Yemeni Coffee: The New Art Of Ibi Ibrahim

National Yemen

By Tamjid Alkohali

From January 15 to February 7, 2015, the JAMM Art Gallery is showcasing Light, Leaves and Yemeni Coffee, a solo exhibition by Yemeni-American photographer Ibi Ibrahim. The show features works created during a residency at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and includes photographs of objects and sights that caught his attention on the streets of Paris, as well as a series of abstract paintings made by Yemeni coffee.

In his exhibition, Ibrahim displays his interest in the texture of fabrics, and took several photographs of different fabrics in his studio. His beautifully composed street photographs and his hazy, ethereal studio images of the delicate fabrics have a meditative quality, reflecting the artist’s own state of mind.

Ibrahim is known for focusing on gender issues and the status of women in Muslim societies, particularly in Yemen. But his latest exhibition, “Light, Leaves and Yemeni Coffee”, marks a turning point in this emerging artist’s career.

Ibrahim said to National Yemen, “I am interested in the idea of evolving into a new body of work and I felt that being an artist resident at Cite des Arts was a great opportunity to make this shift. The paintings came as a surprise due to the time I spent visiting museums, galleries and art institutions while in Paris. The exhibition includes paintings made of Yemeni coffee and the other part consists of 14 abstract photographs.”

Ibrahim’s series of abstract paintings with a mixture of milk, water and Yemeni coffee express his anger and sadness about the decline in production and export of Yemeni coffee, and the replacement of those revenues by narcotics and war.

“The paintings comment on the decline of production and exportation of Yemeni coffee. Yemen is the home where coffee was once discovered and it is quite a shame to see where Yemeni coffee is today. Yemen is one of the lowest countries in producing and exporting coffee. The average Yemeni citizen should ask the government: Why is this happening? We can help our economy so much by focusing on our coffee, yet our attention is going elsewhere,” he stated.

Before his paintings of Yemeni coffee, Ibrahim spent a long time researching about Yemeni coffee. “Part of making the work was learning about the history of coffee. I learnt that coffee had been discovered in Yemen in the 15th century, and that the Mocha coffee bean got its name from the city of Mocha in Yemen, from where the Dutch and French exported it. Then, I went through a research phase to learn about the history of coffeehouses. I was pleased and surprised to learn that coffeehouses were first introduced by the people of Yemen to encourage the consuming of the coffee,” he added.

From Ibrahim’s view, there are many positive things in the history of Yemeni coffee that seem to remain shining through the current negativity. “Today’s coffee experts still find Yemeni coffee to be the most unique and rich coffee in the world due to the way the seed is planted. It receives a unique amount of sun and water, which causes the taste to be rather strong. It’s a shame our government can’t take advantage of such a product in order to help improve the nation’s economy,” he said.

Ibrahim lived in Yemen most of his life, but he left it in the summer of 2014 to study French where he then started his art residency. Like other artists, Ibrahim takes advantage of ancient history and culture. However, he embodies Yemeni culture in his artworks in a unique and distinctive way.

“I am often inspired by traditions and historical facts, in particular those that created an impact on those people closest to me. Yemen is certainly a country with so much history and as an artist I feel lucky to have a connection with this country and I am very inspired by what continues to happen until today.”

Unfortunately, right now Ibrahim is practicing his talent far away from his homeland as a result of the political conflicts that led to the deteriorating  situation of the country.

“I live in Yemen. I always lived in Yemen. I am now doing art residencies in France and Germany because I can’t work in Yemen and there are no art programs there. Once I finish, I will return to Yemen. I exhibited my work in Yemen in the past and I am always happy to exhibit it once again. I hope the security situation gets better soon in order for any person to be able to attend art and cultural events,” he explained.

Often, Ibrahim’s work explores issues of sexuality and identity in Muslim conservative societies, which makes him face some criticism from Yemeni society.

he said, “I always think much of the Yemeni community is not used to seeing an artist tackle sexual issues in Yemen. Someone had to do it- I did it between 2010 and now I am focusing on other explorations at the moments. Being in Europe, and undertaking those residencies is making me curious to explore and work on other projects.”

Ibi Ibrahim was born in 1987. He is a photographer, filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist from Sana’a, Yemen. He spent most of his life moving between Arab and European countries. His work has been exhibited in North America, Europe and the Middle East and is included in a number of prominent private collections including the Barjeel Art Foundation. Ibrahim is currently a resident at Glogau AIR in Berlin.