SANA'A // Amanh Ali al Nusairi is one of few women to have made it in Yemen's art scene, and with her challenging and increasingly varied repertoire, she is also at its forefront. At an exhibition last month at the French Cultural Centre in Sana'a, al Nusairi, who made her name as a portrait artist, branched out into a variety of other art forms, including video, sound and photography. It was hailed by critics as groundbreaking.
"I cannot go back to decades when I used to draw portraits or traditional buildings or people wearing traditional attire," said al Nusairi, 40, who has painted portraits of such luminaries as Mahatma Gandhi, Maxim Gorky and the Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife. "Some artists do that so that they can sell their paintings for tourists; this is not the business of paramount artists." Al Nusairi organised her first exhibition when she was in her final year of secondary school and went on to work primarily in portraiture. Since then she has risen to become Yemen's most important female artist.
In recent years al Nusairi has delved into more complex abstract colour painting. She acknowledges that in Yemen where the arts - including cinema and theatre - are almost absent in public life, these works often go unappreciated; but she is not deterred. "I am against direct presentation and superficiality or turning artwork into political posters, but this does not mean I am away from people's problems. I am rather concerned with the people facing oppression, the consequences of globalisation and other ailments," she said.
A number of the pieces on display at last month's exhibition, titled Hesarat (Sieges), expressed concern about the current unrest in Yemen, marking an entry into political art. "I have reached a moment in which I want to shout against the sieges that are suffocating all of us. I am afraid to wake up without a country, I am afraid about the unity of the country, of the breeding extremist groups. This panics me as a Yemeni person and as a woman," she said.
Many of the paintings exhibited also dealt with social restrictions, featuring women bound by chains whose faces are hidden behind black niqabs. "Hesarat portrays the sieges both men and women are facing not necessarily in Yemen but the world at large. However, women, mainly in rural areas are facing oppression and marginalisation; they are subject to different sorts of violence, including beating," she said.
Abdulaziz al Makaleh, a renowned poet and art critic, said this new exhibition is a groundbreaking achievement for al Nusairi. "The artist has moved into a new stage of her brilliant creations. The faces of [women] have disappeared behind distorted figures made of black clothing, nails and chains which makes the audience realise the dilemmas and disasters that surround them and the humanity at large," said al Makaleh.
Al Nusairi attributes her success to her mother who, growing up in the countryside, received no formal education but still had great interest in reading and drawing and nurtured her daughter's artistic talents. "I have been drawing and painting since my childhood. I was born sketching on walls. But I would not have learnt how to draw or paint were it not for my mother who was interested in reading and drawing, a rare thing for rural women of her generation; I used to sit next to her while drawing when I was eight years old and she taught me how to draw," she said.
It was also her mother who made sure she was able to complete her schooling after al Nusairi's father, a businessman, suddenly withdrew the artist and her sister from school when they were in fifth grade, in 1976. Al Nusairi's mother disputed the decision and even took her husband to court over it. She lost the court case but did not give up and asked her son, Ayesh, who was then studying and working in the US, for help. He came and took al Nusairi, her mother and her sister to Egypt where the two girls finished their preparatory schooling before returning to Yemen.
"My father surrendered then and I was able to finish my secondary school and the university in Sana'a," al Nusairi said. She went on to study philosophy at Sana'a University and soon after travelled to Moscow to study graphics and the history of aesthetic theory. In 2001 she obtained a PhD degree in aesthetics and now lectures in the subject at Sana'a University. Studying and travelling, she said, were mind-broadening experiences and have enriched her artwork.
Creating beauty and "combating ugliness" is the language through which al Nusairi expresses her view of the world at large, she said. "I do really live it. I am not active in political and social life because painting is my world; it is my language through which I express my views towards life and the people." She complains that artists in Yemen find it hard to sell their paintings and blames the absence of support from the government and the business community, in contrast with other Gulf countries where artists are well funded and encouraged.
"I and two other artists do not find it hard to sell our products, maybe because we are well-known. People buy my paintings even if they do not understand them as they think I am serious and credible. But, there are many artists who draw for a year and sell nothing as many here consider drawing or painting a luxury," she said. Al Nusairi and two other artists established the Sana'a Atelier gallery in 1996, but in December she announced the establishment of Kawn Atelier and Foundation for Visual Culture Development. Kawn, which in Arabic means universe, aims to develop art that uses plastic - not currently a popular form in Yemen - both in theory and practice, as well as abstract art. The project has a focus on offering support and training to young artists through organising seminars and workshops as well as studies. But al Nusairi, who has organised more than 11 solo exhibitions throughout her career and has taken part in dozens of joint exhibitions in Yemen and abroad, worries Kawn might fail due to lack of funding. "I am, of course, concerned that I might not succeed in achieving Kawn objectives. But I have the inner force and faith in this project and I am sure that there are many intellectuals who would support my initiative." email@example.com