Sana’a’s Art House: Full of talents, devoid of tourists
The Art House in Sana’a is a gallery where artists can display and sell their work. Here you can find paintings of classic Yemeni landscapes and cultural traditions.
Some young painters consider this space a rarity—it not only offers them a place to showcase their talents but also an opportunity to spend time with other artists, drawing and learning together. But these days, both the artists and tourists who once frequented the building are the rarity.
“This was a daily destination for dozens of tourists from all over the world as well as Yemenis because of its location in Old Sana'a,” said Hind Al-Shaga, the director of the Art House. “At least three or four paintings used to be sold every day, however after the security situation worsened following the 2011 upheaval, the house is now rarely visited.”
Yemen’s popular anti-government uprising swept the country in 2011. Culminating in an internationally-backed transition of governmental power, the year-long political turmoil wreaked havoc on the country’s economy and capability to ensure the safety of not only its own citizens but also visitors.
“Unfortunately, the majority of visitors were foreigners,” said Hani Al-Masrafi is a young Yemeni painter and teacher who used to visit the Art House on a daily basis. “After the news of killings and kidnappings circulated due to security instability after 2011, foreigners were afraid to explore Old Sana'a for fear of being harmed.”
Al-Masrafi’s paintings of cobbled streets, old Sana’ani houses and traditional Yemeni clothing and food were popular with visitors because, he said, “They were captivated by my style and the content of my paintings.”
According to Aidh Al-Adhi, the administrator at the Ministry of Culture responsible for overseeing the Art House, 80 percent of visitors prior to 2011 were from abroad.
“Tourists, without a word of complaint, used to pay hundreds of dollars for a painting,” he said.
The Art House filled a gap in a nation where many artists complained about a lack of exhibition spaces. The Art House in Sana’a welcomes displays all year long. There are similar art houses in 15 of Yemen’s governorates, including the one in Sana'a. They are run by the Ministry of Culture and operate on a 20 percent commission fee to keep their doors open.
Classes at the Art House:
Courses begin when classes are full. The Art House still has six spots open for a drawing and painting class.
Fee: YR6,000 ($28) per course
Class times: Sun., Tues. and Thurs., 4-6 p.m. (Class time is negotiable based on participants’ wishes)
Who can register: Anyone! The Art House is happy to divide classes into more specific groupings based on age and/or experience if number permit.
How to register:
Register via email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or in person at the Art House, located in the Al-Fulaihi neighborhood, behind the Burj Al-Salam hotel (the tallest hotel in Old Sana’a)
Al-Shaga says on average eight to 10 people attend each course, which cost YR6000 ($28), a fee she acknowledges is out of reach for many. But the Art House says it just covers the cost of materials and small teacher stipends with the fee.
“The teachers are volunteers. They are willing to teach people in return for a small amount of money to cover their transportation,” Al-Shaga said.
The teachers are the same artists, including Al-Masrafi, who display their artwork at the facility.
Artists like Al-Masrafi and fellow Art House contributor, Nader Hassan, have had to explore alternative venues to showcase their pieces while the Art House recovers from the dearth of tourists in Yemen.
Al-Masrafi now displays his work at a popular coffee house on Hadda Street, a main throughfare in Sana’a, and Hassan found a home in the Sana'a Commercial Center.
“I removed my works from the Art House in Sana'a after displaying them there for four months because no one bought a single painting. I have since moved them to a public mall where [they get a lot more traffic],” Hassan said.
But, the life of an artist is still hard. Hassan’s paintings have been on display there for nearly a year, but sales have been disappointing.
“Even though I sold five paintings, I had expected to sell three times that number,” he said.
Al-Masrafi has fared slightly better.
Mohammed Mostafa, a young pharmacist and regular at the coffee shop where Al-Masrafi’s work is sold, said that he has frequently seen people purchasing the young artist’s paintings.
“I also intend to buy one once I finish buying furniture for my apartment,” Mostafa said.
Although happy to have customers, Al-Masrafi grumbled about a lack of opportunities for professional artists in Yemen.
“The state should pay more attention to us and provide permanent exhibition space for us where we can display our work,” he said.
Hassan suggested that Sana’a’s Art House be moved to a livelier location, but Al-Adhi dismissed his suggestion, saying, “Old Sana'a is still the top [local tourist] destination.”
Al-Adhi believes business will boom again when Yemen is once more a safe place to visit.