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Heroes of the Middle East Mural, 99 Cultural Icons

We are raising funds for our project "Heroes of the Middle East & North Africa." This initiative proposes to create a large mural depicting cultural icons such as Rumi, Khalil Gibran, Fairuz, Naguib Mahfouz and other poets, writers, filmmakers, musicians and artists who are symbols of peace through the arts.

The "Heroes" mural is an educational experience and an anti-war statement that intends to humanize the Middle East and North Africa, following on the heels of the Arab Spring. The mural will be completed early in 2014 and will grace the wall of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Why Heroes of the Middle East/North Africa?

We are the founders of the first cultural arts center devoted to the Middle East and North Africa in Southern California—the Levantine Cultural Center.

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Welcome To The Jungle

Do you know how they catch monkeys in Africa?

Well, apparently the story goes that hunters in sub-Saharan Africa get their prey addicted to sugar, after which they lay traps for them containing the saccharine bait. Later, when the monkeys thrust their grubby paws into the traps, they aren’t able to withdraw them, and are left helpless until they’re snatched away by their predators. On a similar note, I also recently learned about social dynamics among baboons, and the patriarchal nature of their clans. Quite simply, one male member asserts his authority by having the rest of the clan ‘subject’ themselves to him; from a practical standpoint, this is supposed to encourage unity and obedience among the clan, and prevent any unsavoury scuffles.

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Fear and Loathing In Sana’a

I don’t know how it happened; all I thought about was my desire to show visible signs of anger in my studio. I threw the glass frame as hard as I could onto the opposite side of the room. Small pieces, big pieces of glass, were suddenly born.

Before this, I was reading an article in Canvas, an art magazine, about collectors from the Middle East, their passion for supporting artists in the region, and their joy in travelling to discover new talents and buying works from emerging artists around the Middle East. None of that applies to me, or to any artist in my country, I thought.

‪Yesterday, a German diplomat was shot dead outside the doors of a busy supermarket in Sana’a. There was an attempt to kidnap him, although once the kidnappers failed, they decided instead to shoot him and flee. Indeed, they did so, but apparently that wasn’t enough; the kidnappers later drove around the capital until they found another victim – an employee of the United Nations on his way to the airport – and boom: they kidnapped him as well. Instead of the airport, he was taken to only God-knows-where.

Today, I sit in my Sana’a studio – just a three-minute walk from the supermarket where the German was killed – continuing to apply all the skills I learned in New York. I watch my model apply make-up, before styling and photographing her, and later colour-correcting my photographs. Afterwards, I visit a printing house, print and frame a piece, and hang it in my living room.

There are no curators here in Sana’a; hell, there are no galleries here either. My living room has become a gallery, and with time, so has my bedroom. They hold pieces by me, as well as paintings I’ve purchased from Bombay and a small drawing I found in Istanbul. I don’t only take photographs here, though – I curate, too. Whenever I produce new works, I take down the old pieces, and frame the new ones. However, due to my circumstances as well as a lack of frames, I am obligated to print in small sizes. The frames in my studio are beautiful – I purchased them in India simply because finding art gallery-quality frames here is nearly impossible; and, as we’re talking about the lack of availability when it comes to finding art supplies and the like, I should mention that the Canvas magazine was found in Istanbul. Ha.

The Yemeni photographers Bushra al-Fusail and Sharaf al-Houthi have also given me some artworks as gifts. They say my apartment has a nice and artistic feel to it, and that they would like to see some of their pieces hung here. I encouraged this idea, because at one point, I thought I would invite foreign diplomats and NGO officers living in Sana’a to visit my studio, and try to capitalise on the trend of Westerners supporting Yemeni artists by acquiring their works. Sadly, though, these days, such patrons are on lockdown, and due to security reasons, cannot pay me a visit. There go all the studio visits I’d hoped for.

‪I wake up anxious to have a cup of tea. Drinking tea is my favourite part of the day: I carefully select my desired flavour, taking my time – I’m no rush whatsoever. After pouring myself a nice cup, I sit back on my sofa to enjoy a painting by Nasser al-Asawadi. It’s a beautiful piece he gave to me on my birthday. I remember telling myself that I must find daily pleasure in looking at it. It’s gorgeous, and I can never tire of it; even if I do, I must fake doing so. There are no museums here where you can see great works like this one. The talented artists have all left, or if they exhibit, they show their best works abroad. No one cares here, and those who do are trapped indoors. Go figure.

I’ve posed for the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat in the past, who gave me two of her photographs of me. I’ve left these with a friend in New York, as I wasn’t sure how long I would last in Yemen; five months later, I’m still not sure. I did, of course, ask for the piece, and have found a place for them in my living room. I can’t wait to receive them … I need new work here. I am tired of my own pieces. I want to question the meaning of an art piece done by someone else.

‪All artists struggle, but I am deeply certain that us Yemeni artists struggle in a completely different way. I met the photographer Osama el-Eryani yesterday for the first time. Like me, he also studied in New York. I asked him about a piece of his that I liked and wished to buy. He responded by saying, ‘I am not selling at the moment, because there is nowhere to print my pieces’. Doesn’t that break your heart? To live in a place where you can never see the true final outcome of your work? That is the struggle of the Yemeni photographer.

The only art centres that have supported the works of such talented artists have either been French, German, or Spanish – how shameful. Even when it comes to art, we await the help of the Europeans, because we can’t afford a building with white walls. We can afford to open a museum for our former president, equipped with the best frames, installation supplies, and security; yet, we can’t afford a simple gallery for our own artists.

‪I gather the broken glass in one in spot, and take it to the kitchen. Fixing what’s left of the frame, I use it to hang a new piece I’ve just finished. My kitchen is a huge mess, but my living room is ready for guests. I still have hope that a gallery will open tomorrow; that the owner will be interested in my work; that my government will provide better security systems so that art curators from anywhere in the world will be able to safely visit my studio in Sana’a; that the Ministry of Culture will be more supportive of the arts than corrupt, and that the Ministry of Education will implement more art programs into our curriculum rather than hiring a minister who only cares that girls over the age of ten must wear headscarves.

Do I leave, or do I stay? I live between the choice of struggling as an artist, or struggling as a Yemeni artist.

I have to stop writing as my model has just arrived. We will shoot today, and finish everything by tomorrow; I will have the pieces printed, framed, and hung. My studio will always be ready to receive those who admire art. I’m flying out to Beirut soon to buy ink and apply it in my new body of work, and I’ve also informed my fellow artists in case they are in need of particular art supplies they can’t find here. When I need something, I am obligated to wait for months in order to obtain it; it’s a struggle, but I live through it.

By Idi Ibrahim

Ibi Ibrahim is a Sana'a-based Yemeni photographer, whose works have been exhibited throughout the United States and the Middle East.

This piece originally appears here

*Photo Credit: courtesy of Ibi Ibrahim via Facebook

My Love Awaits Me By The Sea

In August 2003, Ramallah-based Palestinian artist Hasan Hourani drowned to his death in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Jaffa, as he tried to rescue his nephew. Neither of them knew how to swim; they had sneaked into Israel to visit the beach in Jaffa, since as Palestinians from the West Bank, they were forbidden to cross over. Hasan was just 29 years old.

At the time, Hasan had been working on Hasan Is Everywhere, a children’s book about a character named Hasan who wandered the world freely, looking for love. He had only completed ten of the 40 drawings he had planned for the book. The year following his tragic death, the book was published by the A.M. Qattan Foundation, a UK-based NGO dedicated to promoting Palestinian arts & culture.

When Mais Darwazah, a Palestinian-Syrian filmmaker from Jordan discovered Hasan’s book, she was deeply moved by Hasan’s stories; and while reflecting on his fate, his work, and Palestine, she came to ask herself many questions, and was ultimately inspired to make a film. Following in Hasan’s footsteps (literally), Darwazah went to Palestine to discover more about a ‘lover’ (as she refers to Hourani) she had never met, and a land she had never visited. With lingering shots, composed frames, and a melancholy piano score, Mais’ film takes one on a journey to her Palestine, chronicling her first-ever visit there, to a Jaffa devoid of oranges, an unknown ancestral Nablus, and a Jerusalem where beauty thrives beyond walls.

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Revolution and Desire

Since 2011, Beirut-based film and art curator Rasha Salti has been journeying across the Arab Middle East and Africa to bring a selection of some of the finest films from the region to the Toronto International Film Festival. I met with her last week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Toronto’s vibrant King St. to talk about some of this year’s handpicked Middle Eastern attractions.

What, as the festival’s programmer of Middle Eastern films, are your selection criteria? On what basis are the films chosen, and what do you usually look for in the films you select?

The most obvious thing is quality, artistic excellence is key … there are a lot of excellent films coming from the region. Furthermore, there’s invariably the subjectivity of the programmer, which is basically [about] falling in love, [being] completely charmed … And then, there are the other considerations that are very important. I am asked to select a maximum of seven, sometimes eight films from the Middle East … I don’t care where the films come from, but I care about style, genre, the scope or ambition of the production, so, there has to be space for a ‘first’ film, a very small, independent, ‘underdog’ kind of film, a big film – maybe with stars, the work of a master filmmaker … I try to strike a balance between fiction, auteur, mainstream, and documentary.

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Resilience and Light

The issue of regionalisation, which has long coloured many debates surrounding contemporary Middle Eastern art, and that is particularly entrenched in discussions about Palestinian artists is unavoidable when looking at Hani Zurob’s paintings. Zurbob’s experiences as a Palestinian man – living with the weight of what that entails at different times and places – has led him to produce art, which, in his own words, disintegrates the boundaries between ‘political matters and private stories’. However, the artist’s exploration of suspended states of being – waiting, remembering, existing in cultural, historical, and socio-political grey areas – has resulted in works that translate personal and national experiences into a universal language.

Read moreResilience and Light