The Art of War: Using Art to Promote Peace in Yemen

As combative as it is dangerous, painter Murad Subay weaponizes his art to quell tensions in the ever-escalating war in Yemen.
Photo courtesy: Murad Subay

As combative as it is dangerous, painter Murad Subay weaponizes his art to quell tensions in the ever-escalating war in Yemen.

In Yemen, the post-Arab Spring transition that started in 2012 has been accompanied by political failure and violence. Artists have taken to the streets of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and numerous other Yemeni provinces in an effort to disseminate messages of peace through outdoor exhibitions of their works.

Yemeni artist Murad Subay’s artwork combats attempts to undermine the freedom of the Yemeni people, eliminate their civilization, and threaten their political and human rights. Since 2012, Subay has launched numerous political art campaigns, including  “Color the Wall of Your Street,” a protest of the ongoing civil war. Subay recounted how he was inspired to paint bullet holes as an “indirect call for peace.” These vibrant bursts of color serve as messages of hope, life, and tolerance.

Similarly, Subay worked on the “The Walls Remember Their Faces” campaign, to remember the victims of enforced disappearance. The memorial, which was on display from September 8, 2012, to April 4, 2013, featured 102 photos of the victims, along with their names, the date of disappearance, and the last place that they were seen written in both Arabic and English.

Of his activism, Subay has said that participating in the 2011 revolution against Saleh encouraged him to become more politically aware and “to do something against political crime.”  

In a recorded interview, Subay discussed twelve major political challenges facing Yemen: “sectarianism, employment, poverty, kidnapping, destruction, civil wars, terrorism, corruption, child recruitment, arms proliferation, and the American drones strikes in Yemen.” His “12-hour” campaign ran from July 4, 2013, to June 24, 2014, and featured 38 murals depicting these topics dispersed throughout Sanaa. Interestingly, the exhibition coincided with the National Dialogue Conference, from March 18, 2013, to January 24, 2014. While there was no comment from conference attendees, the Yemeni people have responded positively. Subay believes that the public’s response to the campaigns “is a sign of people’s longing for peace and life.”

On March 26, 2015, the first day of the Saudi-Emirati coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, the coalition targeted a residential neighborhood in Bani Hawat, destroying 14 houses, killing 25 civilians, including 6 children, and injuring 40 others, according to Amnesty International. This was the first attack targeting the capital Sanaa.

The site of this crime was the starting point for Subay’s third campaign, entitled “Ruins,” which began on May 18, 2015. The campaign focused on the areas destroyed by the warring parties by “drawing on walls of residential neighborhoods, houses, schools, tents of displaced people, living rooms, [and] drawing in cities and rural areas,” he explained.

Subay humanizes the victims of the war through his murals. In “Family,” he documented a war crime on the remnants of a bedroom wall at the site where a whole family was killed; the father and one of his children were the only survivors. On July 12, 2015, a coalition aircraft targeted a marginalized neighborhood in Sanaa, killing 23 civilians from one family, including women and 14 children under the age of 16, Human Rights Watch reported.

Subay offers “life testimonies in a country long ravaged by civil wars.” Although he has faced dangerous situations such as being arrested by the Houthis during his campaigns, he commented: “I was ignoring this in order to continue because reporting these violations may further strengthen the restrictions imposed by the conflicting parties, but what I hope for is the continuation of work and [art] campaigns.”

War has exacerbated the tragedy of Hodeidah, a city engulfed in the hardships of war, hunger, and disease. Here, Subay launched a campaign entitled “The Faces of War” on November 21, 2017. He said, “[T]he aim of this campaign is to draw the local and international communities’ attention  to this stricken city, where war has multiplied the suffering of its forgotten population.”

Subay has a strong belief that “the continuation of art and painting in Yemen is evidence of the people’s attachment to life, as well as an important outlet for freedoms, including freedom of opinion and expression.” He added, “The artworks carried out in Yemen during this stage included clear criticism of the political process of all parties and warnings from young people who are not affiliated with any party or political or ideological group.”

The  Umberto Veronesi Foundation awarded Subay the Art for Peace Award during the Sixth International Peace Conference in Milan on November 14, 2014.

Many artists, such as Thou Yazan Al Alawi, Saba Jallas, and Haifa Subay (Murad’s sister) have responded to Subay’s calls to action.

Haifa Subay worked on two separate campaigns. The first one on August 17, 2017, entitled #Silent_Victims”, focused mainly on women and children as a strong representation of civilians. The second one, a call for peace, entitled #Dove_Campaign,” began on August 9, 2018. Both campaigns are ongoing.

In the “Silent Victims” murals, Haifa wanted to share Yemen’s tragedies with the world. “I loved to show the world something that we miss and demand,” she said, referring to the suffering civilians as “silent victims of the war,” without means of expression, or political or religious power.

In her new campaign, “The Peace Dove,” Haifa endeavored to be simpler, clearer and more direct in her call for peace. “Participation in the campaign does not require drawing on the street, but using the hashtag, taking a picture with the drawing, and publishing it on social media.” It is also straightforward and easy to understand, taking into account the educational level of all social classes. The social media campaign is “not restricted by political orientation; its goal is purely humanitarian,” Haifa confirmed to Inside Arabia.

Haifa will launch another peaceful social media campaign as a continuation of The Peace Dove on September 20, 2018. It was originally supposed to be launched on the International Day of Peace on September 21, but that day “marks the Houthis’ entry to Sanaa and the crimes they committed there — that’s why it was moved ahead by one day,” said Haifa.

When Jallas, an artist living in Saudi Arabia at the time a coalition airstrike targeted Razzaq al-Sannani School, saw pictures of the aftermath, she found that they reminded her of the “scenes of Israeli shelling and destruction on the Gaza Strip.” She told Inside Arabia that the scenes of devastation that were broadcast throughout the country affected her so profoundly that she lost her zeal for life and felt frustrated and desperate for change.

Jallas started drawing as a form of therapy, and one of her most well-known works depicts a mother holding her child and wearing the Yemeni flag as a scarf. The mother is smiling to the world while the flag burns.  

She worked on 40 images in the “Smoke” group over the span of three years. In 2017, she returned to Yemen and became involved with humanitarian work. Today, she sells her artwork and uses the proceeds to support the most impoverished populations in Yemen. “My goal is to restore hope and promote tolerance and love because [the poor]  were targeted by the war, and people are very desperate,” she said.