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Though hampered by the country’s ongoing war, Yemen’s contemporary art scene still persists thanks to grassroots spaces built by young Yemenis. For instance, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery, Arsheef, was co-founded by Yemeni artist Ibi Ibrahim and London-based curator Lizzy Vartanian Collier and opened in Sanaa in 2019. The gallery promotes artists from Yemen and the Yemeni diaspora, relying on Instagram to connect with its audience. Similarly, organizations like Aden Again, a youth initiative started in 2012 by Mazen Sharif, work through Instagram and Facebook to enhance cultural awareness and artistic engagement across Aden.
Many young Yemeni artists engage with themes beyond war and violence, seeking to offer more nuanced portrayals of the country. Nisreen Nader, recipient of the Mentorship Awards at the Prince Claus Foundation, is a street-life photographer from Aden whose work captures scenes from everyday life in Yemen usually overlooked by international media. Likewise, Maeen Aleryani, a visual artist based in Sanaa, also uses photography to tell stories from Yemen’s bustling street, with a focus on emotion and the senses. Afraa Ahmed, a multimedia artist from Aden currently based in Malaysia, explores space and historical architecture in Yemen through her conceptual work.
AGSIW spoke with Asim Abdulaziz, a young filmmaker from Aden and director of the recently released, award-winning “1941,” to learn more about his experimental approach to capturing emotion during the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
AGSIW: Tell us a bit about your background and your first forays into filmmaking.
Asim: I am an artist and film director based in Yemen. I grew up in the city of Aden, and that has influenced my personality, my work, and my lifestyle. I always try to produce art and films that have a simplicity that reflects Yemeni life that outsiders might not know much about.
In 2015, after the war had started, I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to pursue my bachelor’s degree in international business. Throughout my four years there, I was taking photos, just with my phone of the country, but not in a professional way.
In 2019, I returned to Yemen thinking that I would start working in the field that I studied. But from the moment I came back, I realized that there were a lot of stories that had to be told. So, I started to approach art by photographing street life to reflect the emotions and psychological aspects of people living in a war-torn country. I started photographing the streets and people, and then I turned to experimental art, a medium that really helped me better express my emotions and feelings. For me, experimental art is an approach that doesn’t have rules or standards to follow – that’s exactly what I love about it. I don’t like rules or someone telling me what to do. I then moved to video work instead of photography because I had a lot of things to say that a photo would not be able to capture.
AGSIW: Did you begin your journey into photography with any background in art?
Asim: Honestly, no. My family members are not artists, but they are very interested in art. My mom is a doctor, and my father is a teacher. But I grew up listening to songs and watching movies, and they would take me to theaters whenever there was a play. So, I have been involved in art since I was a kid, and they’ve always supported me in pursuing what I love.
So, it was all skills and passion, I guess. I actually started my photography in Malaysia because the environment there really helps you express your emotions without societal judgments and problems. Usually, I use my body as a form of expression, and in Arab countries, a man isn’t that free to express his emotions through the body. So, in Malaysia, I had full freedom to do whatever I wanted. When I came back to Yemen, I kept the same approach. At the beginning it was hard; a lot of people questioned my work, but it gained acceptance over time. Art and photography became a sort of therapy for me and a way to express my emotions.
AGSIW: What were some of the things that you tried to capture through photography after coming back to Yemen?
Asim: I love psychology a lot. When I came back to Yemen after living in full peace and freedom for four years, I was listening to stories every day that were very true and very sad at the same time. People had a lot of things to say, and sadly there wasn’t much media that reflected their emotions. I said, “I don’t want to talk about guns; I don’t want to talk about blood; I don’t want to talk about destroyed buildings. I want to talk about your emotions. How did war change you? What have you been through?” That is the approach that interests me.
AGSIW: Are there any individuals or artists who have inspired you?
Asim: Though I usually focus on my own emotions, there were artists that inspired me to get started, especially Ibi Ibrahim. He’s an artist in Yemen who noticed my work in the beginning and contacted me. Ibi’s gallery, called Arsheef Gallery, has helped me a lot honestly. We don’t have art institutes or schools in Yemen, so it was very hard for me to understand the industry. Arsheef Gallery really helped to build the foundation for me to evolve and understand my work and other people’s work.
I’m surrounded by artists here in Aden. I work in a company called Adenium Productions, which is run by Amr Gamal. He is a Yemeni director who directed “10 Days Before the Wedding,” a very well-known film that came out a few years ago. So, I have been working with a lot of artists and in this kind of environment because I want my mindset to be safe. In order to be safe in a country like Yemen, I have to be surrounded with only art, people who understand art, and people that I can have these conversations with as a way of survival.
AGSIW: In your transition to filmmaking, what themes carried over from your photography?
Asim: Well, I wasn’t really sure about the transition to film at all. What I was sure about was that, when I looked at some artists’ experimental work, I found it very similar to my personality and to what I love. I remember watching my first experimental film, “The 99 Names of God” by Yemeni American filmmaker Yumna Al-Arashi. I had a lot of weird feelings when I finished watching that film, and I thought to myself, “I want to do something like this.” Not the same thing, of course, but I want to reflect and create something that people have to watch more than once in order to understand. I want the audience to really look and feel to understand instead of giving them the message directly.
Then, I applied for and won an Arab Fund for Arts and Culture grant in 2020, which was $3,000, and started producing and directing my first film. Unfortunately, I stopped due to issues in funding. But I got another grant from the British Council, which I used to make “1941.” Throughout the whole journey, the British Council would contact me to ask how things were going and to offer help if I needed it. That was exactly what I needed at that time – to have the kinds of funders who really cared about art, and my work, even though they were not artists themselves.
AGSIW: How did the idea for “1941” come about?
Asim: The film started with me observing people. When I came back to Yemen, I noticed that people had become very numb. They’d become distracted a lot, lost, and depressed. With all that was going on in Yemen, it became very hard for people to think of anything except their daily problems and struggles and everything they’d been through.
In 2020, I read an article in a magazine from the year 1941 that discussed women knitting during World War II. It seemed that the United States had asked its citizens, through a survey in the magazine, how they could help in the war effort, and citizens responded: by knitting. This was really interesting to me. I have experienced war, and no one would ever think of knitting here.
It seems that when you knit, the repetitive movement of your hands puts you in a state of mind where you don’t really think of the future or the past. In Yemen, it’s as if people have been knitting for years – getting distracted from everything – their minds are stuck in the present and forbidding them to think of the future. I have never heard a friend discuss his future plans – thinking of his dreams or of traveling or studying. We’re just stuck thinking of the present until the war ends.
AGSIW: What challenges did you face in the filmmaking process?
Asim: The film strays from stereotypes here. There are 10 men who are knitting shirtless, which is not something that is very welcomed in Yemen. At the same time, I was shooting the film in a temple, which is also kind of threatening, especially with religious extremists who have been in the city before.
The process of casting wasn’t easy because it was very hard convincing men to take their shirts off and shave their heads. I wasn’t sure if it would succeed. I had to show the cast a lot of experimental films, and I brought in trainers to teach each one of them how to knit. There were times when I would call them and they’d say, “We’re out, we can’t really take our shirts off, we don’t understand the film.” Those who did act in the film understood what we were doing because I had sent them my Instagram profile, and they trusted me because they saw my work.
AGSIW: What do each of the symbols in “1941” – the temple, the color red, the shirtless men – mean in the film?
Asim: The temple was chosen not because it has anything to do with the concept of the film, but because of its unique architecture and depth. For me, that’s what reflects Aden. The temple is very beautiful, yet, when you see it, you can see how no one is taking care of it and how sad that is. The theme of the film is grayish and reddish. The color red for me represents anger and blood, but I would say more anger because people here are very angry, and they have the right to be, honestly.
When you are in a war zone or facing depression, you don’t care how you look or how you dress, putting on accessories or looking the best way possible. You just want your day to pass. For me, removing the shirt reflects the feeling of not caring due to the depressed mood that we are in.
AGSIW: Who was your intended audience for “1941”? And how was the film received in Yemen?
Asim: It was mainly for an international audience. I knew that people here wouldn’t understand it. But, to be honest, when I was creating the film, I didn’t even think of an audience or festivals or anything like that. I was only doing something that I loved.
Me and my team – Ahmed Eskander (executive producer), Saleh Alkatheri (assistant director), Abdulrahman Baharoon (assistant cinematographer), and Emad Tayeb (location manager) –were very interested and passionate, and we all tried to push the film together. None of us is a professional – we’re only art lovers who wanted to create a project.
And the reception was great! It was the first experimental Adeni short film to win awards, so people were really shocked! Every week I would post something about winning another award –five awards and more than three screening selections in total. At the beginning, I was scared that people wouldn’t accept it, and yet even before any local screenings people were very positive about it.
AGSIW: What do you hope is the impact of your film on others in Yemen or in the world who are in similar situations as you?
Asim: I know what you are going through is not easy. I know it so well. I have experienced it. But, if you are passionate about something, then you really have to focus on it and not care about anything else. For me, I am kind of stubborn, and I always say that I will not let any government or person with power take away my passion. I will do this by creating what I love. I’m not even thinking to inspire people. I just create my work, and, if someone says that it inspires them, that makes me really happy.
Nada Ammagui is an associate in arts, culture, and social trends at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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