Does creativity require money?
Many Yemeni artists link the beginning of the country’s modern arts scene to the central figure of Hashim Ali Abdulla Al-Dawbala. Born in Hadramout in 1945, the artist lived and practiced art in Taiz for most of his life. Training several famous local artists, such as Hakim Al-Aqel and Amina Al-Nusairi, and establishing the Yemeni Artists Association in 1986, Al-Dawbala shaped Yemen’s emerging modern arts scene.
While the arts in Yemen, as in other countries, have never been considered a priority in the government’s funding allocation, Ghada Al-Haddad, an artist who received the Presidential Award for Fine Arts in 2008, singles out the years between 2004 and 2007 as somewhat of a highpoint, with then Minister of Culture Khalid Al-Rowishan investing heavily in Yemen’s arts scene.
“Minister Al-Rowishan started workshops for artists in every Yemeni governorate and allocated a special budget for each one of them. These workshops supplied painting tools to each painter, all they had to do is come to the workshop and start painting, without bearing any of the costs,” remembers Al-Hadda.
While the Ministry of Culture had halted its support to these workshops in 2007, they managed to stay operational, being financed by private donors and arts admirers.
Interestingly, the 2011 uprising is referred to by artists like Najeeb Al-Seraji as an important turning point in Yemen’s art scene. Al-Seraji, who was among the protesters at Sana’a’s Change Square, explains that on the one hand, political upheavals “were a [blessing] for painters, inspiring many to criticize Yemen’s political past and present through the artists' brush.” On the other hand, Al-Seraji perceives the pre-2011 arts scene as favorable to the current situation. “The economy was doing better and there used to be many more events held in art houses and in the governorates,” he says. According to Al-Seraji the main reason for the deterioration of fine arts in Yemen today is the halt of most of these artistic activities and events.
Does a lack of money equal a lack of awareness?
Although Dr. Abdulkareeem Nasser, a former sociology professor in Taiz governorate, explains that a variety of factors are responsible for a widespread lack of interest in and appreciation of the arts in Yemen, he singles out the economy as a prime reason.
“The deteriorating economic situation in Yemen has a direct effect on fine arts audiences. Add to this that many Yemenis are suspicious of fine arts because they believe it to be forbidden under Islamic law. Debate over arts’ religious legitimacy has caused many to stay away from it,” he explains.
Nezar Al-Sanafi, who received the Presidential Award for Fine Arts in 2013, and manages the Bayt Al-Fan (House of Art) in Yareem district in Ibb, links the lack of awareness and interest in arts to Yemen’s education system.
He criticizes the ministry for failing to support artists and for Yemen’s lacking cultural movement. “People do not understand fine arts and they do not care for it,” he said.
Through his work at the Bayt Al-Fan, Al-Sanafi tries to counter such trends, by raising awareness and supporting the practice of art. The Bayt Al-Fan was established in 2004, following a resolution of the then Minister of Culture Khalid Al-Rowishan. Located in all of Yemen’s governorates, the art studio offers a place for artists to practice their profession or hobby. It also hosts many cultural activities, such as musical events and exhibitions. Given its tight budget, the Bayt Al-Fan is no longer able to provide artists with many much-needed materials, however. Instead, it acts as a platform for them.
Despite Al-Sanafi’s efforts, most children in Yemen grow up without any access to art. Although art classes are offered to students from the 1st until the 9th grade in public schools in governorates like Taiz, Hodeida, and the capital city, the government does not provide any painting equipment. Art classes frequently revolve around the teacher drawing on the board, which students are requested to copy in their notebooks, using ordinary pencils.
Sameera Al-Ezzi, an art teacher at the Raba Al-Adawiah girls school in Sana’a, says that the Ministry of Education neither provides a curriculum to art teachers nor does it offer any tools or materials. “However, there are some private companies that provide tools and materials like brushes, colors and drawing books.” Al-Ezzi continues saying that company support for the school takes place in partnership with the ministry to support education. However, the company does not miss the opportunity to advertise to the young audience, making sure its name is on material provided to students.
According to the artist Al-Haddad it is not only the government which lacks an interest in improving arts education in the country, but also parents. “Many parents [expect] that more important things will be provided before arts are addressed,” she explains.
In light of little interest and material support, some schools in Yemen dropped art classes altogether. “Theoretically, we have an art class for students—but we don't teach it because we lack painting materials,” said Radman Al-Hajaji, principal of the Al-Fath School in Hodeida governorate.
Arts: An unprofitable profession
According to Nasser, people’s low interest in art explains why artist’s income is so low in Yemen. There is simply no demand for their work.
“I used to be blessed with a gift in painting and I still am until now. However, I do not paint anymore because art requires costly things,” said Riyadh Abdualrazaq, a former artist. Due to his financial status he had to give up his artistic work and start a job as a carpenter which leaves him no time to draw anymore. While Abdualrazaq wishes to practice art he also needs to make money. “Unfortunately, I could not do both,” he says.
It is only after an artist achieves fame that he might be able to live off his hobby, explains artist Radfan Al-Mohammadi. Even those painters who gained relative fame, however, often need to rely on additional source of income to survive and continue their art. Those who cannot afford expensive painting materials have to give up their gift and go on to do other things.
“At first I could not afford to buy a box of colors at YR500 (about $2.50) to practice my hobby. I simply did not have enough money,” said Al-Haddad. She explains that the material for one oil painting on a high quality canvas could cost almost $100.
Not only are tools expensive, the profession itself is unprofitable which partially explains why it is socially stigmatized in Yemen as elsewhere.
“I have always been blessed with a talent for painting, which was quite concerning to my family. Fine arts aren’t a financially reliable profession in our country,” explains Al-Sanafi.
Likewise, Al-Haddad explains, “at the beginning of my career I did not receive any support from anyone. Even my family opposed the attempt to develop my skills in order to make money. It was only through perseverance that I was able to reach what I was aiming for.”
Jalal Al-Shameeri, an artist from Taiz governorate, sees the financial struggle of artists in Yemen best exemplified by the life story of Hashem Ali, whom he calls a “pioneer of fine arts in Yemen.” In spite of having reached considerable fame inside and beyond Yemen, Hashem Ali died as a poor man in his rented house in Taiz.
Is art for the rich?
In light of the lack of funding flowing into Yemen’s art scene and the financial struggle of Yemen’s artists, is has been asked whether the profession is only suitable for the well-off. Suspicion is fueled by artists like Ayman Othman, who confesses, “I was only able to succeed in art due to the high income of my family. I attended several training courses which helped me to hone my skills.”
While Othman argues that art can be practiced with minimum resources, requiring little more than creativity, the example of Abdualrazaq, whose financial situation forced him to stop practicing art acts as a vivid counterexample.
Artists like Al-Haddad, Al-Sanafi, Al-Seraji, Al-Shameeri, or Al-Mohammadi all share a humble background, and continue to struggle financially. While not being upper class, they all belong to Yemen’s intelligencia, as does their audience.
According to Al-Mohammadi, most of those who are interested in art are journalists, poets, and intellectuals. Given the lack of interest and funding it is unclear whether their combined efforts to maintain Yemen’s art scene will be fruitful in the long-term.
“The absence of interest from all societal groups in arts is disastrous to the development of fine arts in Yemen,” said Shadi Abdulhakeem, the marketing director of the Arabian Forum for Fine Arts and the head of the Nastati (We Can), which supports music, painting, and acting in Yemen.
While initiatives like the Bayt Al-Fan, Nastati, or the Arabian Forum for Fine Arts, which teaches fine arts in Sana’a, aim to provide Yemenis with access to art, their lack of funding diminishes their success. In fact, the Arabian Forum for Fine Arts is required to charge for its art classes, while artists working in the studios of the Bayt Al-Fan need to finance their own material. Whether money stands in the way to artistic activities or not is a question that raises different answers in Yemen.
While artists like Al-Seraji blame Yemen’s economic woes for the deterioration of fine arts, Abdulhakeem links the halt of most artistic activities and events in the country to a lack of competition and incentives. He criticizes that there are few awards handed out to artists in Yemen that could encourage fine arts performers.