As a child, Abeer al-Hadrami delighted in playing with paper cutouts and recycling old materials. When art emerged as her favourite school subject, her family supported her choice to pursue it as a profession. She graduated from the University of Hadhramaut in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, a focus many in her midst regard as an intellectual luxury without financial prospects. But she’s not the only artist in her family; her brother plays the oud.
Al-Hadrami launched her career by marketing her works on social media. She was soon commissioned to paint murals at schools and sculpt works in plaster for an interior design office. She also served as an assistant professor at the University of Aden for two years.
Ever since her early days as a student, she had longed to open a studio in Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramaut Governorate.
“I often wondered why there was no entity that could bring painters together under one roof,” she said.
Her search took her to a private art institute in Mukalla that had closed in 1994. She envisioned re-opening the Mohammed Juma Khan Institute of Fine Arts, but the complexity of bureaucratic hurdles proved too great an obstacle. So in November 2020, she opened her own studio, Art Zone, in a district whose name translates as “the red cave.” At 30, she holds fast to her belief in art as an agent of social change, providing a safe space where artists can work in a spirit of mutual support.
Art as a Signature of Coexistence
“Art and culture are the faces of a stable and civil society,” said al-Hadrami. “I have many initiatives in progress revolving around history, culture, and civilised identity.”
Al-Hadrami opens her studio space to artists on a weekly basis. To meet expenses, she offers art fairs as well as courses to both youth and adults. She has staged five exhibitions so far.
One of them, Fann wa Bunn, or “Art and Coffee,” was conceived during a workshop for a group of young painters who used coffee grounds and water on canvas as the sole medium. The resulting aroma in the studio provided added inspiration.
Art and culture are the faces of a stable and civil society.”
The last two centuries’ of influence of both the Qu’aiti sultanate and British colonisation have contributed to Hadhramaut’s position as a vortex of African, Asian and European cultures. Al-Hadrami seeks to use these mixed influences as a creative springboard in her work, highlighting heritage and folklore symbols as motifs in her paintings and exhibitions.
Casting Yemen’s history in a new light, she employs a wide range of watercolours to portray cultural and ethnic diversity as it thrived in the past. In one example, she points to the symbolism of the crescent in women’s silver jewellery. “The crescent with a red lobe refers to Jewish women,” she said, “while the crescent with a green lobe represents Muslim women.”
Al-Hadrami’s work has been featured at exhibitions in Italy, Cairo and Kuala Lumpur. She hopes to advance her art studies as well as her presence in international art shows.
Despite daunting obstacles – Yemen’s war, crippled economy, and the efforts of extremist worldviews to obliterate art, which it considers taboo, al-Hadrami perseveres. “Art refines souls,” she said, “and societies that are open to culture and art can coexist in peace.”
Empowering Women to Paint a Brighter Future
In another part of Mukalla, Alawiya al-Aidarous, 40, looks back on a quiet childhood in Saudi Arabia. “I always preferred to express my feelings through watercolours,” she said.
There’s a high level of creative energy here.”
Born in Yemen, she grew up in Mecca and Jeddah. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Quranic sciences from Azad University in Beirut in 2013. Later studies concluded with a second degree in media, journalism and television at Saudi Arabia’s Open University of Science and Technology five years later.
While living in Dammam for about 20 years, al-Aidarous had her work shown in numerous exhibitions, winning first place in an art competition. Following advice to pursue art as an academic study made a decisive difference in her career. She took introductory drawing courses and was mentored by the Saudi plastic artist Zahra al-Amir.
She describes her art as realist, but she also enjoys creating abstract works, using a range of materials: charcoal, acrylic, oil, pastel, and aquarelle on canvas, wood, glass, stones or even shells.
“I like to sail through the sea of art,” she said, “using all the simple materials I can find.”
Because of her status as a non-Saudi, she was restricted to group shows, which she said made it easier to participate in exhibitions. When her paintings were sold, the proceeds went to charity projects.
“I am certainly happy about that,” she said, “but the situation changed after I moved back to Yemen.” Turning her hobby into a profession enabled her to participate in more exhibitions at home and abroad, which led to more sales of her paintings.
Although al-Aidarous had obtained Saudi citizenship, she grew distressed at the mistreatment of Yemenis in the kingdom, many of whom were subject to expulsion. She decided to return to Yemen with her Saudi husband and children in late 2017. Since then, she’s made a name for herself in Mukalla’s local art scene, grateful to be back in Yemen after almost forty years’ absence.
“At a time when the worst things were happening in Arabia Felix,” she said, “I was still able to make my way despite all the obstacles.”
In early 2020, al-Aidarous opened her own studio and an atelier to produce handicrafts and gold jewellery designs in partnership with her husband.
As her work spread through the local market, her name has attracted a number of women economic empowerment groups that have asked al-Aidarous to train girls and women in crafts and design, an initiative she welcomes.
Moved by a sense of social responsibility, she has trained many women in workshops and courses, including painting on fabrics and leather, which led to the opening of a local factory for manufacturing leather bags.
Societies that are open to culture and art can coexist in peace.”
Despite some efforts by the Ministry of Culture to support artists and intellectuals in a country beset by turmoil, al-Aidarous and al-Hadrami are among those who lament the ministry’s absence from the art scene.
“There’s a high level of creative energy here,” al-Aidarous said. “Unfortunately, it gets no support from government institutions.”
Still, she’s keen to expand her studio and atelier to an industrial scale. The potential she sees for art to flourish in Yemen gives her boundless optimism.
“It will have the brightest future,” she said.