Poetry, nothing else comes close

The fine arts in Yemen are not more than 70 years old. But despite their relative youth when compared to a long history in other countries in the region, they have already accumulated a legacy deserving of attention. When modern art first came to the country, a then-isolated Yemen was in the process of acquiring knowledge in a number of fields from the wider world. Most of this knowledge came either through the communities of the Yemeni diaspora or through Aden, a British protectorate at the time. It was in Aden that both Fuad al-Futaih and Abdul Jabbar al-Numan learned the fundamentals of draughtsmanship before heading abroad to perfect their techniques. Hashim Ali returned to Aden from Indonesia, before settling in the north of Yemen, though it should be noted that Ali’s artistic practice and personality were not set in stone overseas, but underwent a double development: first overseas, then back in his country of origin. If there is anything lacking from current histories of the fine arts in Yemen, it is a proper analysis of the Yemeni diaspora’s impact on the development of modern art in the country. Though Yemeni academics have long been aware of the great influence of the diaspora, the issue is yet to receive attention in their studies.

Some diaspora artists produced work that predated their exposure to Yemen. Ahmed al-Saqqaf’s A Girl from Garut (1927), the first Yemeni novel, was most likely the fruit of its author’s constant travels. The same can be said of Mohammed Abdul-Wali’s short stories, which dealt with the identity crisis of Afro-Yemenis. Turning to music, there is Ahmed Rabsha, more famous in Sudan than Yemen, and Abdoulkader Bamakhrama, who performed traditional Yemeni music from his home in Djibouti. One could also look at Indian influences in the music of Mohammad Juma Khan, or Egyptian elements in the songs of Ahmed Bin Ahmed Qasim, Fursan Khalifa, and others.

The Aden protectorate was a hub for the arts, a liminal space where Yemenis could rub shoulders with the world—a place where people could settle down after their long exile abroad. And it was here that Ahmed Abdul Aziz Mohammed Ghalib found a home. However, during the British occupation, and for some time afterwards, the arts in Yemen did not keep pace with developments further afield. Although photography arrived in Aden shortly after its invention in the West, it was never used for more than documentary purposes—to record the principle landmarks of the city and aspects of daily life—which remained the case until quite recently. If there was any art photography being produced at all, it was hardly visible.

Nothing but poetry

“I believe that the wretched conditions in which people live here generate certain drives and reactions. But that is not enough. Reactions are always weak. Action is stronger: the act that comes from within you, and which nobody can gainsay!”   - Ahmed Abdul Aziz

 image courtesy of Ahmed Abdul Aziz

image courtesy of Ahmed Abdul Aziz

When looking at the work of artists in Yemen, it is important, in order to gain a clearer picture of them, to look at their backgrounds. In the case of Ahmed Abdel Aziz this poses a difficulty. There are very few documented facts about him, and what exists captures little more than broad brushstrokes. To compound the problem, he has tended to stay away from the media, and the sheer range of his talents makes it difficult to know where to begin: The draughtsman? The photographer? The translator? The critic? The author? More recently, social media has allowed him to engage with the younger generation, and he has broken the stereotype of an isolated artistic elite by sharing his photographs online.

Ahmed Abdul Aziz Mohammed Ghalib was born in 1956 to a Yemeni family in Mogadishu, where daily life and habits, and most importantly the education system, still bore the influence of Italian occupation. Ahmed was taught draughtsmanship at school, one of the subjects then on offer, and when he graduated he went to Italy to study documentary film-making, as well as taking courses in advanced draughtsmanship at the Instituto Dante Alighieri. Returning home, Ahmed’s work was publicly exhibited for the first time alongside that of Ali Hussein, at Mogadishu’s French Centre, after which he began his travels through the Arab Peninsula, moving between Jeddah, Sana’a and Aden, where he currently lives and works.

In the words of architect and artist Saba al-Sulaihi, “Ahmed Abdul Aziz is an artist and a true and rounded intellectual. He is a rare and unobtrusive talent whose work is characterized by profound awareness and high poetry. He is astonishing, spontaneous, truthful, easy, inaccessible and delightful, with an extraordinarily diverse creative output ranging from the visual arts through to writings that betray an encyclopedic culture. His breadth of learning puts one in mind of the great figures of the Renaissance. Ahmed Abdul Aziz belongs to an intellectual tradition which transcends the local context to be universal: in terms of approach and technique his work is international.”

For the inquisitive, it is possible to fill in many of the missing gaps in Abdul Aziz’s life story by following the rhythms of his artistic output. His drawings and photographic work are best understood in terms of poetry: his subject is poetry. In this, he follows his belief in poetry’s presence in objects, and his own experiences with situations, places and people. Technically, his work is dominated by the interplay of light and shadow, a fact that the careful observer might deduce from his heavy use of black-and-white photography, his preference for sketches, and the starkly opposing color schemes of his paintings.

 image courtesy of Ahmed Abdul Aziz

image courtesy of Ahmed Abdul Aziz

The use of perspective in Abdul Aziz’s sketches and photographs is deserving of special attention, being both fascinating in its own right and part of a deliberate aesthetic. Close examination suggests that most attention is paid to shadow, with other elements of the image being less important, though that is not to say unimportant. Shadows are, of course, present in the great majority of visual artworks, but in Abdul Aziz’s work they have a special place as a subject of philosophical inquiry.

Looking at the untitled sketch above, we encounter difficulty in identifying the source of light. Where do the shadows come from? From an elevated position to the right? Is shadow the most important element in this work? The poetic aspect of the work resides in the thick lines that make up the shadowed areas which are used to show the woman’s features. For the observer, the interplay-in-suspension between image and poetry raises more questions than answers.

Al-Sulaihi again: “Abdul Aziz’s works range from photography (he is a photographer and director who has formally studied both photography and cinematography, in addition to his long career in television), to the traditional fine arts, to writing, translation and critical studies of cinema and the visual arts. Through this rich output we can trace the widening of his epistemological foundations and the diversity and depth of his experiences, both personal and artistic.”

Other characteristics of Abdul Aziz’s work are his focus on space, his ability to lend a dramatic dynamism to motionless objects, and his preference for human scenes. Abdul Aziz’s work constructs unique scenarios, with a characteristic aesthetic. Where do these images come from? Are the visual arts the product of sensibility, or are poetic forms generated by a superior analytical capability and diligent observation? Are both present to varying degrees in every work of art? All we can say with any degree of certainty is that the diversity of elements in his images suggest an interplay of both sensibility and rational analysis: Abdul Aziz’s work may be poetry first and foremost, but this poetry is the fruit of deep and extensive reading and long observation of other schools of art around the world. The fruit, to use his phrase, of action, not reaction.

Al-Sulaihi explains: “For Abdul Aziz the image transcends its own technical limitations as a two-dimensional visual depiction, to offer snatches from tales thronging with rhythm and place and personality, and full of observation and inspiration: like a concentrated dose of cinema with all its sound and movement and composition.”

Abdul Aziz teaches without preaching. From him we learn to be braver about experimentation, and that experimentation does not have to stop with age or maturity. This understanding is what allows him to adopt ever-newer techniques and approaches alongside his traditional grounding. He has gone from classical draughtsmanship to photography and cinematography, and most recently to a new interest: digital art. It is this which compels us to follow Abdul Aziz’s rich and ever-evolving output.

Al-Sulaihi concludes his remarks by saying, “It is the concept of the poetic that suffuses his work; in all its senses, from a piece of literary terminology to a general aesthetic descriptor. And with it, his highly individual and unique capacity to deploy visual language as the raw material of the poetic imagination, his skill in using experimental technique to preserve the freshness and spontaneity of artistic expression, and the way he wears the burdens of tradition and the traditional schools so lightly despite his comprehensive understanding of them. Ahmed Abdul Aziz is a true, multi-talented artist, one of a minority of authentic geniuses and a man we know very little about. What he has, enhances us all.”

 image courtesy of Ahmed Abdul Aziz

image courtesy of Ahmed Abdul Aziz

Abdul Aziz seeks to avoid cliché, to avoid preoccupation with traditional subjects and styles. His image of a sunset is perhaps the clearest example of this quality. It is the only photograph of a sunset that he has taken. He says: “I took a single picture of the sunset. I think that pictures of sunsets are a cliché, perhaps because the sun goes west and I come from still further west.”