It was my first time in Europe, but chilly November welcomed me in Berlin like a dear old friend. My art residency with Diwan al-Fan started after a lengthy trip of 20 days to leave Yemen and to wait for a visa issued in Beirut.
A 20-hour bus ride inside Yemen to simply reach the airport. Yemenis have restricted access to two neighboring country airports, from where we can travel to the rest of the world; that is, if we are lucky enough to be granted visas. This extended trip was hampered by a number of security check-points, airport cross-examinations, lost luggage – and lost trust in the world.
With Berlin’s counterculture and inclination towards what is rebellious and innovative, I found myself in an affinity with the liberated city. The avant-garde contemporary art scene was quite different from what I was previously exposed to; it is raw and unrestricted, and this gave me a nudge to explore my true identity and be more daring both as an artist and in my personal life. Coming from a conflict-ridden country, where the everyday means struggling for basic needs and safety, I was reluctant at first to get too comfortable, but it ended up feeling like home. Although not a day went by without worrying about my family back home, and frantically calling when hearing news from Yemen, I was privileged to have been given the opportunity for peace and escape from a reality forced upon me.
Before travelling to Berlin, it had been almost two years since I had last been able to produce any art work, and I was stuck in a creative block. One moment I especially recall is sitting on a train on my second day, when my mind started rushing with images and background music. Soon, I shot conceptual self-portraits in a moving train that symbolized my journey.
I used the time of my stay to visit museums in Berlin, including Altes, Pergamon, Alte Nationalgalerie and Neuesgalerie. I was also able to travel to Amsterdam and soak up the art scene and museums there. Sometimes, merely getting lost taking walks in the cold and stopping to watch a street band play until I couldn’t feel my hands anymore. Taking a long train ride to visit a gallery or an event, talking to strangers and mingling with artists, or having a hot cup of coffee and watching life go by was inspiring. Expanding my network and making new friends in the city opened my eyes to opportunities I never thought possible for a girl carrying one of the most rejected passports in the world.
I didn’t know I had lost the desire for so many things until I found myself in solitary companionship with art in a city like Berlin, with its history, its people, graffiti everywhere and the art. I find myself contemplating new-found plans for my future as I came back to Yemen, and so would like to thank Ibi Ibrahim for this opportunity, for his dedicated support of Yemeni artists and giving back to Yemen through Diwan al-Fan, which has impacted my life in many ways.
The residency was concluded by an event and open studio at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the organization which supported the art residency project. I enjoyed exhibiting and discussing my work with people from different backgrounds and cultures. It was lovely and I look forward to visiting Berlin again soon…
Hanan Ishaq is a conceptual photographer based in Sana’a. Her work was exhibited in December 2017 at the headquarters of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin after a month-long art residency in Berlin. Diwan al-Fan is an art initiative and artists-in-residence program established to promote contemporary art, film and music from Yemen.