How Yemen-Based Romooz Foundation Is Working To Promote Art And Culture In The Midst Of War

BY Lizzy Vartanian Collier / Sep 30 2019 / 13:58 PM

"It’s to show the self-taught artist that your artwork doesn’t need to be an object of war”

How Yemen-Based Romooz Foundation Is Working To Promote Art And Culture In The Midst Of War
Courtesy of The Romooz Foundation
Haifa Subay. Child Of Bones. 2019. Street mural

“The best way for me to describe the art scene in Yemen is to say that it is both invisible and alive,” says Ibi Ibrahim, the founder of Romooz, a foundation launched in reaction to the eruption of war in Yemen in March 2018. Working to promote art and culture from the country during a time when media attention focuses on humanitarian crises and conflict, the foundation has hosted artist residencies, literature workshops and exhibitions both inside and outside of Yemen.

While Yemen did have an art scene before the war, it was not as established as those in neighbouring countries. With the outbreak of conflict, the art-buying social classes left the country, along with the international organisations sponsoring exhibitions, leaving the artists they supported behind. Romooz has many functions, in addition to organising exhibitions and workshops—which so far have taken place in Sana’a, Berlin and Beirut. The platform prepares artists for gallery representation and exhibitions.

Thana Faroq. Untitled 18 from In Search of Lost Photographs series. 2018. Digital photograph

Courtesy of The Romooz Foundation

“There was this pressing need to provide support in a contemporary international setting,” explains Ibrahim. “To make artists understand how you work, how you promote yourself. We’ve done simple things, like help prepare CVs and artists’ PDFs.” The platform provides an alternative education during a time when there is no art academy in the country, bringing in established curators and educators online. “It’s to show the self-taught artist that your artwork doesn’t need to be an object of war,” says Ibrahim. “Your artwork can be an idea and this is how you can present that idea.”

The Romooz team consists of five young Yemenis, and while the art community is small, they have received positive feedback. Before the war, exhibitions were invite-only but Romooz has made art open to everyone. “We do our best to create events for young people to come in and understand that there are other people like him or her,” explains Ibrahim. “And they can partner with each other.”

Afraa Ahmed. Qamariya Scene V. 2019. Digital Art

Courtesy of The Romooz Foundation

That said, working across Yemen can be difficult. “Yemen is a very complex place,” explains Ibrahim. “The country is governed by multiple factions and parts of the country are not affected by the war at all.” He even explained that one participant of a Romooz workshop from the East of Yemen was hesitant to attend because of air strikes in Sana’a. “The civil war is showing our differences much more than our similarities,” he adds. “As a cultural practitioner I need to overcome this barrier and find a way to bring creatives together. But somehow it magically works, and participants come from all over the country.”

Sana’a-based street artist Haifa Subay also recognises the dangers of working in a war zone. “Being an artist during the war is not safe,” she explains. “It means you have to fight for some issues you believe in. Many encourage me in the streets but many try to make me stop.” Her murals comment on children’s starvation and the silent victims of the war. “People push me to continue,” she says. “But on the other side there are some people wanting me to stop, or only to draw what they want.”

Besides Romooz, other cultural foundations are working across Yemen too. Active since 2009, Basement Cultural Foundation only took a four-month break when the war erupted, engaging with young artists on a local level. Online database Yemen Art Base also holds events. In Aden, theatre group Khaleej Aden Troupe will be opening a new production called Over The Edge on the first day of Eid.

Ahmed. Disgraced I. 2018. Oil on canvas

Courtesy of The Romooz Foundation

The group has been working since 2005 under Amr Gamal who is also the director behind the first film to be screened publically in Yemen in three decades. 10 Days Before the Wedding was supposed to run in 2018 for three weeks but will now be screened eight months later. It was a film made by locals for locals, and was Yemen’s submission to the Oscars. Outside of Yemen too, Yemeni artists work in response to what is happening in their country, with Romooz’s exhibitions in Beirut and Berlin comprising Yemeni artists living both in and out of Yemen.

“Working as a Yemeni artist outside of Yemen has its own challenges when introducing Yemeni art to an audience that is heavily influenced by the media,” explains Kuala Lumpur-based Afraa Ahmed, “I definitely felt alone at times when putting together projects about Yemeni heritage, but it felt even more important than ever to present Yemeni art now, considering the current circumstances.” She adds that living outside of Yemen has allowed her to explore things about her country that she never learnt when she was still living there, enabling her to build her own version of home.

While an art scene exists in Yemen, it is small and it is still a dangerous place for artists. “The situation is getting worse than ever, I can’t draw safely, I can’t say what I want”, explains Subay. “Many artists can’t draw due to the unsafe situation in Sana’a. The cost of drawing is higher than before and maybe you will pay yourself as a cost of your art in war.” But despite the dangers, foundations like Romooz continue to operate. “The work of Romooz is important in times of unrest,” says Ibrahim. “We promote art as a means for conflict resolution, peacebuilding, learning and social development. We work to encourage the Yemeni public to engage with art and artists. To understand that there is no democracy without art and culture.”

As for the future, Ibrahim dreams of one day having an art academy and is also working on establishing a publishing house to produce art catalogues and develop literature about contemporary art from Yemen. Watch this space. 

From the Autumn 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art