Artists at War
Testimonies of creative minds affected by brutalities of our times
Radfan Almohammedi --- Yemen/Egypt
The conflict in Yemen has its roots in the failure of a political transition supposed promised to bring stability to Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011. Read more about this escalating civil war that has created a major humanitarian crisis - ignored by most superpowers who in one way or another play a role in its continuation.
And for an intimate look at how war and conflict affect the ordinary lives of citizens, read our interview with Radfan Almohammedi as he explains about the war in his homeland and what it has robbed off of its inhabitants - now and in the future.
Where were you born?
I was born in Yemen in 1985.
Tell me about your family and early childhood.
I was born in a village called Bani Ali between the cities of Taiz and Ibb. I have six sisters and five brothers. And I am the second child in the family.
What’s your first memory of war?
The most memorable thing I remember as a child is the separation war between north and south Yemen. I don't remember the details, only that the north had the victory. I could not differentiate between the oppressor and the oppressed. And because I lived in the north, we were happy with the news of our victory. But when I grew up, I realized that the separation caused chaos and many innocent people had died because of it.
How did this reckoning change your world as an adult?
In my childhood, I was not affected much by the war because I was living in the countryside away from the war and I was not interested. I was just a child who wanted to live his childhood. After I grew up and because I lived in a city, I witnessed the revolution of 2011 in the Arab countries. I participated in protests hoping that our country will change for the better and that we will build a modern, developed country, which respects different thoughts and religions. But unfortunately, it turned out worse and worse.... actually, what happened then did not affect me enough to start painting because I just wanted to live my own happiness, in spite of what was happening around me. But that did not last for long. When the big war of 2015 started, there was a reason to start painting. Paintings which spoke about the horrors.
When was the beginning of your artistic endeavors?
I learned to draw when I was 17 years old – and only by chance.
When I moved to Taiz, I joined in 2001 The Industrial Technical Institute Fine Art Development after completing my junior high education. It was the only department still accepting new students, the other departments I planned to join - like Electronics which people in Yemen think it’s important and easy to find a job after graduation - were full. So, I decided to join the Fine Arts Department which I was not satisfied at first – but started to like it as I continued studying. Following my graduation, I stopped painting. Then in 2006, I had more time to paint when I joined Hause of Arts in Taiz. I learned more with the late artist, Hashem Ali. It was the golden age of my life because my work developed a lot and I participated in many galleries and exhibits. My work became highly accepted by many people. And in 2008 I became quite famous in Taiz, and then throughout Yemen after I won first place in a competition for the best Artist in Yemen.
What was your inspiration during this time period?
My art in the past was inspired by daily life, old people, nature, markets, traditional clothes, and old houses. But in the last few years, the war in Yemen and the Arab world has become my first inspiration because of many humanitarian issues which are reflected in my paintings.
Is this when the war in your country started to infiltrate your art?
With the start of the war in 2014war affected much of my artistic expressions.
Was it a conscious act of channeling the pains and horrors of the war through your art? Or did it happen spontaneously?
Of course, it was because art always has its own space to present an opinion within such situations. It helps to spread a message of peace that keeps our hopes alive – our hopes of ending this war.
In 2013, I established The Arab Forum for Arts in the city of Sana'a to provide art courses. In 2015, and during the time of war, we provided more courses in different areas like music, theater, singing, graphic design, decorating. We believed in the power of Art – and our courses were in high demand by Yemeni people who initially didn’t accept art – and even forbid it.
We developed many workshops in these fields -- with cheap fees to cover the costs of the rent, employees, and teachers. And throughout the years we developed many traditional projects like galleries, exhibits and art festivals which became very popular all over Yemen. Many talented students graduated in many fields and participated in important art galleries in Yemen and in Egypt. This became easier as I now reside in Egypt.
What is the message you hope to project through your art?
The message I want to deliver is that Art is the most important element to build societies with peace and humanity.
Art helped me express my feelings and send messages to the modern societies as well since in my paintings I focus in humanitarian issues as a message to all people to know that peaceful coexistence and tolerance and accepting each other is very important if we are to live in peace together.
Do you think your art is disturbing to the viewer?
Yes, of course, it has a positive impact and many people respect art when they know it's important to deliver messages faster than other mediums.
What do you miss most?
I miss hearing Art news in Yemen, smiling children and adults. I miss my daily life without fear of bombing and missiles. My dream is to make art without political or religious pressures and to spread peace and freedom all over the country.
How have you changed as a person as a result of war and injustice?
The war changed many principles -- political fake logos from the government and government opponents. We witnessed many different sides rule in the name of religion just to control people's minds. Now we know what is wrong and what is right.
The war definitely made me more mature, it showed me many things I did not know about before. I witnessed many conflicts and many fake characters were exposed. It made me stronger to face life.
What has war robbed from you as a person – and as an artist?
I lost many members of my family because of the war, many have changed also, they became worse and more violent.
I could not develop international events in Yemen because of the war. War has robbed us of the safety, life, smile and the lives of many people and made our country weaker internationally.
The next generation will understand more of what's happening. But it’s also true that some of them will be depressed as a result of the revolutions and war against dictatorship.
I am sure that my art will be a witness for this chaotic war. For the next generation, my art would be similar to what the European artists created during WWI and WWII for today’s generations.
How do you make sense of it all – and are able to pick up the pieces and continue on?
It happens that many artists give up because of this situation and were depressed, but for me and other artists, I got over it and we were able to create a better environment which helped us create a massive movement and inspired many other artists and continue giving in spite of the harmful war.
Is art empowering, then?
Art made me very happy and reconciled for myself and others, the search for great things. Also, art gave me my own wide horizon to know more people and the ability to sit and discuss with many Intellectuals and writers. In my opinion, it gave me more than I expected.
What does the future hold for you - your own personal life and for humanity?
I have big ambitions as many artists. I wish war stops across all Arab countries and for the religious authorities to end so we can all live together in justice. Religion is for God, but homeland is for everyone living under God. Humanity’s future will be safe and in a better situation than now if this state of existence becomes true.
Europe got over the dark ages and understood the problems and solved it – now they are able to live in a state of permanent developing. And of course, that will happen also in our countries. When exactly? I don't know. What I know is that It will happen for sure, but it will take a long time.
Would you return to your homeland someday - or do you feel as though you can never really return or belong back in your birthplace?
Returning to the homeland is not a case for me. Homeland is safety for me wherever I am I on this planet. Homeland is loving every new thing, changing, living in different weathers and knowing better about life. That's much better than living in a specific place and environment. And in spite of it all - I will return when the war ends. And then I will search more about life.
Living in exile has given me more vitality and more ideas and topics for my paintings. I have come to know more artists around the world – Arabs, and Europeans. I couldn’t have done that living in Yemen. That is the reason I want to see the world and find it a better choice than returning to my homeland.