On a bustling street in the centre of Sanaa, neighbouring a creative agency and an art foundation, lies Arsheef – Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery dedicated to showcasing young artistic talent from the country.
Arsheef, meaning ‘archive’ in Arabic, was founded by London-based journalist and curator Lizzy Vartanian and Sanaa native and artist Ibi Ibrahim.
Through Arsheef, the pair intend to not only facilitate and support the promotion of contemporary Yemeni art to national and international audiences, but also to promote a more nuanced, human side of the country and the daily lives of Yemenis to the world.
“We don’t ever think of Yemen for its arts scene, but why? Yemen is a huge and diverse country, and there are plenty of artists. Just because there is conflict, it doesn’t mean that artists have stopped working,” Vartanian said.
Yemen has been engaged in a long and deadly civil war since 2015. According to the latest report from Human Rights Watch, the armed conflict in Yemen has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 17,500 civilians killed and injured over the last 4 years as a result of the fighting.
The conflict has also led to destruction of the country’s infrastructure and shortages in food and medicine, with 20 million people experiencing food insecurity, according to the Yemen Data Project.
Aside from these facts and figures, one thing that is majorly lacking in the discourse around the Yemen war is Yemeni voices, an issue which makes Arsheef of particular importance. Through their work, the artists exhibiting at the gallery portray an authentic, multi-faceted reflection of life in modern-day Yemen.
“We wanted to show the world that there are many different layers to Yemeni life, and the arts is one of them. Through our artists we show the daily lives of Yemenis you don’t see in the media, the intimate moments, youth culture, hopes and fears,” says Vartanian.
The inspiration for Arsheef’s inaugural exhibition in November 2019, “Turning the Light On” hoped to shed a light on Yemen’s art scene.
“Photography needs light; you’re turning the light onto an art scene most people don’t know exists,” writes Ibrahim in the exhibition press release.
The group exhibition featured works by emerging Yemeni photographers including Asim Abdulaziz, Somaya Abdulla, Ammar Abbad, Bashayer Mohsen, and Shaima al-Tamimi.
Aden-based photographer Asim Abdulaziz, who took part in the show, regards Arsheef as much more than just a physical gallery space.
“In a country with almost zero resources and art schools, Arsheef has become the source that I continuously go back to get advice, feedback, and opportunities,” he told The New Arab.
“That is the reason why we artists don’t only view Arsheef as only a gallery but also a place where we learn art and can be ourselves,” he says.
Twenty-five-year-old visual artist Abeer Aref is awaiting the opening of her solo exhibition ‘Would You Count My Pain, Even Though I Shed No Tear?’ in the coming months.
On what it means to her as an artist to have a space such as Arsheef in Sanaa, Aref holds Arsheef in high regard.
“Arsheef is one of the very few arts platforms in Yemen for artists to share their work, which is a huge support for creators and their work,” she said.
Arsheef is contemporary in its conception as much as in the body of work it exhibits. Ibrahim told The New Arab the idea for creating it was two years in the making prior to the opening last year.
“There are a number of non-profit art spaces that continue to hold exhibitions and art events, but I came to realise that there wasn’t a space dedicated to promoting the contemporary art practices on an international level.”
Ibrahim then approached Vartanian, who has previously curated exhibitions in London and Armenia, about partnering up.
The pair are based over 4,000 miles away from each other from London to Sanaa, but did not let the distance hamper their vision for Arsheef.
Vartanian told The New Arab that the biggest challenge that herself and Ibrahim faced was the physical distance between them, but were able to overcome this through online communication.
The day to day running of the gallery is also heavily reliant on the internet, with Ibrahim and Vartanian communicating over WhatsApp and email, curating exhibitions and discussing opportunities for their artists.
“So far, all of our artwork has been produced in Yemen, and when it comes to actual physical installation, Ibi takes care of it in Sanaa,” explains Vartanian.
Due to the current instability in the country, Arsheef is currently open by appointment only, which Sanaa-based Ibrahim manages over Instagram and in person at the gallery.
“Instagram is certainly our big tool in bringing our work to a wider audience. I write this as Berlin announced full closure of all cultural institutes and Italy introduced a way to explore its museums virtually,” says Ibrahim in the context of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
When we think of conflicts or global crises, it is often too easy to forget that people still get up, go to university or work, and strive to make their dreams a reality. Artists in Yemen are no exception to this.
“The reality of the matter is that there is no reason why there shouldn’t be a space where people can go and see art, even acquire to buy it; conflict or not,” says Ibrahim.
“The culture of buying art was once quite present in the art scene prior to conflict. Yemenis are living through the conflict because of their will, but also because what else can we do? We’re in an isolated part of the world, forgotten and isolated,” he said.
Both Vartanian and Ibrahim hope that in the coming period they will be able to secure a larger space for Arsheef, and are hopeful for a flourishing, lively art scene in the country.