Hello all! Here to share with you an extremely interesting and informative interview I did with emerging Yemeni artist and photographer--and good friend of mine-- Ibi Ibrahim. Ibi was raised in Yemen, the Emirates, Libya, and Iraq, and currently lives in New York. His work draws its inspiration from his experience with growing up amidst strong social and moral codes in Islamic societies. His website with a sample of his work can be found here. Make sure to check it out--I particularly recommend his work "Love Knows Only Love". Ibi was a participating artist in the Sana'a Styles: Fashion and Art Exhibit that opened in Sana'a this week at the House of Culture. For our readers in Yemen: the exhibit runs until January 4th--please don't miss this opportunity to experience some of Yemen's rising artistic talent in person!
Firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself? When did you first become
interested in art? What challenges, difficulties, and/or successes have you faced as an artist?
I am Ibi Ibrahim, I am 23 years old and I am a Yemeni visual artist working in New
I would say that my artistic career officially began when I moved to New York in
late 2009 – I started out as an actor and I was lucky enough to book different gigs in
theater and film. I had to work a lot in order to make enough money to survive and
also to buy the camera I wanted. Back at the time, I didn't have a camera.
Soon after I got my camera, I wouldn't stop shooting – not even for a day. Every day
was a new adventure for me and I discovered a new technique and in result a new
artistic perspective. I have had taken pictures while in Yemen and exhibited my
work via the German House in Sana'a in October 2009 but I wasn't satisfied with my
work. After I moved to New York and got a chance to see a large portions of art
work through visiting museums and galleries here. I remember going to the MOMA
every week to see the art. Even if I've seen it once, it wasn't enough – it was a love
affair that kept on growing. I'm actually a member now.
The challenge I faced was to find a specific topic to discuss through my medium. I
searched and practiced many but I reached my current topic after I realization that
it was the most powerful and passionate topic to discuss and involve the viewer to
participate in and take part of – only because it was part of who I am.
Where does the subject matter for your photography come from? Do you tend
to stick to one theme or subject, or does your art go through phases?
The work I do is circled around the culture and social codes of Muslim conservative
societies – the inspiration comes from my upbringing in a very conservative
household. At first, I was not certain if I could do such work - after all, most of my
work is about stories I witnessed growing up whether it was in my household or our
neighbors..etc. With support of mentors and friends, I was able to break that barrier
and open myself to the world. In my opinion, this is the true artist experience –
nothing to be held back, nothing to be afraid of.
I'm currently working in within this subject but that doesn't mean that eventually
I won't tackle another topic. However I'm developing my art in other sense by
creating video installations and making short films. I just finished my first semester
as a film student at the New School in New York and I've began writing my first
feature film. I've also submitted my short screen plays for festivals and institutions
For funding and I've received some welcoming responses from some institutes such
as the Doha Tribecca Film Institute. Its all work in progress at the moment.
sample of work exhibited in the ongoing "Sana'a Styles" show
Can you tell us a little bit about the state of the modern Yemeni art scene in
general? What are some of the difficulties faced by artists in Yemen, whether
cultural/political/financial, etc.? Are there any venues of support for artists
such as yourself?
I'm going to speak on behalf of myself here and focus my answer around the capital
city; Sana'a. I honestly can't think of one gallery in Yemen. At least in Sana'a – I
certainly don't remember ever running across a gallery in the capital. Now, what
Sana'a has in return are art centers that are either NGOs and being funded by the
government or actual culture centers that are part of the ministry of culture. Of
course, they are helpful in promoting art but to an extent. Those centers don't
provide artistic representation like galleries do and neither they try to sell the
artists work like galleries do. An artist needs to make a living after all so if his/her
art work is not selling, what is the purpose of showing it at culture centers?
In addition to that, I would also say the media in involved in the poor status of
modern Yemeni art scene in Yemen. I've noticed that most of the time media does a
coverage on culture events by highlighting who attended the show and who opened
the show while they ignore the most important aspect in the entire show and that
the artists participating. There is no media support for the artists and if the media
is not going to support the artist, then how the public is going to learn about the
artist? Here is the link of coverage in the National paper about the current exhibit
about fashion and identity in Yemen. You read the coverage; you
realize that there is nothing mentioned about the artists and what they showed. It
was all bullshit and it made me very upset. Why must we always cover the minister
or the ambassador and not cover the artist?
If there are no galleries and no media to support the artist – how can a world expect
Yemen to have a modern art scene? Some might be lucky to have supportive families
but for the most part, Yemeni parents never want their kids to be musicians, artists
or filmmakers. Unlike parents in the west, who encourage their kids to have interest
in the art from an early age and that's due the fact that art has been around for
awhile there and it has proven that it could be a successful career and generates
great income, fame and all things desired.
What do you see as a solution to these problems? Where should the support
come from—the government, the Yemeni people, other countries?
The best lesson is to learn from neighboring countries. There is a huge art revolution
happening in the Middle East now. Qatar is opening the first Arab museum of
modern art, Abu Dhabi will open the Louvre and the Guggenheim in less than two
years, and Yemen still has zero art galleries. Yemen has beautiful ancient art but
there is international interest in Middle Eastern modern art and we should take
this opportunity and encourage our artists to take serious steps towards their
work. Yemen receives millions of dollars of funding from international sources but
sadly all those funds are gone toward defense and security – just imagine if a small
portion would've been directed towards art reform.
One thing I want to make clear is that the art is available and so is the talent –
but we need support and mentorship. And today, instead of asking support and
mentorship from the US and Europe, we can ask from our neighboring countries
because they have certainly proven that they are up to the standards. Best example
drawn here is Qatar 2022.
Tell us a little about the exhibition this week that you are a participating artist in.
The show is about Fashion and Identity in Yemeni society. For my work, I had to
create a story with an element of fashion but in the same time remain within the
content of my subject. My series is called A Good Wife. It’s a series I’ve never shown
before - it’s about a wife who just worships her husband—she helps him with
everything and opens the doors of success to him, and in return he ends up leaving
her to find a better person (in his mind)—a woman who is fashionable, tall, slim—
that’s where I added the element of fashion to it. It’s the story about love, about
stabbing someone in the heart. It’s inspired by the average Yemeni wife.
My show in Kentucky ends in a week, and then this show is my last show of the
year, and it’s opening in Yemen. I’m happy to be ending the year with such great
success—and I’m excited for next year. I’m especially excited to hear what Yemeni
women think of the work. My first try at a show in Yemen was last October—I
thought it was beautiful, but it wasn’t something that made you stop and think. This
will definitely get people talking. I really wish I was there—inshallah [God willing]
I’ll be able to have a solo exhibit there someday, and I’ll go.
As for other artists participating, I've seen the work of two other artists, ,Bushra
Almutawakel, who's done a really fascinating series about the hijab
in the Muslim world - she's considered to be the first Yemeni female photographer.
The other artist is Bushra al-Fusail who's at 23 years old has shown some great
talent and I'm very fond of her work, also fond of the examples she is sitting for
other young Yemeni women.
What sort of reaction do these types of events spark from the general public inYemen? Is there any sort of national interest or support for the arts?
From my own experience, no. I had shown before in Yemen and there was no sort
of reaction that benefited me in anyway. Again, if you look at the media coverage of
the event, it only highlighted the ministers and the ambassadors who attended. The
media coverage should've been about the artists who participated. I've seen nearly
the same format of that article in about six publications via the web and such thing
is really disappointing.
Again back to the same point, we must learn from others on how to do the right
coverage or such event and ensure that we could provide all the help possible to our
talented emerging artists.
Any final words?
I wish one rich person in Yemen would decide, “I want to spend X amount of money
on an art academy, and see what happens.” Let's take a chance in our youth and
see what might happen. Look at the architecture in the old city – its divine and
couldn't be seen anywhere else. People always ask me here, "are there more of you
in Yemen?" and my response is " In Yemen, there is even better."
In my heart, I know there are artists that are more talented in Yemen. They just
need to learn how to hussle. Being an artist is a life-time job. Picasso didn't become
Picasso over night!