Street Art in Yemen: Artists Fight War through Graffiti
Yemen’s ongoing war has left millions of people displaced, hungry, and hopeless. The fluid authority of local factions, the lack of news sources, and pervasive illiteracy all work to stifle public discussion within Yemen. But street graffiti, presented in local context, is a way to slip past those obstacles: to promote citizens’ involvement and provide hope. A burgeoning group of artists has developed street campaigns and involved the community in work that visualizes the indomitable spirit of Yemenis. Murad Subay, maybe the most well-known of them, vows to continue to draw graffiti: “This is how I fight in this war.”
AGSIW spoke with Murad about his beginnings in street art, the effects of the war on his art campaigns, and his motivation to persist.
AGSIW: Describe how you became involved in street art. Why does street art appeal to you?
Murad: I have been interested in art since I was young. But, during Yemen’s revolution in 2011, I was tested. I decided to go out in the streets to participate. On the streets, I learned the power of my voice. Although the revolution failed, I knew I had to persist.
What could I do? I don’t believe in taking up arms, so I decided to take my paintbrushes and make public murals. I launched my first campaign, “Color the Walls of Your Street.” Other artists and community members came out to help paint in the streets and express common grievances. After that, I continued to launch campaign after campaign in different parts of Yemen.
AGSIW: Tell us about your recent art campaigns.
Murad: I just completed my fifth campaign called “Ruins,” which was my biggest campaign, lasting two and a half years. Right after our civil war broke out, I wanted to draw focus to all of the human devastation. No one seemed to care about the civilian casualties, and all the warring sides were only trying to grab as much power as possible. I set out to paint on the walls of destroyed areas to break the silence of the war.
The first painting was near the airport in Sanaa. An airstrike destroyed more than seven homes and killed 27 people, including 15 children. I painted a mural of children hanging up rows of flowers along an exterior wall where the airstrike occurred. Throughout the campaign, I traveled to different parts of Yemen to paint 14 murals. Other artists also contributed to the campaign and painted an additional eight murals.
The campaign ended a few months ago, so that I could develop a new collective called “FOW” [Faces of War]. I launched the first three murals in November of this year in [the port city of] Hodeidah, a very disastrous area where there are several ongoing crises including civilian starvation and a terrible cholera outbreak. These murals show the ugliness of war. I know that art cannot actually cure people or feed people, but it can give a voice and a feeling of hope to people who only know the voice of war. I planned to paint several additional murals, but security officials told me I had to stop until they investigated the existing three.
AGSIW: How have you helped other young artists get involved?
Murad: The reason I call my art projects “campaigns” is because I do not work on them alone. I have an annual event every March where I organize an open day for street art. Many new young artists [such as Tammam Al-Shebani, Thiyazen Al-Alawi, and Haifa Subay] got their start through one of these campaigns and went on to become important artists in Yemen’s graffiti scene, starting their own art initiatives [such as “Street Caricature,” “Open Book,” and “Silent Victims”]. Last March, I tried to connect Yemeni youth with communities outside of Yemen. In Reading, England, artists participated and, next year, we aim to hold public events in the United States and South Korea.
AGSIW: How has the public reacted to your art?
Murad: Yemenis are inquisitive by nature. Whenever I am painting a mural, people come to look at it and ask me questions. Commonly, people are suspicious and ask, “Who is sponsoring you?”
Back in 2012, I was painting on a particularly hot day. A man came up and asked me lots of questions. He thought I was annoyed with his line of questioning and walked away. He came back with a cold bottle of water and said, “Take it, Oh Artist.”
Another time, a man driving his family stopped his car and asked what I was doing. I told him that I was working with a collective of artists to discuss issues related to civilian casualties. He was so moved that he tried to give me money. I politely declined but he insisted that he wanted to help in some way. He drove off and came back 20 minutes later with buckets of paint.
Older women come up and often say that they are praying for my work. Words can make miracles, so I am energized by all of the different people I meet and their support for me. This is why I continue because we continue to give each other hope. It is hard to describe this feeling of solidarity but it is very strong in Yemen.
AGSIW: Has the ongoing conflict affected your work?
Murad: Two months before Yemen’s most recent outbreak of war, I started a new project on Yemen’s cultural heritage. I tried to shape metal to make public art installations. However, once the war broke out, I could no longer depend on regular access to electricity. I decided I had to go back to painting murals and graffiti. That is when I decided to launch “Ruins.” War was central to this campaign.
War is normal now, and it is very difficult to operate. I have to make sure that my art does not take sides. I was once investigated by security forces while painting in [the southwestern city of] Taiz. Another time, some artists and I were painting on a school destroyed by one of the common airstrikes. We were trying to highlight what the war has done to Yemen’s education. Some armed men detained us and kept us in a barn that was turned into a jail.
In my current campaign, “FOW,” I have refined my style and moved away from stencils, using free-form. War is the absence of order. The central character in “FOW” has no eyes because of what all Yemenis have witnessed from the wretchedness of all sides who continue to fight. Black hollow sockets remain as to witness Yemen’s destruction. In another one of my paintings, the faces of the three children have vanished. Their faces are skin and bone, empty of dreams and hope.
To see more of his artwork and follow his campaigns, visit Murad’s website.
Joshua Levkowitz was formerly a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.