Basement: Yemen’s platform for art and peace

Art has special importance in our lives. Different forms of self-expression – be they visual, musical or physical –  transform inner feelings into actions. Art provides a means for human understanding: through music, fine art, poetry and dancing, a person can reach others.

As a result of the ongoing war in Yemen, now more than two years old, many national and international organizations stopped working in the country. However, Basement Cultural Foundation (BCF) continues to hold events and workshops aimed at promoting art and culture in the community. Such cultural activities and workshops are widely accepted and welcomed by the general public. At each event held by BCF, the sound of people engaging on music and art drowns out the sound of bombardment and destruction.

At one such cultural event, there was a debate between two groups, one group prioritizing the role of art in life with the other group opposing the motion. Attended by a large audience from different community groups, the debate began with the following questions: Does art have importance in Yemeni society? Does it have a role in alleviating suffering and creating public awareness about humanitarian issues or is it merely a form of luxury and entertainment?

 photo courtesy of the Basement Cultural Foundation

photo courtesy of the Basement Cultural Foundation

In a modestly equipped room attendees listened to the debate, with each side providing arguments to convince the audience about their respective positions on art. Eventually, the group proposing the idea of art’s importance in life won the largest portion of the audience vote. By engaging in the debate, all participants came to realize that art is one of the most effective tools for tackling violence and terrorism.

BCF holds debates on its premises once every four months, along with weekly activities taking place every Thursday. These create a good opportunity for Yemenis interested in art to discuss and share ideas. This is done through symposiums, painting, singing, music, calligraphy and group readings.

Every Thursday, BCF’s event space is full of men, women and youth who wish to create a peaceful environment, away from the difficulties the country is experiencing. Within this context, Shihab Al-Masri, a BCF frequenter, describes the Foundation as having an open platform for all artists and intellectuals, irrespective of their differences, and providing a space which is characterized by joy and hope that thoughtful exchanges can take place. “The Foundation represents an opportunity for me to know more and meet people sharing the same objective, which is ‘create a space for peace’. It could be the only place countrywide that provides such an opportunity”, Al-Masri explained.

How Basement Cultural Foundation developed

BCF started its activities in Sana’a in 2009 as a youth-led initiative, which was then named ‘Knowledge Sharing Forum’, with the aim of creating a space for Yemenis to present their thoughts on art and culture and share information through the symposiums organized by the initiative. The Knowledge Sharing Forum expanded its activities further, and began organizing cultural events involving music sessions, as well as holding drawing, photography, and carving exhibitions, among others.

The initiative faced a significant challenge in 2011, which saw a nationwide uprising against the regime of the former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In that environment, frequenters of the Forum-run activities were accused of atheism. Given that Yemen is a traditional and conservative society, women and men appearing together in public places, or practicing art, were seen as contravening social, cultural and traditional norms – the notion of shame being used to undermine such behavior.

According to Shaima Jamal, BCF Executive Director, BCF was the first organization promoting liberalism in a conservative community. It was discussing matters considered ‘taboo’ in Yemeni society. Some disapprove of women playing music or appearing together with men, she said, and “for this reason, some considered this a strange behavior”.

Jamal recollects how the Imam of a neighboring mosque was warning worshippers against the initiative, and that he was urging them not to keep silent about what he called “immorality”. Therefore, the Forum was shut down for nearly six months in 2012.

After these difficulties, the Forum decided to transform itself into a registered cultural institution within the government to ensure its legal rights in order to prevent any accusations by individuals or groups who would be opposed to the institution’s various culture activities. With this new status in place, young men and women supported the BCF by contributing money, thus enabling BCF activities to continue once it had secured its legal status. It also received some support from the Ministry of Culture. 

 photo courtesy of the Basement Cultural Foundation

photo courtesy of the Basement Cultural Foundation

When the war erupted in early 2015, BCF only suspended activities for one week. It then resumed cultural events. “At the beginning of the war, we suspended activities for one week only. Then we decided to continue organizing cultural events though we were concerned that invitees might not be able to show up”, Jamal said, adding that she was surprised by the number of attendees and that many of the participants came out under aerial bombardment and anti-aircraft artillery fire in order to attend the BCF-organized events.

Jamal went on to say: “We have to continue supporting art because it will make change and will convey to the world a good picture of Yemen and Yemenis who are eager for peace. It will convey a [good] picture, aside from the aspects of the war that stained every beauteous thing in a country that is a home to diverse kinds of arts.” BCF currently comprises an art exhibition space, an atelier and a library, and on its corridors’ walls there are paintings and artwork reflecting the talents of young Yemeni men and women and their love of art.

The BCF team works voluntarily, and Jamal thinks that creating such an opportunity for people in a country where no other opportunities are provided is by itself a great accomplishment. “At each event we hold, we meet individuals who are willing to demonstrate their talents, which is a motivation for us to continue voluntary work under the current difficult circumstances in order not to deprive people of opportunities they need most”, she explained.

Yemen lacks these kinds of cultural organizations. The country has only one cultural center – The Cultural Center, Sana’a – which is run by the Ministry of Culture, and it has strict standards for hosting the work of artists and writers. According to Jamal, BCF doesn’t set any criteria for the admission of talented participants, but rather concerns itself with creating opportunities for self-expression and knowledge-sharing regardless of political affiliations or trends.

At present, BCF runs a series of projects, including ‘Knowledge Sharing Forum’, which is held every Thursday and involves diverse artistic presentations, exhibitions and symposiums, as well as the workshops that take place periodically for general discussion. BCF also holds the ‘Cinema Show’ project, which aims to give Yemeni filmmakers an opportunity to showcase their work, because of the absence of formal cinemas in the country. The objective of these events is to polish the skills of participants and develop the arts of calligraphy, drawing, filmmaking and photography, among others.

The ongoing war and the political and economic instability in the country continue to prevent the advocacy and the promotion of cultural activities through various institutions in Yemen. Yet many individuals have various talents and are seeking opportunities to obtain institutional spaces that showcase their rejection of the culture of conflict and war, instead providing a platform that enables them to devote their artistic voices to a culture that calls for peace, coexistence, respect for human dignity and a sense of beauty. These positive values paint a portrait of the country that is different from what the media leans towards, which tend to only portray a Yemen in war, conflict and extremism.