Murals and Museums: Transforming the Yemeni Narrative

On a wall in the streets of London, a man is chained to a tree trunk by a dog while another man watches. Titled “Dirty Legacy,” this image depicts the international community’s neglect of the suffering of Yemenis amidst civil war, death, famine, and destruction.

At the peak of political instability, the Saudi-led coalition has perpetuated the conflict in Yemen has displaced millions of Yemenis all over the world and within their country. Millions have lost their lives due to government corruption, civil war, and international neglect.

In response to the propaganda-filled Yemeni media, “one-voice-one color” politics, failed Western media coverage, and reductionist UN statistics, Yemeni art is becoming overtly political. It places Yemenis at the forefront of their own narrative as the conflict continuously shifts while North and South battle for political success. Wounded by the state of their country and their people, the immediate concern is survival. Feeling chained by their circumstances and ignored, Yemenis can no longer allow themselves to be silenced.

The street art phenomenon initially began around 2012, when artist Murad Subay used art to express his political and social views while engaging the broader community. Unlike traditional artists, Subay engages everyday Yemenis about their concerns, and asks them to join him in painting. He sees art as a collaborative effort and never fails to unify Yemenis in the area where he chooses to paint his murals. Subay’s approach to art later gained attention through social media. Because people were intrigued by Subay’s technique, style, and endearing approach, his work spread on Instagram and Facebook, which was later covered by numerous news outlets, and more importantly, caught the attention of other people across the world. The purpose of his most recent project, “Ruins,” was to propagate the Yemeni narrative; in places where war had destroyed an area, Subay and other Yemenis would conceal what’s left with murals of their own experiences as an ode to those suffering and lost. In this way, Yemenis are able to stand with their people in promotion of peace in an attempt to uplift their voices. Subay’s collaborative and participatory approach makes each campaign a thought-provoking, grittily nerving, haunting, and honest shared experience.

Since 2015, Subay has initiated اليوم المفتوح للفن, in English: “Open Day of Art”, where people join together to create art that promotes themes of peace. In fact, Open Day of Art has been carried out all around the world, not only in cities across Yemen, but also in cities in Madagascar, India, France, the UK, the US, and more. All of the participants' works are listed under each of his campaigns, which are easily accessible as Subay keeps precise documentation through his website. It is a beautiful sight to see the global community participate, showing how art connects different communities. Even children are part of the conversation, painting rainbows and peace signs, clouds and birds. Through the hashtags #open_day_of_art, as well as its Arabic counterpart, Subay is not only reaching the Yemeni community but a larger international community who can participate in this day of creating art, all approaching the artwork with their unique knowledge and background.

The power of Subay’s initiative transcends borders; the fight for peace, tolerance, and coexistence all become shared values through the exchange of political and social experiences. It is through this mutual recognition of other communities that Yemenis are better able to understand themselves and those around them, other affected communities, and the changing landscapes and lives of their country and people.

Subay’s other campaign, “12 Hours,” emphasizes twelve of what Yemenis believe are dire political and social issues within the country, including civil wars, poverty, and treason. Written in Arabic and/or English, the walls read phrases like “I want to live in peace,” and “why did they kill my family?” A child soldier is walking into his grave. A soldier holds a red balloon for child recruitment. U.S. drones are contrasted with an image of a dove. A man has a bullseye on his back: “Civil war is suicide.” A mother mourns her son: “Oh Mother, I am dying of hunger.” Such campaigns allow us to see the extent of a crisis through the eyes of those who are affected the most by spreading the stories they want to be heard.

This tradition of art extends far beyond the street context: it has been pushed into exhibits in museums all around the diaspora. In the United States, the “On Echoes of Invisible Hearts: Narratives of Yemeni Displacement” exhibit utilizes photography – images of fear, hope, and loss among the people. In Tehran, a cartoon series titled “Yemeni Resistance” features the awareness of Saudi involvement in the conflict and the perpetuated media narratives. In England, a sculpture of a skeletal body eats its own hand, while another is severed to the bone, displayed in the Imperial War Museum. These images and stories cannot be erased. Rather, they curate and weave together the Yemeni experience and voice across borders, defying the standard media account and reaching an international community.

From digital archives to film to cartoon exhibits, there is a story to be told, and Yemenis are finally the ones telling it. Rather than consuming the media propaganda, Yemenis want to highlight their voices and show the world the truth behind these misconstrued media stories.

More importantly, it is a means of coping with the loss of a homeland and promoting peace within the region, while continuously striving for survival. The art scene in Yemen never really disappeared; in fact, it seems that a loss of art would mean a loss of culture and identity. With a changing landscape crushed by war, the spirits of the Yemeni people are very much alive. In such art in Yemen and around the world, the international community have access to the changing narrative, one which Yemenis are writing themselves.

Art does not “end” war. However, as Subay himself says, “Yemen needs art. It helps us ease the agony of war.” Art is a means of healing, coping, and understanding, crossing borders and channeling conversation. Yemenis need to heal, and people should be talking about Yemen; it’s starting here and now -- the writing, or painting, is on the wall.

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