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  Visions of Yemen


The seed was sown when I accompanied three artists and one or two other friends toYemen in early 2000. During our visit we saw numerous examples of the work of contemporary Yemem artists. We also made contact with Halaqa, an organisation set up by Dr Jacques Veerman, with help from the Netherlands-based Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, to encourage contemporary art inYemen.

On our return, and with DrVeerman’s enthusiastic support, a plan took shape to introduce the work of Yemeni artists to the British public by holding exhibitions in London, Cardiff and Birmingham. Generous sponsorship and support were received from H. E. the Ambassador of Yemen, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust, Longnlf Trading (UK) Ltd, the Nimir Petroleum Company, Thabet International Ltd,Visiting Arts, Al-Tajir World of Islam Trust, andYemenia.

During the summer paintings started to arrive from Yemen, and at the end of August, Caroline Lees’s home in Fulham took on the aspect of the Royal Academy before the Summer Exhibition! Paintings filled every available space, awaiting inspection by the Framing Committee consisting of Caroline, Rose Issa, Douglas Gordon and John Shipman. There was a wealth of talent to choose from in varied media — from large oils to delicate blockprints, from the brooding sculptural imagery of Kamal al-Maqrami to the vibrant interplay of design and colour in the work of Amnah al-Nassiri. Difficult decisions were made and the framers put to work.

The Norwegian Church in Cardiff Docks, which is now an art gallery and was the first view which many Yemenis had of Britain as they arrived on coal freighters from Aden at the beginning of the 20th century, became available in October and was chosen for the inaugural exhibition. Pat Aithie worked miracles in a very short time to arrange printing, publicity and hanging. The exhibition was opened by Rhodri Morgan MP, First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, on 23 October in the presence of over 200 people, and received coverage in The Western Mail and on Harlech television. Both Mazher Nizar and Kamal al-Maqrami, whose work was on show, had flown from Sana’a to attend the event. During their stay in Wales they visited the College of Art, the National Gallery of Wales, the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, and the Centre for Stained Glass in Swansea. The possibility of arranging a three month exchange for two art students was discussed. 11 paintings were sold before the exhibition closed on 2 November.

The Kufa Gallery was hired for the London exhibition, and Dr Makkiyah and the Gallery Director, Walid Attiya, were very supportive. In order to broaden interest in the exhibition, eleven British artists who had painted in Yemen, led by Ken Howard RA, were invited to exhibit alongside the Yemeni artists. Abdo Nagi, theYemeni-born ceramist died in April (see obituary) was also invited to participate. The first private view, in the presence of H. E. Dr Hussain al-Amri, was held on 7 November, and a total of 25 works were sold during that first evening. The second private view took place at noon the following day, again in the Ambassador’s presence, when a further 10 works were sold. Amnah al-Nassiri, a leading member of Halaqa (and lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, Sana’a University), whose work was on display, arrived from Sana’a to attend the event. The exhibition was reported in the Arabic press and Amnah was interviewed by MBC. She gave a lecture (in Arabic) on the history of the Fine Arts inYemen at the Kufa Gallery on the last evening of the exhibition; it closed on 15 November with a total of 44 pictures sold.

The final venue, before Ramadhan, was Birmingham where the Mu’ath Welfare Trust had kindly offered space in the Bordesley Centre. With considerable help from the Director, Salem Ahmad, and his staff, the exhibition was hung in time for it to be opened by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham on 19 November. It continued for a week and was well attended, especially by members of the localYemeni community. An oil painting of Mukalla by Dr Abdul Jalil Al-Saruri was presented to the Mu’ath Welfare Trust as a memento of the exhibition and token of the Society’s gratitude for their help.

Fifteen Yemeni artists contributed to the exhibition, and a total of 55 works were sold, including ceramics by Abdo Nagi and paintings by British artists. A large number of volunteers helped to make this project successful, but special thanks are due to Pat Aithie in Cardiff, Caroline Lees in London, and Shan Egerton in Birmingham.

July, 2001