Painting: An art of challenge

National Yemen

Zaki Al-Yafi

Interview by Jihan Anwer

I think the media has a critical role in spreading awareness of art; it gives the artist a chance to be connected to a broader public and therefore have an increased chance of bringing his art to the people.

Unfortunately, at the present moment there are not many people in Yemen who have the knowledge and education that would enable them to appreciate art. Usually it’s foreign people who are amazed and intrigued by a painting, the use of colors and so forth.

NY: What is your favorite painting among your works and why?

ZY: There is a painting that is particularly dear to my heart. It’s the image of a person under the column of the great mosque. This mosque gives you a high spiritual charge. The painting appears at first sight very simple, mundane. It portrays an old man reading the Qura’an, but there is a high level of spirituality, such a profound concentration coming from the man that it inevitably captures your attention. I took a picture of the man in that moment and when working at the painting, I manually wrote Quranic verses, paying great attention to the details. Since the first time I exhibited it, it was sold, and Subhanallah, I think God has put blessings on this painting as I was commissioned to paint it about 70 times. In each, I slightly altered the man’s posture and had him read a different page.

NY: Is there a painter who has influenced your painting in some way?

ZY: I am a self-taught artist and I’ve always strived to develop my talent in different ways. I wouldn’t say there was any particular artist who has influenced my style of painting, but there are some painters whom I highly respect. As far as contemporary artists go, Adnan Jumman is one of those whom I admire, both for his talent and his amiable character.

I used to challenge myself by painting famous paintings, and of course it’s a great exercise to perfect one’s technique and compare oneself to those masters. However, my intent wasn’t to give a perfect reproduction of the picture; I was more interested in conveying the same artistic power but in my own style, for different themes and subjects.

The environment surrounding the artist is often reflected in his art and intrinsically influences him. Identity – I felt it was important to present Yemeni identity. When you draw a man without traditional clothes or in an environment which is not typically Yemeni, it’s as though you’ve stripped him of his identity.

NY: Is there a particular message that you wish to convey through your painting?

ZY: I deeply enjoy every painting; the more I’m in sync with the painting, the more satisfactory is the final result.

I love the older generations. I feel nostalgic about the old types of houses, the old, almost disappearing jobs, the past styles of dress, the old poetry and music. I’m a fan of Feyrouz, Um Kalthum, Abdul-Wahhab. Feirouz, is my qahwa (‘coffee’). I use her music as a way to wake up in the morning. Listening to music while performing mundane tasks is very different from listening to it while painting. When I paint, I can feel every note, every change in rhythm; it’s a totally different experience.

People of the previous generation, they were more simple but had strong personalities – they were men who kept their word. Most of my paintings have this message: they portray my nostalgia for that period of time that is no more, but which still has traces in our society.

NY: Why do you paint?

ZY: Painting, art…it’s what enables me to live. Painting and living are different faces of the same coin for me.

It may happen that I stop painting for one or two weeks. My mood undergoes a visible change at such times. I feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I’m not able to talk to anyone, not even to my little daughter. When I paint, it’s as if life and spirit return to me and I find myself lively and full of energy. I pass by a freshly-completed painting and, in a sense, I salute it.

I feel that the days in which I paint are the days in which I truly live. There’s a saying that summarizes my thoughts well: “Life is not counted according to the days of your life, but by the happy moments one has lived.”

My happiest moment is when I finally sign the picture. Once I sign it, there is no turning back; it means I will not alter it no matter what, even if there are imperfections in it. This is one of the rules which I have. There is no such thing as perfection in human works, and if I realize that there was something I could have done better, I will try to develop it in the next painting.

I recognize that every painting represents a stage; it tells a tale of my skills and strengths. When looking back at them when I’m sixty, for example, I will be reminded of that period of my life, of the techniques and abilities I had at that moment. I will read my youth in the drawing.

As I said, the aim of the artist is to transmit the beauty he sees… It’s almost a need. The reason why I paint is, quite simply, to live.

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