The art scene in Sana’a: Reflections on a rapidly changing decade

Before the existence of these sculptings, expression through voice had been the basis of communication for many years, until various forms of music emerged through chanting words. These expressions evolved and became part of martial arts, intimate dancing and religious rituals lasting for thousands of years.

When we talk about art in Yemen, we find that it is a central element of the cultural heritage and social fabric in the country, expressed in different forms including poems, music and carvings. Throughout history the art culture in Yemen has also shaped the interplay it has with changing conflict dynamics. This interplay for instance appears in different forms of the traditional folk dances in Yemen that are often performed with the use of weapons and is also depicted in the Yemeni archaeological sculptures that associate traditional musical instruments with weapons. Throughout the conflict there has even been discussion around compiling a ‘no-strike’ list of Yemen’s ancient heritage sites but this has not held conflict parties from targeting sites. Throughout the war both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have targeted the historic Cairo Castle ‘Al-Qahira Castle’ in Taiz during the city’s siege. Some of these ancient stone and mud built settlements are bound to painting practices and timeless cultural artistic traditions in governorates like . In the old city in Sana’a as Yemen’s capital and one of its well known UNESCO sites which was occupied by the Sabaens over 2,500 years ago, its intricately carved towers and houses boast some of the most unique geometric patterns and these have been increasingly under threat during the war, with some destroyed by airstrikes.


We are painting a picture so that people understand the challenges that face the artists and activists who still resist in Yemen and to maintain their voice of peace and hope on the Yemeni ground.

Expressions around dancing have also been interwoven with the contemporary politics of Yemen, at least metaphorically. Since our teenage years in Yemen, we always used to hear a quote that made us wonder what the meaning behind the saying was. “Dancing on the Heads of Snakes!”… the popular saying attributed to the former president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh was a saying we soon came to understand. He had been known to put the expression into practice in playing the political game. The saying became emblematic of his political approach to dealing with al-Islah, al-Qaeda, the Houthis, Southern movements and the wider Yemeni spectrum of political and armed actors. Dancing on the heads of snakes was the practice he had mastered, capturing a sense of his cunning outmanoeuvring of opponents within the long unravelling string of political events. He embraced such an approach to politics in dealing with his socio-political rivals to preserve his throne, manipulating all actors and sometimes using Yemeni actors as bargaining chips in dealings with Western and Gulf powers. According to some critics, the origins behind this quote actually go back to over 18 centuries earlier when a prominent king of the ancient Himyarite Kingdom of Yemen advised his son as his successor to the rule of the realm, on how he could tame his opponents like snakes.

Through this method Saleh managed to maintain his dictatorship over a 33 year rule. Eventually, Saleh became exhausted from the prolonged years of dancing and was fooled by a treacherous Ansar Allah (Houthi) bite that caused his death during his last dance on December 2017. Unfortunately, it is still imperative for all Yemenis to dance on the heads of the snakes left behind by Saleh. In particular the activists in the cultural and artistic community have had to master more modern dances amid a rapidly changing conflict landscape in order to preserve the values ​​of beauty and peace that they have always dreamed of. This has especially been the case since the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, which are considered as the most important event that has shaped our current reality in Yemen.

Injustice, inequality and political corruption have been a trilogy that has proved to be a syndrome plaguing the Arab youth and a curse that undoubtedly required disruption. In 2011 youth sparked revolutions against their regimes across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) during the Arab Spring. Despite the different local contexts of each country, these revolutions share many demands in common, such as justice, freedom and an end to corruption. Given the harsh circumstances that followed these revolutions, many people may argue that these revolutions have failed to bring positive change, especially since most of them brought more brutal regimes against human rights and democracy. Indeed just over a decade on so many across such a diverse region still seek the fundamental political ideals and rights that they did in 2011. However, and despite these realities, it is worth mentioning that those revolutionary cries and screams have contributed to forming a collective awareness towards the importance of having different forms of expression. Even while many still seek these freedoms artists always bring hope through their works by opening up avenues of discussion and critique of ruling systems, creating potential space for collective gathering. Independent youth initiatives now lead cultural and artistic expressions across the Arab world. Yemeni and Syrian filmmaking throughout the respective conflicts has gained critical acclaim and drawn much needed focus to the impact of the conflicts on civilians, sometimes by filmmakers who have left their country; anti-Mubarak street graffiti grew in Egypt to end up on the walls of art galleries and in the pages of books; and revolutionary song and street protest singing became part of the anti-Houthi movement in the Yemen conflict. These expressions are just a few among many others across the MENA region.

The 2011 Arab Spring in Yemen was considered not only as a challenge to the dictatorship of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh that ruled Yemen for over 33 years but also as an opportunity to potentially change major aspects and traits of Yemeni society. Since the sit-in began in Change Square in Sana’a, many talents and positive youth role models have emerged in the years since, including the Yemeni women who have played an important role in demanding their educational, social and political rights in ways that never been seen before. This is what we (Shatha & Saber) observed, although we did not join the protests among the youth in 2011 when we were in Sana’a we sensed the active nature of this cultural movement that gave us hope for a better future. We consider the seeds that the youth planted during the revolution as one of the driving factors for our involvement in the Yemeni cultural and artistic scene in the years that have followed.

Beside all of this, Arab Spring protests also inspired an artistic revolution; hence, it is essential to understand how contemporary cultural and art movements evolved in Yemen. We believe this can best be represented by setting out an artist’s chronological view starting with the Arab Spring and focusing on the capital Sana’a where events helped shape the current political turmoil and humanitarian crisis. We aim to do this by reflecting on the major moments of artistic expression and on the key cultural events and how these were perceived and affected by the volatile political environment that we have witnessed in Yemen in the last decade. As we look to narrate this journey over several parts of a series based on our memory and observations as artists who started their art journey in the middle of this era in Sana’a, we see a need to cover various forms of art and cultural examples; from the Change Square musical events of , to the street murals during the civil unrest in 2012; and from the independent youth initiatives during the political crisis in 2013 to the call for social cohesion upon the outbreak of civil war in 2014. We would then look to continue the narrative moving into the conflict. We will describe our experiences as we witnessed the major awards that pushed the youths’ hopes, to the anti-war art projects that began upon the regional Saudi-led intervention in 2015; and from the creative billboards that the elected government adopted to the current sectarian slogans of radical groups.

In an attempt to also provide a clear picture for understanding the atmosphere in which we both decided to play a role in and the art scene that we were at the centre of within the fragmentation the world has seen in Yemen since 2016, we want to show how these roles and this position affected our lives (Shatha & Saber) dramatically up until our last dance, after which we left the country. Most importantly, we are painting a picture so that people understand the challenges that face the artists and activists who still resist in Yemen and to maintain their voice of peace and hope on the Yemeni ground.

About the Authors

Shatha Altowai is an award-winning Yemeni artist based in Edinburgh, UK. She has presented at several art galleries in Yemen and beyond.

Saber Bamatraf is a Yemeni pianist and music composer who has participated in both solo and group musical performances and projects.

Image: ‘Confusion’, an art piece by Shatha Altowai