Yemen has been at war since 2015. Multiple aid agencies and the United Nations now claim the humanitarian crisis in-country is at the point of no return. As of this March, 17 million people faced food insecurity, with a total of 7 million people deemed to be in a state of emergency. The violence is relentless, the bombing is relentless. 16,200 people have already been killed, and this number shows no signs of abating. Militias are rampant, the influence of terrorist groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is growing. The regional and global powers are fighting an incessant shadow war in Yemen.
Good governance no longer exists. War crimes have been committed.
This is the world where Asiya al-Sharabi’s art was born – a world that is almost impossible for most Americans, let alone those of us who live in Richmond, to comprehend. Before we met in person, I felt a quiet apprehension about doing this interview. Not one that was necessarily societal or cultural, but pragmatic. How could I ever effectively communicate the context of her art, which originated in a part of the world riven with such political and social upheaval?
For the first twenty minutes of our interview, Asiya spoke to me in Arabic. Her husband Faris, also from Yemen, translated her words. Even though she spoke good English, she did not want to be misrepresented. Not when it came to her art, not when it came to her story. I understood this feeling well, having spent a significant portion of my life in the Middle East. And over the years, I also came to understand that as Americans, we see the world with a base simplicity that is contrary to the complexity of the Arab world.
“I come from a family who was in the media, and were in opposition to the government,” said Asiya, describing her family in Yemen. “Then I married someone who worked for the regime, also in the media – very contradicting.” We laughed, but it was not to acknowledge the irony. It was more of an acknowledgement that they survived the internecine challenges which come from a relationship like this, set against one of the region’s most brutal civil wars. In the Middle East, things like sect, tribe, and provincial identification have the potential to be lethal, even without marrying someone from the political opposition.
“You mix all these things together, and here I come wanting to be an artist.” Asiya’s art is mixed media, but the images she’s conceived and the way in which they are presented is just as much about message as it is about the medium themselves. This goes back to the start of her career not only as a photojournalist, but a female photojournalist in Yemen. “There are no limits in art, but…” she trailed off for a moment before regrouping her thoughts. “During my whole artistic career, I always captured the Yemeni women who are not socially allowed to be photographed.” Part of her strategy to do so was to create a technique which allowed them to hide their identity in clever ways, so she could “maintain their beauty, personality, and where they come from.”
Indeed, the plight of women in Yemen is desperate. According to the last Human Rights Watch report from 2015, women in Yemen face “severe” discrimination under the law and in cultural practices. This comes in a variety of forms, including female genital mutilation and a well established custom of girls – some as young as 11 – being married to older men, so families can collect a financial dowry. All of which informed how Asiya was able to develop her art, while at the same time protecting her subjects. She described this to me in stark terms. “It is dangerous in Yemen. If a girl is photographed and people know her, then she might be killed.”
To protect the identity of the women she was photographing, she would buy fabrics and paint, dressing the women a certain way. “This was to tell who she is, that she is from Yemen, because we have a special way of dressing up,” said Asiya. After shooting she would work with the photos, turning them into negatives, and paint over them creating the distinctive mixed media style that is reflected in most of her art. Eventually her discreet but bold way of portraying women in Yemen started to catch on, gaining a slow acceptance throughout the conservative country. When I pressed her on this, she said simply, “People started to become curious and interested.”
Sometimes curiosity is all it takes. And oftentimes art is the vehicle by which that curiosity can challenge the taboos and traditional norms which prevent progress. This paradox, and many others like it, have always been the underlying truth that characterizes the Middle East. For those who have never been, it will always seem like hypocrisy wrapped in the veneer of orthodoxy, culture, or religion. But for those who have been, and experienced the elaborate connection to those things, the idea that art simply depicting women can challenge centuries of tradition becomes a deeply profound revelation.
The war in Yemen, much like all wars in the Middle East, can be traced back to centuries of meddling by the great regional and international powers. Along with Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Yemen was deeply influenced by the series of regional events known as the Arab Spring in 2011. Unfortunately in the Middle East, the quest for better government, more democracy, and greater freedoms is never that easy. What happened next in Yemen was not unique, but came to represent the failure of governance all throughout the Middle East, resulting in the worst kind of sectarian and proxy conflict. Yemen became embroiled in a shadow war between countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Asiya’s husband Faris, who was an advisor to the deposed Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, described what this situation looked like in vivid detail. “During the revolution, you wake up and you could die any second.” Anyone who has ever worked in an environment driven by political upheaval knows this feeling – one of exhaustion and overwhelming unpredictability, ending in constant anxiety. “For me, the right thing to do was to stay and let the president leave peacefully and get out…,” said Faris. “Not to leave, because if everyone leaves, he will panic and let the crazy people advise him.”
During this period of the revolution, Asiya, along with her children, had moved to Egypt for their own safety. While in Egypt, she received a letter from Faris telling her that he was not sure how much longer he was going to be alive. He asked her to be strong, and to look after their children. There is a certain kind of fatalism in the Middle East, a regional characteristic that can be summed up in one phrase: in’shallah. Arabs like to use this phrase as part of their everyday interactions, and it roughly translates to “god willing” or “if god wills it.”
“I was almost assassinated, a couple of times,” said Faris. “Including the explosion inside of the mosque – I was with the president and was hurt as well. I have burns on my back and stomach.” Faris was referring to a rocket attack on a mosque inside the presidential compound in June 2011, by opponents of the regime. For most Americans, it is almost inconceivable that two people could be so nonchalant in how they articulate their experience with war, revolution, and assassination attempts. But for most in the Middle East, it is simply a case of in’shallah.
In 2013, after surviving the revolution in Yemen, Asiya and Faris moved from Egypt (which also had its own revolution during this time) eventually relocating to the US, first to Woodbridge. “I spent one year just getting to know the atmosphere and culture,” said Asiya. Yet like most who brave the suburban wilderness of Northern Virginia, she found that her creativity was stifled by the endless parade of traffic and debilitated strip malls. “Suddenly I realized, I don’t want to stay here any longer…I wanted to be exposed to art.”
This realization prompted Asiya to start seeing what other cities had the kind of art scene she was looking for, eventually leading her to Richmond. “It is picking up,” she said, when we spoke about how she found the city’s art scene, and what it was like to create art in the River City. “It is like gold covered with dust. You remove the dust and it chimes – that’s Richmond.”
For Asiya, Richmond was the kind of environment she needed to start making art again. That process was not without its difficulties, however; after profound experiences including revolutions in both Yemen and Egypt, the process of starting over was challenging. With a fair bit of exasperation, she told me, “To be honest, I didn’t know how I was going to start. I didn’t have anything with me except the camera, so I started from zero.”
This might seem exciting for a certain kind of artist, but not when you have to flee your home under the stress of political revolution. Regardless of what your circumstances might be, what you leave behind can never be recovered. This is something Asiya wanted me to truly understand; how all of her art, photos, and the flash drives with her work were destroyed. “Our house was kind of… bombed,” she said. While she was talking, her husband Faris pulled out his phone and showed me some pictures of their destroyed house. “Everything was exploded – the windows, the doors.”
Trumperie is a series of mixed-media artworks created by Asiya, which speaks to the deep uncertainty about being an emigre Arab during the presidency of Donald Trump. When the president started taking a hardline on immigration and travel from the Middle East and imposed his so-called “Muslim Ban,” Yemen was named as one of the six countries from which people would be barred entry. This made Asiya feel disconnected from everything around her, more so because her kids were waiting on immigration papers. “I knew we would be directly affected by Trump, targeting our basic rights.”
Her inspiration for the project eventually came in stages, right before Trump was elected in November 2016. Much like in previous projects this started with preparing clothes, materials, and accessories from Yemen. “I took these things and I went to my surroundings and started taking self-portraits of my immigrant trip to the US.” She paused for a second and laughed, before telling me that this is something she never would have done in her home country. Using the self-developed techniques she pioneered to photograph socially isolated Yemeni women, the project started to take shape. “Being an artist, I have always felt that I am a citizen of the world. But in the beginning I called [the project] ‘The Immigrant’, as opposed to Trumperie.”
Part of the reason for the project’s transition was the hostile tone the president and his supporters were taking against those who shared her experience. As a result, the Trumperie project became a series of self-portraits with Asiya represented as a traditional Yemeni woman. Each portrait contained a reverse negative of her positioned among a clutter of passport and visa stamps. In bold clinical red letters are the bureaucratic marks of rejection. These have come to inform her experience and that of all people seeking refuge in the US, against the backdrop of the president’s “Muslim Ban.” Asiya’s appearance in the self-portraits does not betray any sense of despair, however. Her expressions remain bold, defiant, and non-compliant, a refusal to be labeled or intimidated in the face of interminable circumstances.
The other stages of her project started with researching the Yemeni experience in America, so she knew how to best articulate that experience within her own artwork. Through this research she learned about the struggle of her countrymen and women in coming to America. “…our struggle started decades ago, carrying a Yemeni passport,” she said, her voice taking on a very nurturing tone. “I wanted to highlight how this feels, having to deal with the limitations of being able to travel freely around the world seeking knowledge.”
We all nodded in silent agreement. There was not much which could be said or expressed to reinforce this particular sentiment. To fill the break in conversation she pivoted in the direction of her children, speaking about what their experience might be like in this new version of America. “Why do our children have to deal with such unfair decisions, and pay all the bills?” she asked.
The final stage of her project was adding the now iconic bureaucratic marks of rejection that have come to define the Trumperie series, those speaking to the feeling of marginalization that is defining our current political age. “And now, ‘deported,’ ‘rejected,’ and ‘denied’ was facing us as a family and as humans,” she said, an experience faced by Yemeni and Arab people all throughout the US. Around the same time Asiya was finishing the series, her lawyer recommended that her husband Faris rush home from Egypt, so he would not be denied entry back into the US. Her Trumperie series had proven prescient.
“Our voices are unheard, and all doors are closed,” she told me towards the end of her interview. “The situation in Yemen has become a slow death on the inside, but it has also become a slow death on the outside for Yemenis and others trying to find home and acceptance.”
Her journey and the connection to so many contemporary intersections has made Asiya al-Sharabi one of the most relevant artists in Virginia today. Yet in the end, there is no objective metric to measure the effectiveness of art; only the feelings we can engage with from a certain interaction at a specific time and place. Asiya al-Sharabi has touched one of those raw nerves that has come to define what an entire generation of people are feeling, regardless of what country they come from.
Find more of her work at @asiyaart
Originally printed in RVA #30 FALL 2017, you can check out the issue HERE