Social & Community Special

National Yemen Sits Down with Artist Dr. Aminah Al-Nisiri

National Yemen

Aminah al-Nisiri

By Fakhri al-Arashi

National Yemen

NY: Could you please introduce yourself and explain what it is that you do to our readers?
My name is Dr. Aminah Al-Nisiri and my work deals with painting, art critiquing, writing, and teaching aesthetics. These days I’m now a fully dedicated academic and painter in the departments of philosophy and aesthetics at Sana’a University.

NY: Where can one find your paintings? In the local market and/or international exhibitions?

The crisis of any artist starts when they begin to think of how to market his work. I personally refuse to divert any artistic work with only the intention to sell it. The role of the artist is to produce the work, marketing it is a completely different issue. I do not bother with that [marketing] and I am very lucky where much of my work meets the satisfaction of the local market and people readily acquire it.

Once the artist thinks of the market, they will never create quality work. Many artists produce their work specifically for the market and they fail. Painting should cover all segments of life and should meet the demands of tourists, local interests, and documentary, such as paining Yemeni woman, jambias, buildings, as well as traditional art forms found in Yemen. The local artists are outside the interest of modern art. Art to me is like philosophy, a short story, poetry even, which all has a different type of audience.

NY: Do you mean that artists draw what people want or what they think they want?
Again, the artist should think outside the interests of people. This is largely because people run after common art and their selection is very common. The foreign tourist may be after philosophic details, and some others, look for documentary or photographic art. This is the barrel of gallery art. The artist should not draw what people want, but whatever the artist wants, even if people do not understand it.

NY: How do you gain inspiration for your ideas, paintings? What is the mechanism detail of painting something?
My gallery art is my artistic vision. It is me, my philosophy, emotions and feelings. My position can also take the form of an issues of politics, humanity and political issues from around the world. For me, all issues can be turned into art. Sometimes it is difficult as ideas can be complicated, but from my point of view, this isn’t always so.
Every painting has meaning to me. For example, if I draw for the revolution it to me means change, drawing a flag, represents to mean a decent life.

The value of artists is to be different than the common thinking. I often receive criticism as to why I don’t draw Yemen. My answer is that twenty years from now, Yemen will have different social values and it is important for social scientist to deal with this, not artists. The role of the artist is more philosophical and comprehensive.

NY: Since you do not believe in turning art into a business, how do you manage to secure your resources? Also, are you planning to establish a marketing company to promote your galleries?

Certainly, what has harmed art today is dealing with it as a product by connecting it to market needs. The galleries on display at art exhibitions identify the needs of the market, and then, most of them, curate their galleries to meet these demands of the market.  As a result, the exhibition is the one who identifies the nature of an artist and what they should do and how they should do it, it is not the artist who decides.
I believe that art should be free and far from any commercial matters, so the matter is to distinguish between art and business. Yes, I need a company to promote and manage my art and this is not available in Yemen. The Artists International has a managing director and he is the person in charge of the tiny details, making agreements with buyers, exhibition, and so forth.

We artists in Yemen, with sad regret, do this ourselves, otherwise how could I survive.
Maybe my name helped the fact that I am able to sell my portraits locally. I am a lucky person. People are buying my art, even if they do not understand the details of it, but there will be a day they understand it.
There is a lot of suffering by artists and there is limited government support. Despite all the activities and workshops organized, artists still are not looking for financial support. Looking for financial support for art is much hard than begging.

I promote my work internationally in both the Arab and international markets. Luckily, I enjoy a good reputation abroad.

NY: Where do find a better market for your work, locally, regionally, or internationally. What is your largest share in these markets?
I am proud and happy with my presence in Yemen, especially when I pass or enter small shops and see my work in them. It is even more warming that people such as shopkeepers, jewelers, hotel concierge as well as young boys in the street call me by my name. I am not an actress or anything like that, so this is a great achievement for an artist. Many Arab artists lack this phenomenon in their countries. I have a very good presence where ever I go.

NY: Do you think people in Yemen know you well because of your unique specialty and the absence of a female competitor?
Perhaps I am considered to be one of the pioneering artists in the country. Being involved in media and journalism helped substantially, people came to know me through my work on Yemen TV and writing in newspapers. There is something that I feel proud of: In the past people reject the ideas of enrolling their daughters to study gallery art. Now, many hear of artists who went such a route and that their work is respected widely.
The rate of my work does not go below or above my Arab counterparts at similar skill levels. Of course, the rate at which I can chart is ten times what I can receive at the local rate.

NY: How do you find the results of your business abroad?
There is a very good turnout compared to Yemen. For example, Yemenis do not buy paintings nor do their wives, the same for businessmen and their wives. So you’ll understand my surprise when I had an exhibition in Jordan and found out that most of my buyers of my paintings were business women or wives of businessmen — simply because they have an English and French background from times they lived abroad.

The problem of the elite, wealthy community in Yemen is that they are not aristocracy. Aristocracy meaning those who had fathers that studied at Harvard or Oxford instilling in them a cultured sense of things such as art. This does not exist in Yemen. The elite in Yemen today, their fathers or grandfathers were mere farmers, or if they were lucky, had government positions. These groups do not understand culture. Those who purchase paintings should understand its value. I feel pity when I visit the luxurious Yemeni houses, well furnished, but accompanied with very cheap portraits of Chinese landscapes. They don’t understand that this type of work castrates the beauty of their house.

NY: Do you get what you deserve from the government and community?
I never waited for the government or community at all. The level of social recognition I get is more than enough. Many middle class and even poor people attend my exhibition and this is a phenomenon in its own right. I never expected, nor will I ever get support from the government and any recognition from the new government will take a lot of time to be realized. When I participate in any international exhibitions, I pay my own way, and if the government helps, it is not even enough for the hotel charge for one day in any European country. The government does not support or finance culture activities and it should support more prizes and recognition for Yemen’s artists. The artist, painter, and other talented groups are still only recognized after their death.

NY: What was your involvement in the existing revolution or change in Yemen?
It is a revolution, and say it is such, even if I am not satisfied of its results. The painter usually dreams for the ideal revolution, but we in Yemen have reached a point where we could hold out no longer. If there was no revolution in any other Arab country, it would have started in Yemen. Yemenis simply could not bear the circumstances of its country any longer. After 50 years we still talk about paving roads and introducing electricity; nowhere else in the world is this still being discussed. When we could no longer form a civil state, the situation could not continue any longer.

Yemen, for the record, is not imitating Egypt, or Tunisia, which have dealt with problems of out of touch politicians. Yemen, however, faces a movement of hunger, corruption, deterioration, extremism and unemployment rates of up to 70% — this was reason enough for a revolution in our country. For these reasons, I stand by the revolution and the victory the people have achieved thus far.

NY: What did you offer, or how do you support the Arab Spring in Yemen?
I spoke the word of truth and offered moral support as I joined Change Square in Sana’a. I also drew for the revolution, but very little, because I don’t want to change my philosophy and morph my work into a form of political messaging. Instead, I focused on drawing birds which serve as symbols to the revolution and its ideals of freedom and emancipation.

For artists, the revolution is never over. An artist will always carry a rebellious streak against injustice, extremism and other ideals that define the political and social lives of humans.

NY: Are there any individuals who have influenced your work?
As an artist and painter, I have been most influenced by my Mom. She helped guide me along my first steps towards my current gallery art. My Mom, interestingly, is a from a hard tribal area in Rada’a. Given this environment, she knew how to draw, taught herself how to read and write from whatever materials she could find available. She sadly passed away two years ago, and her last paintings were made during that period as well.  She also wrote poetry, and it was through such means, that she taught me the freedom of balance, respect of other’s freedom, and the power of optimism. It is amazing she became who she was when the period that defined her time was anything but the pursuit of artistic endeavors.
Also, my education has made a tremendous impact on me. I studied philosophy at Sana’a University. During this period, I traveled to Russia to continue my studies. Art, I felt, gave me the freedom while philosophy to become an artist. I hope that I have made an impact on the new generation and helped them start.

NY: Do you see everything around you through the eyes of a painter?
Yes, I do not deny that live my life from the perspective of an artists. I am not realistic at all. Even politics, I see it from the point of view as an artists. I was once offered a political position but I rejected it as people do not need a point of view from an artist.

NY: If they offer you to become Minister of Culture, would you accept it and why?
No. Simply because I am not good a politics as I’m not versed in diplomacy and want to say whatever I want, whenever I want.

NY: Is there anything else you’d like to add as we’re at the end of our conversation?
No, just that I hope tomorrow will be more beautiful than today.