One of the latest forms of contemporary art, graffiti, now enables ordinary people to interact with art – something that in the past was mostly seen as decorating the walls of museums or being held in private collections. For this reason, graffiti art is influential, effective and easily contributes to the social consciousness of individuals.
Although graffiti art did not appear in Yemen until five years ago, it quickly rooted itself in Yemeni streets. Walls became filled with various messages, with campaigns directed at the people of the country, commenting on important issues on a daily basis. Murad Subay’s experience could be described as pioneering in the field of graffiti. His campaigns were launched during the period of the Arab Spring revolutions; one might say that Subay’s campaigns were a result of the revolutions, which inspired artists, using their talents, to take part in demanding freedom and justice for the people. Subay carried out a number of campaigns, each with a specific title reflecting the main objective. It is noteworthy that Subay’s campaigns have transcended the boundaries of the country to reach wider horizons. His work is challenging, and has been discussed inside esteemed higher education institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University's Department of Human and Social Sciences, alongside some of the world’s most significant graffiti artists (Banksy, Shepard Ferry and Enfader).
Murad Subay’s campaigns and their impact
‘Color Your Street’ was the first campaign Subay launched, with a noble goal and a beautiful message: to erase the effects of bullets and shells by using color, to alert people to the need to give up violence – the cause of death and destruction. Subay continued leading his own colorful revolution, drawing on an artistic spring rich with significant messages that dealt with important political and social issues, and tried sending his message out to political and social circles.
As such, graffiti art has played a prominent role in bringing those messages to the attention of some international organizations. In Murad’s most important campaign, ‘The Walls Remember their Faces’, he draws the faces of people who were forcibly taken by the security services at times of political and military turmoil since the 1970s. This campaign was noteworthy because it emboldened the families of the disappeared. Where previously they had been afraid of voicing their concerns as it would risk prolonging the time their loved ones were ‘disappeared’, now the friends, families and neighbours of the hidden are involved in providing information and drawing their faces in the streets of Yemeni cities: Sana’a, Ibb, Taiz and Hodeidah. This campaign caused great concern to each region, as it was people from those areas who were mainly responsible for the disappearances. During the campaign period, the faces were painted during the day and wiped out by the security services at night.
The campaign succeeded in recalling what was forgotten and raised awareness about the controversy. The United Nations was forced to intervene and pressurise the Yemeni government to protect its citizens from forced disappearances. The government responded by discussing the subject for the first time in the House of Representatives. This led to the passing of a law protecting people from forced disappearances. And as the world has become one small village, the ‘Walls Remember their Faces’ campaign was able to resonate in other parts of the world, and inspired others to lead the same campaign. In Argentina, a group of graffiti artists launched a campaign to draw the faces of disappeared citizens from the period of Argentina’s military rule, between 1976 to 1981.
Once a year, Subay organizes an open day for street art, in which people from all walks of life participate, be they women or men, boys or girls. This year, the open day in Yemen coincided with a similar event in the United Kingdom. In the British town of Reading, open day for street art took place at the same time, with the same title and the same logo, as the open day for street art in Yemen. The BBC reported the event as an artistic bridge between Yemen and the United Kingdom.
“While borders divide us, art comes to reconnect people to each other”, Subay said. The Sana’a-based graffiti artist continues to launch street art campaigns as well as building more artistic bridges between Yemen and other nations. In 2014 he won the Art of Peace Award in Italy, and in 2016 he was the winner of the Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Award in the United Kingdom.
Engaging the community and opening new horizons
On 9 April 2014 researcher Anahi Marino presented a lecture on ‘Graffiti in Yemen’ at the University of Pennsylvania, in which she focused her presentation on Subay’s role in transferring art from exhibition spaces and museum halls to the streets. The presentation highlighted Subay’s influence on graffiti in Yemen, and the positive impact it had on society, enabling people to accept it as a new art medium in their country. Marino also discussed the impact of Subay’s campaigns, which opened the way for subsequent campaigns by other gifted graffiti artists.
Another artist who drew his own path in the Yemeni graffiti art scene is Thiyazen al-Alawi. In a short time, al-Alawi became an important voice in the graffiti scene. His campaign ‘Street Caricatures’ deals with political and economic issues and events in a cynical manner and allows the audience to engage with his work. In Yemen, caricature as a form of visual commentary only had a home in newspapers and magazines until al-Alawi took to the walls of Sana’a, inviting all aspects of society to engage with his work. Even the illiterate, who never held a newspaper, finds an opportunity to discover this ‘art’ onal-Alawi’s walls. When you walk past his walls, you find the public standing in front of his caricatures, analyzing the humor among them, and they go on with a smile drawn on their faces.
As Thiyazen al-Alawi notes: “Graffiti in Yemen is a social and artistic activity. It is unique because it is interactive and engages with society, and that’s obviously due to the issues it involves and deals with, which draw on people’s concerns, as well as the many sensitive issues that are ongoing in the country. The graffiti art campaigns that started since 2012 somehow contributed to the interaction of society with other artistic campaigns. At times the public took part in leading those campaigns, and drew alongside the artists. We all have the same issues. These campaigns were a catalyst for the operation of events and change on the level of reality.”
Only a couple of names have been highlighted in this piece, sharing their experience of this new art form; yet it is important to note that there are many up and coming artists who have begun turning the walls of their cities into their canvases, experimenting, exploring and working side-by-side, aiming to affect the public’s thoughts and emotions. In order to practice their art, these artists require a safe public space, and not the threat of arbitrary arrests. The practice of this form of art in public space is what makes it vulnerable to danger and decline in the current situation in Yemen. Hopefully the future will soon bring with it a sense of openness and freedom of expression, and the birth of a new generation of talent – shedding silence and always speaking up.