Yemeni photographer: It’s my duty to provokeHis photographs are banned in his home country of Yemen; nevertheless, 26-year-old Ibi Ibrahim insists on creating art directed towards the people of Yemen and aimed at reminding them that their lives have not always been as controlled and constrained as they are today.
Facts about Ibi Ibrahim
Born in the USA in 1987 to diplomat parents, Ibi Ibrahim grew up in Yemen, Libya, Iraq and the UAE. Although many of Ibrahim’s works are based on his own experiences, they also address controversial issues that are seen as taboo in the traditional conservative Yemeni society from where he hails. His works deal with themes ranging from sexuality and gender to tradition, and they have caused controversy and sparked heated debates about the social and cultural results of the widespread conservatism that has been growing rapidly across the region over the last 40 years.
As a child, Ibi Ibrahim sought refuge from the world in his parents’ basement, where he spent his time looking at black and white photographs of his parents. The first time he ever held a camera in his hands he turned it on himself; and today, he still uses himself as the subject of much of his photography. Using his own image as his subject speaks volumes about his style of art. By portraying his own vulnerability and sexuality, the 26-year-old Yemenite confronts the society in which he has grown up – a society which, according to Ibrahim, has grown more conservative over the past 40 years and where a woman’s body is more than ever considered to be the property of a man.
Ibi Ibrahim’s work consists of equal parts self-portraits and portraits of young women and men, often depicted in monochromatic compositions that always seem to question or challenge a traditional Muslim ideal. And it is because of this that his works have been banned in Yemen. Nevertheless, he has now returned home after several years in the USA to put pressure on the existing structures within a culture that he sees as one-way street of censorship and injunctions.
“I’m trying to wage a battle against the censorship. If I don’t do anything, nothing will change, and I feel like it’s my duty to address the issue,” tells Ibi Ibrahim, when KVINFO caught up with him on Skype whilst he was preparing for his next exhibition in Dubai.
Represented by Dubai’s JAAM Gallery, Ibi Ibrahim held his first solo exhibition at the London Arts Fair in March 2014. After just five years working as a professional art photographer, he is more than satisfied:
“A first solo exhibition is a really big deal. We’d expected around 50 people to turn up, but 900 actually came, so it was quite intense.”
Ibrahim was advised not to invite anyone from the Yemeni embassy in London, as ‘the exhibition would be reported’. This represents a good example of the censorship plaguing Yemen and making it easy to shock Yemeni audiences.
“In Yemen, my works are seen as provocative. There aren’t any art galleries in the country, so people aren’t used to being confronted with modern art. That’s why Yemeni audiences are so offended when they see my pictures: I’m taking things from their own history and daily life and combining them in a way that, for them, oversteps the mark.”
The forgotten queen
One of Ibrahim’s works that has caused outrage in his home country is the photo series entitled Sitara. This work consists of three photographs of a woman covered in only by a red-patterned cloth, reclining elegantly on a green, sun-drenched lawn. In the last of the three photographs, she has discarded her attire completely and the viewer sees only her bare legs standing on the cloth on the grass. The sitara, the large vibrant cloth once commonly worn by women in Yemen, is historically important, explains Ibrahim:
“The sitara is the traditional Yemeni dress worn by women prior to the introduction of the black abaya to the country from Saudi Arabia.”
It was precisely because of this fact that he chose to use the sitara in his work:
“In Yemen today, a woman’s body is the property of the family. I wanted to create a series of pictures that remind us of how Yemeni women used to be. In actual fact, there once was a time when Yemen was ruled by a woman – The Queen of Sheba – but when you think of a Yemeni woman today, you think of an abused, uneducated child-bride who has been forced into marriage. The sitara evokes an image of the past and the forgotten queen, and is in stark contrast to the status facing women today – a status where women are viewed as sinful objects that must be covered in black.”
Nor is it any coincidence that the model in the pictures is naked under the sitara.
“It’s a deliberate ploy: I want to provoke and remind Yemeni women of how they once used to be. The grass represents freedom. Today it’s the complete opposite and a women’s body is no longer her own. It’s a tragedy,” laments Ibi Ibrahim.
According to Ibrahim, the past 40 years have seen Yemeni society becoming increasingly conservative. Whereas women of his mother’s generation never wore headscarves, today almost all women in Yemen cover themselves.
“I’ve been back in Yemen for almost a year now, and even though it’s 40 degrees outside women are wearing gloves. No-one’s fighting against it,” tells Ibrahim, who believes that self-regulating mechanisms are at work in the country.
“People are more bothered about what the neighbours are saying about them and about the good name and reputation of the family than they’re bothered about religion. A woman isn’t forced to wear a headscarf, but she does so nevertheless – perhaps because she doesn’t want people talking badly of her. The same is true when it comes to going to the mosque – it’s about showing your neighbours and family that you’re a good Muslim. To my mind, this is even more dangerous than if it were the government laying down the rules.”
Consequently, Ibrahim seeks to remind people through his works that the Middle Eastern culture was once far more accepting and open to change than is the case today.
“Society has gradually become more and more conservative. If I’d shown my works in the ‘70s, they wouldn’t have caused as much of a stir as they do today. It’s quite depressing to witness how my country – a society that once was a pioneer in areas such as art, medicine and religion – has become so backward-looking.”
In another of Ibrahim’s works, A Girl’s Get-together, we see the floor of an apartment. At the top of the picture sits a woman wearing a sitara with a cigarette and a glass of wine in her hand. The floor in front of her is covered with musical instruments, apples, a bottle of spirits, banknotes, photographs, a painting of a woman with exposed breasts. Ibrahim explains:
“This picture provides a glimpse of what happens when women hang out or get together with other women. It’s based on my own friendships with Yemeni girls who, just like girls from everywhere else in the world, like to smoke and drink, are interested in art and culture and enjoy catching the eye of men.”
Left Yemen full of sorrow and anger
As the child of a diplomatic family, Ibrahim has lived in many different countries, including Libya, Iraq, the USA and the UAE. This background has opened his eyes to the many restrictions and repressive measures that are today widespread across the Middle East.
“I’ve been lucky in the fact that I’ve been exposed to many different cultures. This has without a doubt cultivated my critical approach to things and instilled me with a keen sense of curiosity.”
At the age of 15, Ibrahim began buying cheap disposable cameras – the family’s own camera was not for use by children – and began experimenting with photography. Slowly, his passion for the medium began to take shape.
Nevertheless, there remained limits for his parents’ tolerance and openness, and despite his own wishes, there was no talk of him taking a musical or artistic education. The decision had been made: he was going to study marketing.
“When all is said and done, I grew up in what was basically an average Yemeni home. When I look back at those years that I spent in the Middle East, I realise just how much I missed out on.”
In 2009, when Ibrahim was 22, he took part in a group exhibition in Yemen. One of his pictures showed two young men standing close to each other. Although it cannot be seen, the way that they are standing implies that they are holding hands. The photograph caused a stir with audiences, and the reactions were predominantly negative, tells Ibrahim.
“It’s completely normal to see men in the Middle East holding hands, but the facial expressions of the men in my photograph suggest that there’s more than mere friendship between them. Those in the audience who decoded this reacted very strongly.”
Even though these works were deemed too provocative, it was in fact his family’s reaction that forced him to leave the country – they did not support his artistic ambitions and tried to get him to give up photography completely.
“They were ashamed of what I was doing, and I left Yemen full of sorrow and anger. It’s hard when those closest to you are also those who are least understanding.”
Ibrahim moved to New York, where he discovered the arts scene and the city’s many galleries. He settled in the hip neighbourhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn and began experimenting by photographing his friends and any actors he met. He spent the net three to four years working with black-and-white photography, focussing on youth, individuality, sexuality and freedom of expression – topics that are taboo in the Middle East.
“I wanted to depict the resistance that I and other artists who grew up in a conservative Muslim society are up against,” tells Ibrahim.
The revolution has changed something
Nonetheless, Ibrahim moved back to Yemen a year ago. It is difficult for him to explain why, but one reason is the fact that it is in his homeland where he finds his artistic drive and inspiration.
“My frustration and my anger – many of my works are reflections of the feelings that I had when I was growing up and during my first year as a practicing artist. That’s why I need to be here.”
The revolution that took place in Yemen in January 2011 and which led to the ousting of ex-president Ali Saleh has also been a factor in his return, explains Ibrahim:
“The revolution has changed something. People of my age are no longer afraid of dressing how they want or saying what they want. People are tired of keeping their mouths shut. It’s a big step for a conservative society like the one in Yemen. I see girls who are more forthright, driving cars and taking control over their own lives. A lot has changed in Yemen over the last three or four years, and I want to be here to witness it and influence the development. Whilst others are working as human activists, I’m trying to do my bit through my art – I want to shake up the structures a bit.”
But creating controversial art in a country such as Yemen is by no means without its perils. Ibi Ibrahim receives death threats on a regular basis.
“I get death threats and am verbally abused because of my works. I don’t blame the Yemeni people but rather the county’s ministry of culture. How do they expect the world to become acquainted with Yemeni modern art when they don’t support any contemporary artists?” tells Ibrahim, who goes on to add:
“It’s a paradox that whilst there’s huge interest in Middle Eastern art around the globe at the moment there’s nothing new or interesting happening in on the arts front in Yemen. Only those artists who the government deem harmless are getting support and being allowed to exhibit.”
Most of the attacks targeted at Ibrahim come from men and are to do with his portrayal or women in his works. And this is something that confirms the 26-year-old artist’s claim that a woman’s body is not seen as belonging to the woman herself but rather to a man – “whether this be her husband, father, brother or even little brother.”
True moments in time
‘Intimacy’ and ‘vulnerability’ are the two words Ibrahim most often uses when talking about his art, for as he himself says: “We show our true selves when we show that we are vulnerable.”
In a number of self-portraits Ibrahim exposes his own vulnerability. One example is the series Sans Toi, in which he is seen lying in bed with an obvious lust for another person.
“Self-portraits document true moments in time. They’re intended to be reminders that we are all the same. Everyone can relate to me in a picture, irrespective of age or origin – it’s about the fact that we all need someone else and that we’re not created to be alone,” tells Ibrahim.
In his three-part work Yemeni Orgasm, Ibrahim can be seen leaning against a wooden fence with his head tilted backwards and his right hand is gripping his crotch. Whereas the scene could be interpreted as one expressing pain or sorrow, the work’s title and the position of his hand leave little doubt what the work is really about:
“It’s about having the power to explore your sexuality. I don’t know why I’m so afraid of talking about it.”
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“I like to deal with sensitive issues in my work, and I think that this is because there are no other artists in Yemen doing what I do. I feel compelled to create art that comments on contemporary Yemeni society. It’s not something that can be put off until later – it’s right now that I have to get my message across, before people forget the revolution where young men and women gave their lives for a society with full freedom and human rights,” ends Ibi Ibrahim.