Ghaleb Hassan is a Yemeni architect and fine artist from Taiz city. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the former Soviet Union, Ghaleb married Fadilah al-Hamed, a psychology graduate from Sana’a University. Together they created a phenomenal artistic family, art being manifest in their four children: Salma, Lamees, Laila and Mohammed. During my visit, it felt as if the environment the couple cultivated to make art prospers as the household hangs on one of Sana’a’s high cliffs!
From the outside, the Ghaleb’s house looks majestically mysterious. Once the steel gate opens, you find yourself before a nonagonal building that is embraced from the left by an aged artichoke tree, and the right side of the house overlooking the plains of Sana’a.
The first grandchild, 5-year-old Madyan, opened the door and guided us through floors covered in leather rugs, each one unique in pattern and color. We sat in the presence of Ghaleb and tens of artistic pieces, and surrounded by Laila’s canvas paintings, Salma’s glass paintings, as well as Yan’s doodles. Madyan, or Yan, as he likes to be called, has his own space in this house, just like the adults. Once he is finished with a painting, he gets a new canvas and paints a new one.
After a long conversation, Ms Fadilah, or auntie Fadilah as she prefers to be called, revealed her own artistic passion. What she does is different from what the rest of her family members do. She finds joy in embroidering Yemen’s heritage buildings on cloth. This includes the Old City of Sana’a, Shibam’s skyscrapers, Khayllat Bugshan’s buildings in Hadhramaut’s Dawan Valley, among many others. She insisted that we choose one of her pieces to take home with us as a gift. The warmth of such an artistic gift made me forget the bitter cold night of Sana’a.
In addition to his free artwork, Yassin Ghaleb has worked on a variety of architectural projects. Ghaleb was part of the architectural inventory project that followed the 1982 earthquake in Dhamar governorate. After that, and since the mid-1980s, he has been working for the General Authority for the Preservation of Historical Cities. For many years, he refused to reduce architecture to an occupation, and rather prefers to treat it as an art, an inspiration, a resource, an identity and as history. Ghaleb has comprehensive knowledge of Yemen’s ancient and modern history. He enjoys diving deep into the history of archaeological sites, which he tries to absorb during his travels through Yemen. Ghaleb describes Fadilah, who worked as a social worker for some time, as a great woman who shares the sweetness and bitterness of life with him. His love for her extends to her hometown, Hadhramaut, which became Ghaleb’s most visited location in Yemen.
The couple engraved art in their son’s and three daughters’ consciousness. They see that the most prominent factor in their parenting has always been the unconditional space for dialogue and expression of opinions. Everyone here is allowed to say what they think and believe in, whether it has to do with their personal lives or family matters. Anything, simple or critical, can be brought to the table for discussion, and this has contributed to breaking socially constructed barriers. As a result, the children’s creative minds are open to artistic and intellectual horizons that add to their character building and productivity, against the ways of society that obscure creativity and free thought.
In 1988, Ghaleb began his serious artistic journey after joining the Fine Artists Syndicate. He received his first award in this field when he won third place in the Arab Fine Arts Forum, which took place in Sana’a in the 1990s. Later on, his participation in local, regional and international events became more frequent in a way that inspired his children and encouraged them to create their own art. Ghaleb’s oldest daughter, Salma, received an honorary certificate for her participation in a children’s art exhibition in Libya when she was 12. Her younger brother’s first participation in an art exhibition was at the age of 9. Throughout different stages, Lamees, Laila and Salma continued to participate in different art exhibitions and contests, such as the ‘Yemen Peace Project’ and ‘Sea of Talents’, until they had exhibitions of their own at the Basement Cultural Foundation. Ghaleb is happy with his daughters’ activities, for he feels that they reflect their individuality and different styles as artists. While Salma’s work on glass leans towards realism, Laila, inspired by her father’s work, uses cutting and sewing to create abstract and surreal artwork. Ghaleb, however, prefers not to categorize his paintings as part of a particular school. Instead, he prefers to improvise freely without any categorical restrictions within what he calls the school of ‘No school’.
During the current eight year conflict, through which all families have suffered in one way or another, the Ghalebs are no exception. In the past, there used to be a significant demand from tourists for artwork, especially pieces like Ghaleb’s that mix abstraction with heritage. The pieces used to sell for a good price, reflecting the value of the artwork, and creating additional income for the family so Ghaleb could purchase tools, known for their high expense in Yemen. Even though the son and daughters are now adults who contribute financially to the family expenses, the family has indeed lost an important source of income due to the situation. Their collection of local heritage furniture, rugs, mills, wooden windows and doors, kitchenware
and other antiques make them feel rooted across Yemen. However, the collection has become an additional burden due to its value, which makes the maintenance costly and more than the family can currently afford. Similarly, Ghaleb’s inability to sell his artwork due to the conflict has also impacted his financial ability to continue his travels in Yemen for archaeological and architectural research.
Today, the Ghalebs hope that Yemen finds peace so that the country can enjoy its cultural variety and a civil shura-based state. Should this aspiration become a reality, cultural and artistic life as well as tourism could prosper, and people could respect and appreciate differences. All these hopes for Yemen are translated into the Ghalebs’ efforts within their house, where they create beams of light, art and beauty that shine towards the rest the country with love and beauty.
Aisha Aljaedy is a writer, cultural activist and youth activist in the field of peace and development.