The artist of the revolution
“These aren’t for sale, these are for the revolution,” Mohamed Al-Ansi, one of Change Square’s best-known revolutionary artists, explains. Over coffee and cigarettes, he discusses his childhood, finding art, leaving home and joining the revolution.
An Artist’s Journey
Orphaned as a young child, revolutionary artist Mohamed Al-Ansi found comfort and refuge in art. Born in the small farmers village of Al-Shirr, outside Ibb, Al-Ansi was inspired by the village’s greenery and surrounding mountains.
“I remember being mesmerized by the beauty of my village; all I wanted was to capture it,” he says. “In school, I spent all my time doodling in my books. One of my teachers encouraged me to keep at it, and this is the path life has taken me on.”
After dropping out of school in seventh grade, he left his village for Sana’a, where he supported himself by doing various cleaning jobs in hotels, schools and homes.
Reserved and somber, Al-Ansi describes the impact art has had on his life.
“Art is my life now, art and revolution. I don’t think you can really talk about one without the other.”
There’s a palpable sadness in the room, and Al-Ansi looks away as he talks about the family he no longer has relations with, an ex-wife and the small child they have together.
“Life here is hard and bitter. Everywhere people are in chains, plagued by poverty and repression. But when I paint, I feel free. Before the revolution, there was darkness, and now there is light. We have not succeeded yet, but after tasting freedom, we cannot go back to where we were. The revolution gives us hope—lets us dream.”
The people’s artist
When the revolution started, Al-Ansi quit his job cleaning houses and moved to Change Square, where he lives in a tent made of tarp, rope and a few concrete blocks. His mattress lines one side of the tent. A strong breeze against the tarp distracts him from work. He has trouble sleeping and is known to paint for two or three days at a time.
Demonstrators and street vendors knowingly point to Al-Ansi’s tent.
“He drinks coffee with me everyday,” a proud coffee vendor says.
Al-Ansi does not receive a salary for his contributions to the revolution; he lives off donations from revolutionary comrades and art supplies donated by friends and demonstrators.
He is a visionary, according to one young demonstrator.
“Life in Change Square is different than I imagined,” Abdullah Ahmed Owsabi says. “Yes, there are demonstrations and meetings of the revolutionary committee, but a lot of our time is spent building connections with other people, discussing what kind of country we want, what sort of future we envision. These, too, are revolutionary activities. Al-Ansi’s art helps us to do this. His art is beautiful.”
Art as Revolution
Asserting popular control over public spaces is what made revolutionary spaces such as Change Square possible by mirroring the larger goal of democratic control of government, public institutions and resources.
Publically displayed art makes claims; it signals that an area is in control of the people and not regulated by the government or corporate owners of private property, says Al-Ansi.
Posters of martyrs and revolutionaries such as Che Guevara are ubiquitous in the square. Al-Ansi displays several portraits of martyrs in his tent. He says he painted or drew most of them while he wept.
“I’m always very affected by the martyrs’ drawings. I cannot help but cry when I work. These young people are gone forever. We must make sure that we accomplish what they gave their lives for: a free Yemen.”
According to Al-Ansi, art is a universal language, a means of communication the world’s people can understand without the filters of pundits, media corporations or political leaders.
“Art not only bears witness and tells our stories, but it can help us imagine what kind of world we want to build; it helps us picture what a beautiful life could be like,” he says.
Al-Ansi’s work varies from serene portraits of young children in front of famous landmarks, such as the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, to dark and symbolic portraits revealing the former regime’s brutality or the power dynamics between Yemen and various countries.
In one particular painting, Al-Ansi denounces former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime along with the U.S. and Gulf countries. Shadowy figures in the background represent Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. These background figures are always present and threatening to force their agendas on the Yemeni people, he says.
The devilish figure symbolizes the U.S., which Al-Ansi says supported Saleh for decades—propping up his regime and supporting him until the very end—only to offer him immunity for his “decades of crimes against the Yemeni people.”
The eye in the center represents the eye of the people. It sheds blood and tears “for our martyrs, for our situation, for our children and their futures.”
Al-Ansi has lived at Change Square for 17 months, and he’s not leaving until the revolution achieves its goals.
“I’m not afraid of death anymore; that doesn’t scare me. I’m afraid of things staying as they are. We must change things. We will be here until we succeed, or until we die.”