La vie m'est insupportable lll (2013)
Ibi Ibrahim is an artist from Yemen who would be represented by the JAMM gallery from Dubai in the upcoming ART14 fair. The gallery would be showing Ibrahim's photographs from the past four years, highlighting the artist's affiliation to monochromatic compositions and featuring self-portraits alongside portrayals of young women and men, which contest a traditional Muslim space. Here's an interview with the artist -
Q1: Your photographic works would be represented in the upcoming ART14 in London. Could you tell us a little about how you discovered your interest in photography and when you decided to become an artist for this pursuit?
A: I have been interested in photography from a very young age. I have memories of escaping to our basement to look at black and white portraits. Photographs of my parents when they lived in Europe, the way they dressed and the places they went to. The portraits showed much happiness in the life they once lived. I began taking photographs at 22 and showed in a group exhibition in Yemen in 2009, my family pressured and harassed me to quit art. To them, it was considered shameful to become a photographer so I left and moved to New York. I wanted to show the struggles I and my generation encounter growing up in Muslim conservative societies and spent the next three years working on black and white photographs that aimed to touch on youth, individuality, sexuality and other sensitive topics often considered taboos in the Middle East. During ART14, and thanks to my gallery JAMM Art gallery, I will have the opportunity to display some of those pieces along with my recent self-portrait work.
Untitled, Black Tears Series (2012)
Q2: To many people not from the region, Islamic culture does not encourage the exploration of human bodies beyond the boundaries defined by traditions. Your works are very different from some of these common beliefs. How do you see your artistic practice within the broader Islamic culture?
A: I am passionate about black and white films, in particular Arabic films from the 40s and 50s. I also enjoy Arabic colored films from 60s and 70s. In those films, you see everything. Nothing is considered taboo, nothing is to be censored. Something changed about the Arab/Muslim world. You can sense that in the cinema. Those films that were once playing in cinemas and TV stations across the Arab world are now censored. Many scenes are cut out because they're considered sinful. How can it be sinful so suddenly? The society is gradually becoming more and more conservative. If I were to produce my work in the 70s, it would have not caused such controversy like it does now – because the society would be more liberal, more cultured and more respectful of the freedom of speech, and the freedom of art. Today, I am receiving death threats on social media because of the work I am producing. It is quite depressing to see how my country and society, a society once known to be the treasure of the world when it came to art, medicine, and religions has turned. However, those threats can't stop me from doing my work - if I don't remind the Yemeni society of what we once were, then who would?
Yemeni Orgasm, Trypitch (2012)
Q3: You have grown up in several different countries in the Middle East. Could you share with us a few moments in life in some of these places which becomes your artistic inspirations?
A: I am more inspired by the travels I've done on my own rather than when I was living with my family. I would like to say that I was encouraged by my parents to explore art at a young age, but the reality is I wasn't. I have the Yemeni government to blame for that. After all, there are no museums or galleries in my country. If I were to show my work in Yemen, it would be done through a foreign entity such as the French, Spanish or German embassy and due to the security situation in Yemen, even those embassies began hosting less and less art events. I try not to focus on all those negative aspects, and traveling has been quite therapeutic. I am happiest when I am in Europe visiting galleries and museums. I very much dislike censorship in particular when it comes to art. In the Middle East, and as you know it is not easy to show "provocative art". It often brings me down that I can't show most of my work in the Middle East, but it is a path I choose and I don't regret it. I am happy to have a gallery that's given me the opportunity to show my work in London. This is my first time showing work in London and I am beyond excited. I hope it inspires Yemeni artists to be more courageous and daring in their work – we are in desperate need for that.
Girl Moment, Sitara series (2012)
Q4: With the rising wealth in the Middle East, events such as Art Dubai and Sharjah Biennale are attracting worldwide attention and coverage. Do you think these events help in bringing authentic Islamic and Middle Eastern art to buyers and the general public? Apart from these commercial events, how is the general art development in the region over the last decade or so?
A: I don't think I am eligible to answer this question; after all I am not from the gulf. I sometimes envy artists from the gulf countries because they have so many resources and
finding available. The gulf is going through a huge art thrive, and artists in all media are so much encouraged by the government to move forward and enhance their work. In Yemen, the case is different. The ministry of culture is full of corruption, and I stand with my words. Opportunities are only given to established artists who hold personal relationships with the ministry. The national museum, a governmental entity that holds historical and ancient art with over 100 years old of value is running without an archive system or electricity. It's painful that those neighboring countries enjoy this art thrive while here in Yemen the struggle continues, and it gets only worse. But then again, one cannot focus on the negative side. I am a 2.5 hour trip from Doha where I can visit MATHAF museum to see the biggest exhibition ever held for Mona Hatoum in the region. I am also 2.5 hour trip from Dubai where I can visit some of my favorite galleries and enjoy the work of great contemporary artists. I accept the reality of being in Yemen but that doesn't mean I will stay in the dark and not keep up with my surroundings.
Jalsat Banat, Sitara series (2013)
Q5: We know you have made a film called Sounds of Oud and it was screened in public earlier this year in New York. Could you tell us a little about it? What does its name mean? What made you consider making the film and would it be shown in London?
A: 'Oud' is a Middle Eastern musical instrument. The name of the film refers to the sound of that instrument; something you often hear when you listen to old Arabic music or belly dancing music. The film discusses issues barely spoken about in the Middle East. It's about a love triangle between an Arab couple and a friend – Do you follow your devotion or your desires? I don't want to give much away about the film, but watching the trailer should give the viewer a little idea. I obviously enjoy discussing sensitive topics in my work, and I think it's because I find no one else in my country is doing so. If no one does it, then it's my obligation to do so. It's quite challenging because I dream to create all this imaginary and fictional art work and escape reality but I find myself obligated to create art work that comments on the status of the Yemeni society today. It's something that can't be postponed – this is the time to get your message across, before people forget the recently occurred Yemeni revolution where young men and women gave their life away so the society can live with full freedom and full rights. My friend Sara Ishaq's film is nominated for an Oscar. This is the first time Yemen's name is part of such a huge event. I feel excited and inspired. If our government won't give us the opportunity we deserve, we will do it ourselves.
The film will be screening in London this year. I will announce the dates on Facebook once confirmed.
All photos by Ibi Ibrahim