Impact of Transnational Experiences
Entre la fin des années 1970 et tout au long des années 1980, alors que le Yémen était encore composé de deux États, de nombreux Yéménites ont obtenu des bourses pour aller étudier en Union soviétique. Les futurs plasticiens y réalisaient des mémoires de master et de doctorat en peinture murale, affiches, sculpture monumentale, philosophie de l’art, et dans bien d’autres domaines encore. Après avoir passé plusieurs années d’études en URSS la majorité d’entre eux retournait au Yémen, un nouveau pays unifié depuis 1990. Cet article vise à comprendre les expériences éducatives et culturelles qui prirent place dans le contexte de la solidarité transnationale « socialiste », et les diverses influences qu’elles eurent sur le développement du mouvement des arts plastiques yéménites.
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Yemeni students in Armenia, 1978 (dancers and painters) with teacher during a field trip
- 1 I would like to thank Helen Lackner for her comments and careful reading, Marine Poirier for the ne (...)
- 2 Tilly and Castañeda, 2007, p. 15.
1In the study of modern and contemporary Yemeni plastic arts, the group of artists who studied in the Soviet Union has, to date, attracted little attention from observers of transnational practices: not only does it represent the largest group of Yemeni artists having studied abroad, but their experiences also significantly influenced the development of the Yemeni artistic movement. Given that transnational practices include not only the physical movement of people, but also the exchange of ideas, information and cultural values among others2, it is relevant to explore the events and exchanges that plastic artists still recall from their years in the Soviet Union. These memories and how they changed the artists’ practice are important factors in understanding the formation of the Yemeni plastic arts movement in the broadest sense.
- 3 Merriam‑Webster dictionary.
2The painters, sculptors, and poster artists discussed in this paper who went to the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, had many significant life experiences during their time there. The definition of “experience” employed in the analysis includes both experience as direct observation and participation in events as a basis of knowledge, as well as the know‑how gained through this direct observation or participation3. Similarly, this article concentrates on experiences understood as both the process and the result of the know‑how gained. With respect to the process, I examine how future artists came to study fine arts and produce artistic objects while living in the Soviet Union and thereafter. The first step in this process was an international experience made possible by educational agreements between states, simultaneously embedded in a flux of ideas, information, and cultural values crossing state borders, thus becoming individually autonomous transnational experiences. This transnational flux and exchange is a lasting phenomenon, materializing in the know‑how maintained over the years and still in use today.
3In order to analyze the memory of these experiences, I first provide a general overview of the international context of Yemeni‑Soviet relations which include the educational programs that enabled artists to study abroad. Although it might appear to be a short diversion from our focus on the transnational, the international context provides a useful background to understanding the next section that describes the group of students educated in the Soviet Union. I then propose to change lenses and shift from an international perspective to a transnational one in order to describe some possible ramifications of these experiences. In this part of the paper, I analyze a number of cases which reveal the transnational character of experiences that happened both in the Soviet Union and in Yemen, and ultimately contributed to the shaping of a developing artistic movement. Lastly, the conclusion aims to flesh out possible limitations in the realm of transnational practices. In this case, how does distance become relative? How do imagination and subjectivity relate to spatial and temporal borders? And, more broadly, when and how does the transnational end?
- 4 14 were born in former South Yemen (mainly in Aden but also in Laḥj) and 4 were born in the North ( (...)
4This paper is based on 18 interviews with painters, sculptors, ceramics artists, musicians and historians who studied in the former Soviet Union and came from both former North and South Yemen4. The interviews were held in Sana’a and Aden between 2008 and 2010. All the interviewees allowed me to use a recorder during in‑depth and semi‑structured interviews. This work also relies on group conversations, which were also recorded, and on participant observation, which is the central research method I use and the main reason for me to have been permanently based on the field between 2008 and March 2011.
5I encountered two main methodological difficulties that I would like to briefly mention. To start with, the number of publications, articles, and academic research carried out in the field of modern and contemporary art in Yemen is meager in Arabic and virtually non existent in foreign languages. For this reason, the research conducted for this paper is almost exclusively based on oral sources and on a few written sources such as articles, catalogues of exhibitions, photographs, and material that artists themselves have kept from their years in the Soviet Union and that they kindly shared with me.
6The second difficulty in addition to this lack of written sources is that many interviewees found it difficult to speak about their links to the former Socialist government, despite the fact that their memories and material occasionally led us back to the Socialist period in South Yemen. Discussing this period and works depicting socialist iconography was, at the time of my fieldwork, a highly sensitive topic which many interviewees stated “needs to be forgotten” or they said that it “was not the right time to talk about that”. Timing was indeed a crucial element in this study. To raise questions about Yemen’s unification is a complex task beyond the realm of this paper. However it is important to note that at the time I conducted fieldwork in Aden in 2009 and especially in 2010, the city was at the centre of violent clashes between the Southern Movement and representatives of the central government in Sana’a. Between the summer of 2010 and the end of the year, we witnessed an unprecedented escalation of violence in the south. The level of repression implemented by the government also translated into self‑censorship and psychological repression affecting artists. To speak about the artistic work they produced and their political affiliations during the Socialist period meant taking a risk, especially since “all‑things‑southern” were at that time associated — or put more bluntly, were said to be associated — with the Southern Movement, labeled as “terrorist”. Aspects of this situation will be noticeable throughout the paper although they will not be directly addressed.
- 5 Also refer to appendix 1.
- 6 For further reading about Yemen’s history, please refer to Lackner, Halliday, Chelhod (vol. I, II a (...)
7A brief historical review of Soviet‑Yemeni state relations6 is helpful to understand the transnational practices and experiences discussed in this article as they provide the international framework of relevant state‑to‑state agreements.
- 7 Yaḥyā al‑Mutawakkil ruled from 1904 until his assassination in 1948 within the regime of the imamat (...)
- 8 Chelhod, p. 72.
8With respect to the northern part of Yemen, these relations are about eighty years old as the Mutawakkil kingdom7 was one of the first Arab states to establish political relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This took a practical form in 1928, when the Mutawakkil Imamate and the Soviet Union signed a Friendship and Trade Treaty in Sana’a8. This treaty was renewed in 1939 and 1956; economic assistance and military cooperation between the two states continued throughout the period of the Imamate. In January 1962, a Soviet embassy opened in Sana’a and when the revolutionary forces overthrew the imamate on 26 September of that year, the Soviet Union was the first non‑Arab country to recognize the newly established Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). The Soviet government sent its first ambassador to the YAR within a year and in 1964 President ‘Abd Allāh al‑Sallāl visited Moscow and signed a Treaty of Friendship as well as an Economic and Military agreement between the two countries.
- 9 The British occupied Aden in 1839 until their troops’ withdrawal on 30 November 1967. “The terminat (...)
- 10 A British commitment to the independence of South Arabia had first been made in 1964, when a decisi (...)
- 11 Idem, p. 134.
9Also during the sixties and following the British withdrawal9 from Aden in 196710, the Soviet Union recognized the independence of the People’s Republic of South Yemen (PRSY) on 2 December, a mere two days after independence. That very month a Soviet mission arrived to open an embassy and in 1968 a Technical and Military Assistance agreement was signed. It must be noted that although a strategic relationship was established with the Soviet Union from 1969 onwards, the USSR contributed no more than a quarter of all aid to South Yemen most of it in the form of projects rather than budgetary support11.
- 12 Idem, p. 178.
- 13 Idem, p. 3‑4.
10In November 1970 the PRSY adopted a new constitution, with a Marxist‑Leninist orientation, and became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). This was the decade when the Soviet Union began to build an informal alliance system with countries in the Third World. While the YAR also received aid and maintained agreements with the USSR, from the late 1960s onwards, the Soviet Union was South Yemen's main supporter in the international arena. As has been stressed by Halliday, “the Soviet leaders were committed to the PDRY as the closest of their Arab allies and as one of the ‘states of socialist orientation’ that, together with Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola and Ethiopia, were potentially socialist states”12. However, and as the same author clarifies, “while this alliance with the USSR was more far‑reaching than that of any other Middle Eastern state with Moscow during this period, in a comparative Third World perspective South Yemen’s record was not so exceptional. The PDRY was one of over a dozen Third World non‑communist countries that developed close relations with the Soviet Union in the post‑war years”13.
- 14 Glen, p. 19.
- 15 Halliday, p. 178.
- 16 Badeau, p. 174.
11By the late 1970s, mounting economic problems in the USSR started to curtail its economic contributions to Third World countries. In the 1980s the third World received even less attention from the USSR14. In spite of this, the crucial support that the USSR gave to the emerging PDRY brought about significant internal changes. It meant “not only a close alliance with the USSR in foreign policy and military matters, but an even‑greater transformation of political, economic, and social character of the country along Soviet lines”15. In this sense, “accepting the Soviet diplomatic presence and seeking Soviet political and economic assistance carried as a corollary the acceptance of Soviet cultural programs”16. It is within the framework of these cultural programs that the role of Yemeni plastic artists needs to be examined.
- 17 Barghoorn, p. 156‑169.
- 18 Idem, p. 165. Also: “In the following years, most students from Arab countries who have been school (...)
- 19 Halliday, p. 182.
- 20 Idem, p. 183.
- 21 Chelhod, p. 215.
- 22 Halliday, p. 8.
12The scholarships given to plastic artists from North and South Yemen to study in the Soviet Union are part of the broader context of “Soviet cultural efforts”17 towards Arab countries. As of December 1965, Iraq led all Middle East states in the number of students studying in Communist countries with 1,205, followed by Yemen with 550, and Syria with 405. Of the total number of academic students from the Middle East as of December 1965, 2,125 were enrolled in the USSR and 995 in Eastern European countries18. In 1969 following the visit of PRSY President’s al‑Sha’bī to the USSR, a Scientific and Educational Agreement was signed and in subsequent years the number of Yemenis studying in the eastern bloc as a whole rose considerably19. In addition to this, from December 1972 onwards, with the opening of a College of Socialist Sciences and of a School for the Youth Union, Soviet instructors were teaching National Front members in South Yemen on a regular basis20. Reflecting the success of these educational agreements and exchanges, in 1975 the University of Aden which had opened in 197021 barely had more students enrolled (1,300) than were studying abroad (1,230)22. During the late seventies those who ambitioned to become plastic artists started their studies in the Soviet Union thanks to scholarships provided both to North and South Yemen, most of them graduating before the fall of the Soviet Union and some afterwards.
- 23 Other countries with less than twenty Yemeni students per country are Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Saudi A (...)
- 24 I arrived at this number through interviews, exhibition catalogs, and through a book published by o (...)
13Among Yemeni artists who studied abroad, a majority went to the Soviet Union.23 Thanks to scholarships provided mainly through the Ministries of Culture and Education, between 50 and 7024 Yemenis left for the Soviet Union during the 1970s and the 1980s to pursue university studies in fine arts. Most of these future artists came from Aden, at a time when the Soviet Union played an important role in the formation of the PDRY, but there were also students from the YAR who thus had the opportunity to study in a country that had long assisted their own. When this group of students left for the Soviet Union, most of them had some background in fine arts and had been involved in some kind of formal or informal art studies during the seventies. As remembered ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī, a painter from Aden who was part of the first group that travelled to the USSR,
- 25 Interview with ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī, May 2010, Military Museum, Aden.
“In Aden we all left together, painters, dancers, musicians, through the Cultural cooperation mechanism, which was a cultural agreement with the Yemeni Republic in the south. This was in 1978 but before that, we had studied in the Free Workshop (al‑marsam al‑hurr) with Dr. ‘Abd al‑Azīz Darwīsh, an Egyptian professor who came to Yemen to help with the renaissance of a Yemeni artistic movement. The first step was when the Ministry of Culture opened this Workshop and studies began in 1976. We studied there in the evenings, from 1976 until 1978 and when we were in third year at the Workshop, we obtained the scholarships to study in the USSR. We began to travel there in 1978. In this period what is now called the Jamīl Ghānim Institute for Fine Arts (ma‛had Jamīl Ghānim li‑l‑funūn al‑jamīla) opened in Aden with the help of teachers and cadres who came from Egypt and Palestine. By the mid‑1980s as Yemenis who had studied abroad started to return to Yemen, we started to replace these foreign teachers” 25.
- 26 In order to read more about this artist refer to ‘Alī H.
14In the north of Yemen, a few artists who left for the Soviet Union had also acquired some knowledge prior to travelling, by studying under one of the pioneers, Hāshim ‘Alī26, who started painting in the late 1960s and opened his marsam in Taiz in 1975 to teach this discipline.
- 27 The Surikov Moscow State Academy Art Institute is one of the leading centers of higher art educatio (...)
15A smaller group mainly from North Yemen was self‑taught, some of them part of the pioneer group, such as ‘Abd al‑Jalīl al‑Surūrī in the north and ‘Alī Ghadāf, one of the leading artists of the movement in the early 1970s in Aden. When they left in the 1970s, most of them went to Moscow, and many of them studied at the prestigious Surikov Art Institute27 while others went to Leningrad. Other Soviet Socialist Republics such as Uzbekistan and Ukraine as well as other socialist countries, such as Hungary also hosted Yemeni art students.
16Students had a variety of reasons to study in the Soviet Union but they had the same motivations. In the case of students coming from Aden, most of them had followed classes at the Free Workshop, which Soviet artists and professors would visit and choose candidates for the scholarships. Soviet art teachers were also present in Aden during the 1970s and the city was host to a Soviet cultural centre (Figure 1: Soviet Cultural Center in Aden). These circumstances made Russian art easily accessible; both the historical importance of classical Russian art and the prestigious art schools that flourished there, made the USSR one of the best places to study fine arts at that time. In the North of Yemen the important role of Russia in art history was also well known. As pointed out by one such painter,
- 28 Interview with Amina al‑Naṣīrī, December 2009, Kawn studio, Sana’a.
“I had the best marks in the YAR at the time scholarships were being offered, so I could have chosen Canada, Italy, Germany, or Russia. I chose the Soviet Union because I had read a lot of Russian literature, I knew Russian culture, art, philosophy… I also thought it was good to join a strong realist school, so that after I finished my studies I would be able to choose my own style. There was a lot of culture going on and for example, classical music, ballet, opera, theatre, and fine arts were all very strong, specially classical art and the realistic school was also very good there. This is how I made my choice” 28.
- 29 Although numbers cannot be exact and information is lacking, approximately between 30 and 40 studen (...)
17Although, as has been already explained, South Yemen had closer relations with the Soviet Union, both North and South Yemeni artists shared a very positive perception of the Russian realist school. In addition to scholarships from the Soviet Union being offered to both countries, some students also had offers from other countries; thus students had a wide range of options, but most chose to go to the USSR, even if the number of Adeni students was larger by far29.
18These students specialized in a wide variety of disciplines: most of them studied oil painting and graphic art, specializing in mural painting, graphic design and posters. Sculpture, ceramics, interior and exterior design, monumental sculpture, theatre and cinema stage set design, and art criticism were other disciplines chosen by Yemeni students. As a former student of interior and exterior design and painter at the Military museum in Aden remembers:
- 30 Interview with ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī , Op. Cit.
“No two people specialized in the same field. Almost all of us chose different fields because it was better in order to make a group, a complete group in which each one knows a different technique. In this way we could form a complete crew at the Fine Arts Institute in Aden and each one of us would teach a different thing. We were always together and we thought that it was better to specialize in different fields. Each one wanted to be the only one in his field. At the beginning we did it like this, but in the second group [that left for the USSR], many chose the same field, like oil painting. On our return we enriched the Institute [of Fine Arts in Aden] with these techniques. We were able to run the Institute by ourselves, without foreign teachers. This is how, after we graduated, the Institute went from being run by foreign teachers to being run by Yemeni teachers” 30.
19With respect to the second and following groups that left from Aden to the Soviet Union, a mural painter added:
- 31 Interview with Fu’ād Muqbil, May 2010, Jamīl Ghānim Institute of Fine Arts, Aden.
“Dr. Darwīsh advised us on our specializations and we followed his advice. I specialized in mural art, which was a seed that Dr. Darwīsh had planted in me. When I was in Aden he told me one day ‘your drawings are close to mural drawing’ and I loved that art. I went to the USSR and specialized in that, which was interesting work because it meant I had to learn to use hammers, climb walls, it was very physical work. I loved the material I needed to use and also studied ceramics, crystal, and many different things because Soviets liked to work on all types of art and we had to have knowledge of many things, including architecture and sculpture in the case of my studies. This was the advantage of studies in the USSR, it was applied art, complete studies, and academic.”31.
- 32 There were some minor exceptions: students that did not finish their studies, that returned to Yeme (...)
20In order to pursue and complete their studies, this group of students stayed in the Soviet Union a minimum of seven years, the time needed to fulfill the requirements of the master’s program32. Some of them stayed longer to work towards a doctorate or to seek work there. Most of them finished their studies before the Soviet Union disintegrated and became the Russian Federation in 1991; all had started their studies during the Soviet period. On completion and, as agreed in the terms of their scholarships, most of them returned to the PDRY, the YAR and after 1990 to the Republic of Yemen (ROY). On their return, the great majority, if not the whole group, were employed by the government. In the PDRY, artists were employed at the Fine Arts Section of the Ministry of Culture in Aden, the National Museum, the Military Museum, and the Institute of Fine Arts as educators. Others joined the universities of Sana’a or, later, Ḥudayda, teaching art education, philosophy of art, and fine arts. Their return also marked the beginning of their careers as professional artists, joining the modern art movement that had started in the south in the 1930s and in the north mainly in the 1970s. By the time their careers took off, they were working in a unified Yemen. The 1990s was the decade when they started getting recognition locally and internationally. Thanks to this interest and recognition, they were very active in establishing and joining unions and associations. Such institutions had existed before unification in each part of Yemen and in the 1990s they were also in the process of unifying alongside other political and economic institutions whose unification process intensified after 1990. In the late 1990s and the 2000s new groups emerged as young artists graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in Aden and from the newly opened department of fine arts of Ḥudayda University, the only public university in all of Yemen to offer these studies.
- 33 Al‑‘Ansi, 2009. These “Houses” were established in Sana’a, Dhamār, Ibb, Yarīm, Ḥudayda and Aden, p. (...)
- 34 For a more detailed reading of the history and evolution of Yemeni artistic movements in the north, (...)
21Between 2002 and 2007 the Ministry of Culture, headed by Khālid ‘Abd Allāh al‑Ruwayshān, gave considerable support to plastic artists: among other initiatives “Art Houses” were established throughout the Yemeni governorates in order to hold exhibitions and to serve as venues for workshops and other artistic activities33. This period remains the “golden era” in artists’ memories, and lasted until 2007. Since then, according to the perception of most artists, galleries have started closing, publications have stopped, activities have decreased, sales have shrunk, attendance to international exhibitions has gone down, institutions they created are seen as less useful, and the Ministry supports them less and less. As described by the artists, the situation of Yemeni plastic arts has become one of stagnation, due to a lack of interest from the government or society at large, and a lack of understanding and education in fine arts. However, despite this, new groups of young artists are joining the plastic arts movement and also new aesthetics, materials and artistic disciplines are enriching an artistic panorama dominated until now by modern art and in the process of opening itself to more contemporary creations34.
- 35 Keohane and Nye, 1972.
- 36 Tilly and Castañeda, p. 15.
- 37 Levitt, 1998, p. 937.
22Transnational activity, as depicted by some of the first scholars who focused on transnational politics (Keohane and Nye, from the realist school), encompasses “all forms of contacts, coalitions, and interaction across state boundaries that are not controlled by the central foreign policy organs of governments”35. In the case of this group of artists described above, their studies in the Soviet Union took place thanks to international agreements and scholarships made possible by the PDRY and YAR treaties and educational agreements with the Soviet government. However, experiences emanating from this international context span across national borders. Given the numerous implications of the transnational aspects stemming from these experiences, these can be analyzed within the framework of practices that Tilly and Castañeda36 interpret as transnational. They include: a) Physical movement of people; b) Transfer of goods and money (remittances); c) Exchanges of ideas, information and cultural values; d) What Peggy Levitt (2001) calls social remittances: a set of habits, values, created needs and expectations brought home from another country that are “part‑and‑parcel of an ongoing process of cultural diffusion”37.
23In the case studied in this paper, not only did numerous Yemeni students physically move to another country during the 1970s and later, but they also transferred and exchanged ideas, information, cultural values, expectations and habits in manifold ways. In what follows, I point out a number of the transnational ramifications these experiences represented, with a special focus on those relating to art and politics.
24As can be seen in the images from exhibitions and as artists explained, their source of inspiration while living in the Soviet Union remained their Yemeni background. They used Arabic calligraphy and depicted Yemeni subjects and scenes of everyday life finding inspiration in their “Yemeni heritage”. As is demonstrated by these works, artists brought Yemeni culture to the Soviet Union through their paintings, including many indicators of their cultural belonging. For instance, in the Moscow exhibition held for her master’s thesis Ilhām al‑‘Arashī, who specialized in posters at the Surikov Academy, showed posters with Arabic calligraphy, typical Sana’ani architecture, women wearing traditional colored Yemeni coverings (like the sitāra from the old city of Sana’a) as well as black (which became the norm during the 1980s), musical instruments like the oud, and subjects related to her country’s history and politics like unity between north and south. As she and other artists explained, thanks to their studies they acquired new techniques and improved their education but did not depict Russian culture. Instead, they brought Yemeni culture to the Soviet Union through their works (Figure 2, brochure from the exhibition).
Figure 2: Brochure from Ilhām al‑‘Arashī’s Master thesis’ exhibition, Moscow, 1990.
Courtesy by the artist
- 38 Nudes are a subject that sets the limits into Yemeni art. As artists interviewed for my research ha (...)
25Exchanges also took place in the opposite direction: on their return to Yemen they brought back paintings that depicted, if not Russian culture strictly speaking, at least subjects that were allowed in the Soviet Union and elsewhere but which were sensitive or forbidden in Yemen such as practice sketches and exercises including nude models38, both male and female. Despite some difficulties (the obligation to get signed and stamped permissions for each work of art) some artists were able to bring back drafts of paintings and sketches including those of nude models. Among the records artists kept of their pieces and exercises in the Soviet Union, they also kept photographs of works which were studies and drawings of the body’s anatomy which they had been required to draw and which included male and female bodies of all ages (Figure 3, ‘Abd Allāh ‘Ubayd).
26When asked about the influence of their experience abroad on their artistic work, most of them explained the nature of the exchanges by saying that their source of inspiration had always remained their home country and the only visible influence of the Soviet experience was to be found in their technique. Bringing back samples of academic exercises they had done while studying was also a way to bring back a technique acquired, although the same type of anatomical studies was not possible in Yemen.
- 39 It refers to any realist painting that also carries a clearly discernible social or political comme (...)
- 40 It is a form of modern realism imposed in Russia by Stalin following his rise to power after the de (...)
- 41 Group interview, May 2010, Tawahi Gallery, Aden.
- 42 Idem.
27While most of the artists stressed that, culturally speaking, they remained very attached to Yemen, especially in terms of the subjects of their artistic work, living for so many years in a country where politics pervaded all aspects of life also had an impact on their vision. Schools like social realism39 and socialist realism40 left its mark on their work while they were studying abroad: as ‘Alī ‘Abduh al‑Faqiya one of the first graduates in oil painting remembers, upon his return to Aden he made “2.40 meter high street posters, with slogans such as peace, friendship, and other slogans of that time41”. ‘Alī al‑Ḍarḥānī, pointed out that these pictures “were those of Soviet socialist realists, depictions of workers and farmers, and the social side of everything42.” In the words of al‑Faqiya,
- 43 Idem.
“At that time we used to make posters about peace because it was the period of the ‘star wars’, the Cold War, so we worked on slogans of peace to create reassurance between socialist countries. All this was part of the Russian experience but had also been part of our experience before going to the Soviet Union as we were living in a country [the PDRY] which had the same orientation; ideology influenced all types of art, not only plastic arts” 43.
28As another artist stressed
- 44 ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī in group interview, Op. Cit.
“Politics were present everywhere, and it wasn’t something new to Yemen. Drawings and paintings served politics, supported politics, in the Soviet Union and in Yemen too. To give an example, the ideological section of the party [Yemeni Socialist Party] gave me the slogan, let’s say, ‘Yemeni unity shall be protected’ and from those slogans we did a painting or a poster. It was like this after I came back from Russia” 44.
29It is possible to conclude from these statements that the production of a socialist iconography was not only linked to their Soviet educational experiences but, further, that this exchange of ideas had started before the students traveled to the Soviet Union and continued throughout their stay and after their return to Yemen. Some of the students from the Free Workshop in Aden worked on the production of a type of art aimed at redefining certain social values. Political education through plastic art ‑ that is through paintings, posters, murals or sculptures ‑ was a crucial element in socialist regimes, especially in countries such as South Yemen where the level of illiteracy was very high. This had also been the case for the Bolsheviks in 1917, for whom visual political education had been crucial in order to reach large numbers of mainly illiterate people. In this sense, painters in the South worked on similar issues and in similar ways to those of Soviet artists. For instance, they worked on the promotion of new cultural values as part of a general effort to change values and to change society through, for example, images illustrating the need for adult education or for joining the labor force, (Figure 4: ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī “Adult education” and “Work force”), women’s education, preserving the environment (Figure 5: Ilhām al‑’Arashī “Education is awareness” and “Nature is beautiful, preserve her”), and urban development (Figure 6: ‘Alī ‘Abduh Yaḥyā al‑Faqiya “Urban development”). Among other examples are works intended as political education: although educating society through the commemoration of certain dates was not specific to Socialist and Soviet iconography, it was an important part of the artistic production during the PDRY period. For instance, painters produced posters and canvases to commemorate the resistance against British colonialism (14 October 1963), independence from the British (30 November 1967), the “corrective move” that ousted president of the PRSY Qaḥṭān al‑Sha‛bī, or the 20th anniversary of South Yemen’s independence (Figure 7: “Memorial dates”). Other representations used for political education were posters about the Yemeni working class, or promoting Soviet‑Yemeni friendship, and depictions of unification in the PDRY (Figure 8: ‘Alī ‘Abduh Yaḥyā al‑Faqiya).
Figure 4: ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī, “Adult education” and “Work force”, 1970s.
Courtesy by the artist
Figure 5: Ilhām al‑‘Arashī, “Education is awareness” and “Nature is beautiful, preserve her”.
Exhibited in her master thesis’ show in Moscow, 1990.
Courtesy by the artist
Figure 6: ‘Alī ‘Abduh al‑Faqiya, “Urban development”, 1970.
Courtesy by the artist
Figure 8: ‘Alī ‘Abduh al‑Faqiya.
Poster for the Yemeni Socialist Party published in the newspaper 14 October, “For the sake of strengthening and deepening Yemeni‑Soviet friendship”, 1985.
Courtesy by the artist
- 45 For further reading refer to Bonnell, especially chapter 4: “The leader’s two bodies: iconography o (...)
- 46 Nāṣir al‑Qawī, who studied graphic arts in Moscow, collected in his book al‑fann al‑tashkīlī fī al‑ (...)
- 47 This type of work is in a sense a continuation of his earlier work: before travelling to Russia he (...)
30Portraits of the leader were another way of connecting art and politics. Although these are part of an iconography shared with other Arab states and which deserves discussion beyond the scope of this article, it needs to be addressed at least minimally, as it represents artistic techniques that were particularly present in Soviet art and socialist iconography (especially after the death of Lenin and during the Stalin years45). As mentioned by Nāṣir al‑Qawī46, most of the artists who studied in the Soviet Union worked on portraying political figures upon their return to Yemen. Ranging from figures from the Socialist government in the former South to the president of a unified Yemen, artists put their skills at the service of their governments which were as concerned with the leader’s image as the Soviets had been. For instance, most of al‑Junaydī’s work is in the form of portraits of Ṣāliḥ and his ‘achievements’ (Figure 9), as well as other political figures such as Shaykh al‑Aḥmar or the director of moral guidance in the armed forces, ‘Alī Shaṭr47.
- 48 Maasri addresses the limits of the concept of propaganda as related to political posters in her boo (...)
- 49 It is important to recall that socialist iconography posed problems during my fieldwork as it was p (...)
- 50 Similarly, the PDRY government developed this use of art, influenced by both Soviet and socialist i (...)
31The term propaganda, which can be interpreted in multiple and sometimes essentially derogatory ways48, is appropriate to the present study if understood as a means to publicize official positions and voices. The aforementioned artists’ works expressed and publicized political slogans and ideals, using their artistic skills to satisfy the demands of governments. Applying artistic skills in this manner is not specific to, but it was relevant in, Russian schools like socialist realism, which had a long experience of treating art as a vehicle to transmit political messages and educate society. While most of the artists explained that their studies in the Soviet Union did not include politics, on their return to Yemen their art and acquired knowledge were in some cases put to the service of political objectives49. Bearing in mind the fact that the majority of these artists came back to work for the government in one way or another, they had to adapt to the demands of the new unified government. In order to get more job opportunities, they had to be flexible and professional and willing to use their artistic training to work on commissions and not only on what was of interest to them. In this sense, their artistic skills were considered to be technical, professional and commercial skills. Artists have a “know‑how” that can be used in many ways, and the government oriented and paid artists to paint portraits of political figures, to illustrate the recent history of the country, and lastly to highlight new political identities. The artists explain the influence of ideology on their work as a result of their having lived through this particular historical period, and stated that they responded to the demands of the time and that their work was not an indicator of political commitment. None of the artists expressed a political commitment to these ideals, nor did they claim to have been supporters of any previously existing political party. How their artistic skills were used can be interpreted as a social remittance, as a set of habits brought back home from a country that had a long tradition of linking art and politics in this manner50. However, it needs to be remembered that this type of iconography had already started developing before the artists traveled to the Soviet Union as it had emerged during the earliest years of the PDRY period; so it can be interpreted as a type of transnational exchange which emerged alongside the socialist orientation of the PDRY.
Figure 10: ‘Alī ‘Abduh al‑Faqiya.
Poster for the Yemeni Socialist Party published in the newspaper 14 October, with the image of the tomb of the unknown soldier, 1985.
Courtesy by the artist
- 51 I borrow this notion from Anderson.
32Another important exchange that was part of this transnational experience was the convergence of trajectories that, in other respects, took place independently of each other in north and south Yemen respectively. The Soviet educational experience played a central role in creating relations between artists from the YAR and the PDRY at a time in history when such contacts were not possible in their own states. Before travelling to the Soviet Union, northern and southern artists had followed independent trajectories, using different types of training and learning methods: in the South there was a free painting workshop and an Institute of Fine Arts that gave a diploma after three years of study; in the North there were no such institutions and students learned from pioneer painters. The exhibitions that took place North or South never included painters from the other state. The period many North and South Yemeni artists spent studying in the Soviet Union represents a moment when their trajectories, which had been independent and separate, converged. Therefore, the Soviet Union served as a common ground where Yemenis from the North and the South discovered that there was an artistic movement growing in the other state as they lived in the same student residences, studied art and Russian at the same institutions, participated in the same cultural activities organized by the university and traveled together on art‑related trips like art competitions or exhibitions.
33Furthermore, and besides connecting members of what until then had been two separate artistic movements, being abroad confronted artists with their own national identities as citizens of separate states and possibly encouraged them to eventually put their work in the service of unification which had first been imagined and depicted in works of art, long before it was achieved in reality. To a certain extent it is possible to wonder whether this experience also helped to form and shape a feeling of belonging to one Yemen. As artist Kamāl al‑Maqrāmī explained,
- 52 Interview with Kamāl al‑Maqrāmī, Institute of Fine Arts in Aden, May 2010.
“From the north or from the south, we were all together over there, and when people asked me where I came from I felt the question provoked things in me; I did not say I was from the north or from the south, I only said I was Yemeni” 52.
- 53 Itzigsohn and Saucedo Giogulli, p. 767.
34As examples such as this one show, being abroad made it possible to overcome political state‑based identities and to become simply “Yemeni”. In other words, these students were able to construct identities that transcended state barriers53. To what extent was the imagined identification with a unified state triggered by or a product of the demands made by the governments in north and south Yemen? During the 1980s and when students returned to Yemen for summer holidays, they were often required to produce works that depicted Yemen’s unity. As a matter of fact, there was already a considerable amount of work depicting the unification of the North and the South before 1990. In this vein, national identification with a unified country was imagined and fostered before being formally signed: it first materialized through posters and paintings outside Yemen, in school exhibitions, and in Yemen appeared in newspapers (Figures 2 and 8). In the light of this, it is possible to wonder if this transnational experience did not free artists from historical contingencies, thus enabling them to create a unified Yemen in their subconscious, in their everyday life outside Yemen, and in their art.
- 54 Group interview, Op. Cit.
- 55 Participant observation conducted during painting classes at Amīna al‑Naṣīrī’s studio, workshop and (...)
- 56 Field notes and interview with Amīna al‑Naṣīrī, Sana’a, December 2009.
35Lastly, another value which they brought home relates to the fact that the artistic production of this group is usually described in interviews, books and articles as “academic art”, in an “academic style”, or with an “academic technique”. “Academic” here refers to a set of techniques, composition (a balanced distribution of the elements depicted on a canvas), and colors. On the one hand, and as both interviews and observation make clear, this is presented as a mark of prestige, evidence of having pursued formal studies, and as a label that guarantees the professional quality of the work. For instance, students of fine arts in Aden speak of the style of their teachers (most of whom belong to the group that studied in the Soviet Union or abroad) as academic, “from the Russian school”. In this sense, they praise their knowledge of techniques and composition; at the same time they also complain of a certain rigidity, and the absence of encouragement when they want to try different approaches54. This academic style of painting but also of teaching was noticeable during participant observation at a painting workshop in an art studio in Sana’a55: From the beginning of the classes, the students learned to draw portraits and objects, according to a realistic style as the teacher had been taught in Moscow, and as it is taught in many academic art institutions elsewhere. From the teacher’s perspective and in her experience, it was necessary to first learn realistic painting in order to later be able to try and choose a different style, and in this sense, it appeared as a required “base”56.
- 57 Levitt, 1998, p. 937.
36Moreover, it could be said that there is also a form of social remittance in the value attached to this: prestige attached to academic experience was brought to Yemen from the Soviet Union thus contributing to the creation of a type of artist who is professional and educated. The education they acquired, their knowledge of art history, their exposure to music, theatre, ballet, museums and travels, were all part of the cultural capital that this group of artists brought back and clearly form a social remittance. This capital is appreciated, highly respected, and in this sense, is a value recognized by the older and younger members of the artistic scene. Based on Levitt’s analysis, it can be described as a value and an idea transmitted within an artistic elite, whose members are carriers of ideas in their own right and were able to convince others to adopt the technical expertise and skills they introduced. This was possible because they occupied official positions at the Institute of Fine Arts, the university and in their private studios, which allowed them to act upon these ideas57.
37On the other hand, this academic way of teaching and the ‘Soviet’ legacy in the style of their work is sometimes critiqued, not so much as a style associated with realism and impressionism, but as a way of working. Some artists consider that certain members of the Soviet group have not been able to “leave” the Russian academy, that they are unable to produce artistic works that differ from what they learnt, and that they are unable to develop their own style and all they do is reproduce what they learned abroad. Academic art is thus perceived as both prestigious and professional as well as being limited and showing a lack of capacity to leave the academy and find their own style.
38The transnational experiences Yemeni artists lived through while studying fine arts in the Soviet Union had a clear influence and left many imprints on their art, the ideas they expressed, their technique, their way of teaching, the friendship networks created, even on the perception they had of their own national subjectivities as Yemenis. Furthermore, this group has been very important in the establishment of a Yemeni artistic movement because most of them became teachers and a reference point for younger and upcoming artists. Nowadays, younger members of the artistic movement reproduce techniques and styles characteristic of the Soviet group. In practice, this is manifested in a strong presence of realism and impressionism among the styles found, with painting the dominant discipline, and subjects deeply anchored in modern aesthetics.
39Lastly, in all the cases studied here, we observe the outcomes of experiences that took place in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. After the completion of their studies, most artists never returned to Russia. They neither maintained contacts with former professors, fellow artists and colleagues, nor did they follow developments in modern and contemporary Russian art. Therefore they are not currently influenced by it in the way they were during the years they spent studying there. In addition, the political context has changed, both the Soviet Union and the PDRY no longer exist; neither do the agreements and scholarships, they have become far fewer or even ceased completely. As a result, the question remains as to whether the transnational experience studied here can or should be studied as one that is now complete. Was the experience considered over when the artists returned to Yemen and ended their contact with Russia? Conversely, does the fact that their work, technique, and way of teaching continue to be influenced today by what they learnt and experienced in Russia, reflect the continuity of a never‑ending transnational impact? More generally, when does the transnational end? If the study of the transnational is clearly related to movement and exchange, it does not appear to be related to time span. Drawing a conclusion from the cases studied here, the process of becoming an artist in the art schools of the Soviet Union as well as the know‑how gained from such an experience is part of an overall experience that marks the individual and the professional's development. This impact, related to a particular school that we can loosely call that of Soviet art, accompanied and accompanies the artists in manifold ways and for an unlimited time. One of them is the impact that the “Soviet Group” has on the younger group of artists emerging now. Far from concluding, what this case puts into question is that transnational practices might thus be never ending or unlimited in time.
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Appendix 1: Chronology of Yemeni-Soviet relations 1920s–1980s (application/pdf – 76k)
1 I would like to thank Helen Lackner for her comments and careful reading, Marine Poirier for the never ending exchange of ideas that nourished this paper, and Guillaume Merere for contributing to making certain points clearer to my analysis and to the final article. I also warmly thank the artists in Aden and Sana’a that shared their time and their sources with me.
2 Tilly and Castañeda, 2007, p. 15.
3 Merriam‑Webster dictionary.
4 14 were born in former South Yemen (mainly in Aden but also in Laḥj) and 4 were born in the North (mainly in Taiz and also in Rada’a).
5 Also refer to appendix 1.
6 For further reading about Yemen’s history, please refer to Lackner, Halliday, Chelhod (vol. I, II and III, 1997), Leveau, Mermier and Steinbach, 1999; Dresch, Mermier, 2001, and Mawby, 2005.
7 Yaḥyā al‑Mutawakkil ruled from 1904 until his assassination in 1948 within the regime of the imamate, a type of religious monarchy that coexisted with the Ottoman occupation (1849–1918/19). The imamate ended with a military coup in 1962 that established the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north.
8 Chelhod, p. 72.
9 The British occupied Aden in 1839 until their troops’ withdrawal on 30 November 1967. “The termination of British authority had been preceded by negotiations between the United Kingdom and the guerrilla group that now assumed power, the National Liberation Front, and at the moment of independence, Britain recognized the new state and offered it some economic aid. Nevertheless, the transition from colonial rule to independence in South Arabia was, by the norms of decolonization in most British colonies, an exceptional one”, Halliday, p. 8.
10 A British commitment to the independence of South Arabia had first been made in 1964, when a decision to withdraw in 1968 was announced, and then, in 1966, in an announcement that Britain would not only withdraw but also evacuate the base in January 1968. A counter narrative to this explanation of the withdrawal was also available among Soviet publications, such as Pravda, which saw in the British withdrawal a forced decision and not a voluntary granting of independence to South Arabia. Halliday, p. 9 and 181.
11 Idem, p. 134.
12 Idem, p. 178.
13 Idem, p. 3‑4.
14 Glen, p. 19.
15 Halliday, p. 178.
16 Badeau, p. 174.
17 Barghoorn, p. 156‑169.
18 Idem, p. 165. Also: “In the following years, most students from Arab countries who have been schooled in the Soviet Union and East Central Europe have come from the two Yemens, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria; during 1986 there were 30,150 of them in academic programs”, Staar, p. 97.
19 Halliday, p. 182.
20 Idem, p. 183.
21 Chelhod, p. 215.
22 Halliday, p. 8.
23 Other countries with less than twenty Yemeni students per country are Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Germany, Italy, India and the United States among others.
24 I arrived at this number through interviews, exhibition catalogs, and through a book published by one of these former students who obtained his PhD in Moscow, Nāṣir Aḥmed ‘Abd al‑Qawī, Al‑Fann al‑tashkīlī fī al‑Yaman, al‑Munaẓẓama al‑‘arabiya li‑l‑tarbiya wa‑l‑thaqāfa wa‑l‑‘ulūm, Sana’a, 2005. Two interviewees recalled a higher number of Yemenis that studied fine arts in the Soviet Union, between 75 and 78, but until now I have not found proof to these statements.
25 Interview with ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī, May 2010, Military Museum, Aden.
26 In order to read more about this artist refer to ‘Alī H.
27 The Surikov Moscow State Academy Art Institute is one of the leading centers of higher art education in Russia. In 1939, Igor Grabar became the first rector of the Moscow State Art Institution and in 1947 the Institute became a division of the USSR Academy of Arts. In 1948, in honor of the centenary of V. Surikov’s birth, the Institute was named after the celebrated Russian artist V. Surikov. The Institute comprises five faculties: painting, graphic art, sculpture, architecture, theory and history of arts. The Russian Academy of Arts:
28 Interview with Amina al‑Naṣīrī, December 2009, Kawn studio, Sana’a.
29 Although numbers cannot be exact and information is lacking, approximately between 30 and 40 students came from Aden whereas those coming from northern cities seem to have been less than 10.
30 Interview with ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī , Op. Cit.
31 Interview with Fu’ād Muqbil, May 2010, Jamīl Ghānim Institute of Fine Arts, Aden.
32 There were some minor exceptions: students that did not finish their studies, that returned to Yemen before obtaining their masters, or that did not obtain a scholarship to pursue their masters after completing their baccalaureate.
33 Al‑‘Ansi, 2009. These “Houses” were established in Sana’a, Dhamār, Ibb, Yarīm, Ḥudayda and Aden, p. 23.
34 For a more detailed reading of the history and evolution of Yemeni artistic movements in the north, the south, and unified Yemen as well as going from modern to contemporary art, refer to Alviso‑Marino, 2012.
35 Keohane and Nye, 1972.
36 Tilly and Castañeda, p. 15.
37 Levitt, 1998, p. 937.
38 Nudes are a subject that sets the limits into Yemeni art. As artists interviewed for my research have constantly expressed, the body in its nudity in general is a “red line”, a subject that must not be depicted. The other two forbidden subjects are religion and criticism of the President. In relation to nudes and during the setup of an exhibition for the third edition of the International Plastic Arts Forum held in May 2010 in Sana’a, the day before the opening two paintings were removed because they depicted nude bodies (one of a naked couple by Kamāl al‑Maqramī, who studied oil painting at the Surikov Academy, and the other one of a nude woman, by a Syrian artist). The reason, as explained by the person in charge at the House of Culture, was that they were “pornographic” and that “the House of Culture represents the government and things like that cannot be exhibited there”. Field notes, May 2010.
40 It is a form of modern realism imposed in Russia by Stalin following his rise to power after the death of Lenin in 1924. The doctrine was formally proclaimed by Maxim Gorky at the Soviet Writers Congress of 1934, although not precisely defined. In practice, in painting it meant using realist styles to create rigorously optimistic pictures of Soviet life. Any pessimistic or critical element was banned, and this is the crucial difference from social realism. Tate Gallery glossary.
41 Group interview, May 2010, Tawahi Gallery, Aden.
44 ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī in group interview, Op. Cit.
45 For further reading refer to Bonnell, especially chapter 4: “The leader’s two bodies: iconography of the vozhd’, p. 136‑ 186. In relation to the figure of the leader in Arab countries and in Arab poster iconography, refer to Maasri, in particular part II: Themes, icons and signs, ‘Leadership’, p. 55‑71.
46 Nāṣir al‑Qawī, who studied graphic arts in Moscow, collected in his book al‑fann al‑tashkīlī fī al‑Yaman a study of 60 Yemeni artists. In his book he writes a biographical introduction to each artist, followed by a description and analysis of their work and style. The book is thus a compilation of several biographies and the only source with what appears to be the most complete list of Yemeni artists who studied in the Soviet Union.
47 This type of work is in a sense a continuation of his earlier work: before travelling to Russia he worked at the Military Museum in Aden portraying historical events and political figures for the museum. His scholarship stipulated that he would return to continue working for the museum after he specialized in interior and exterior design so as to apply them to the museums’ design. When he came back, he applied his knowledge to portray the new demands of the time: a unified Yemen presided by Ṣāliḥ and his party, the General People’s Congress.
48 Maasri addresses the limits of the concept of propaganda as related to political posters in her book, Maasri, p. 4.
49 It is important to recall that socialist iconography posed problems during my fieldwork as it was perceived to be a sensitive topic in 2010. This is one reason as to why it is not possible to provide many examples of these works and, in many cases, all that remains are photographs of original works that have been destroyed. One example is the sculpture in Tawāhī that Lackner describes as an instance of “official art”, cf. Lackner, p. 124): the ‘Tomb to the Unknown Soldier’, represented in a poster by al‑Faqiya (Figure 10), was completed in 1982 as a gift from the USSR to the people of Yemen. It used to be in the Crescent in Tawāhī, Aden, but was destroyed after unification and now the figure of the mother holding a falling soldier no longer exists. Other posters from the Museum of the Socialist party no longer exist; one artist has an entire album of pictures of works exhibited there, but it was considered inappropriate to make copies of them, given current political sensitivities, and a belief that the regime wants this part of history to be forgotten, at least for the time being.
50 Similarly, the PDRY government developed this use of art, influenced by both Soviet and socialist iconography which spread in the Soviet Union but also in Arab countries under the influence of socialism. With respect to other countries inspired by socialist models see the work of Maasri about Lebanese political posters.
51 I borrow this notion from Anderson.
52 Interview with Kamāl al‑Maqrāmī, Institute of Fine Arts in Aden, May 2010.
53 Itzigsohn and Saucedo Giogulli, p. 767.
54 Group interview, Op. Cit.
55 Participant observation conducted during painting classes at Amīna al‑Naṣīrī’s studio, workshop and cultural foundation Kawn, Sana’a, January 2010.
56 Field notes and interview with Amīna al‑Naṣīrī, Sana’a, December 2009.
57 Levitt, 1998, p. 937.Haut de page
Table des illustrations
|Titre||Yemeni students in Armenia, 1978 (dancers and painters) with teacher during a field trip|
|Titre||Figure 1: Program of the Soviet Cultural Center in Aden, 1972.|
|Crédits||Courtesy of ‘Alī Muḥammad Yaḥyā|
|Titre||Figure 2: Brochure from Ilhām al‑‘Arashī’s Master thesis’ exhibition, Moscow, 1990.|
|Crédits||Courtesy by the artist|
|Titre||Figure 3: ‘Abd Allāh ‘Ubayd, Kiev, 1988.|
|Crédits||Courtesy by the artist|
|Titre||Figure 4: ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī, “Adult education” and “Work force”, 1970s.|
|Crédits||Courtesy by the artist|
|Titre||Figure 5: Ilhām al‑‘Arashī, “Education is awareness” and “Nature is beautiful, preserve her”.|
|Légende||Exhibited in her master thesis’ show in Moscow, 1990.|
|Crédits||Courtesy by the artist|
|Titre||Figure 6: ‘Alī ‘Abduh al‑Faqiya, “Urban development”, 1970.|
|Crédits||Courtesy by the artist|
|Titre||Figure 7: “Memorial dates”, anonymous.|
|Titre||Figure 8: ‘Alī ‘Abduh al‑Faqiya.|
|Légende||Poster for the Yemeni Socialist Party published in the newspaper 14 October, “For the sake of strengthening and deepening Yemeni‑Soviet friendship”, 1985.|
|Crédits||Courtesy by the artist|
|Titre||Figure 9: ‘Abbās al‑Junaydī.|
|Légende||Image taken by the author in Aden, 2010.|
|Titre||Figure 10: ‘Alī ‘Abduh al‑Faqiya.|
|Légende||Poster for the Yemeni Socialist Party published in the newspaper 14 October, with the image of the tomb of the unknown soldier, 1985.|
|Crédits||Courtesy by the artist|
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Anahi Alviso-Marino, « Impact of Transnational Experiences », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 04 avril 2013, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : http://cy.revues.org/2229 ; DOI : 10.4000/cy.2229Haut de page
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