Fleeing oppression, Yemen—born Tasleem Mulhall Finds Herself in Art & Feminism

6 September, 2018

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Yemen is where Lon­don-based artist and activist Tasleem Mul­hall spent the first 15 years of her life and her roots remain firm­ly plant­ed there. As she avows, “The cul­ture and tra­di­tions of the coun­try are always with me, and a lot of my art is inspired by my back­ground. They reveal what it is like to be a Yemeni woman.”

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Jordan Elgrably

“The war there,” Mul­hall says, “has had a large effect on me. A recent work of mine, called Human Garbage, was inspired by it. No one should be ‘human garbage’ but with the air strikes there it has become the norm to see things like a dead baby in the street…I feel help­less to do any­thing about the war so what I can con­tribute is my art.”

When Tasleem Mull­hall ran away from home as a teenag­er to escape a forced mar­riage, she nev­er dreamed that sheʼd end up as a respect­ed cam­paign­er for womenʼs rights and a very vocal and forth­right speak­er against forced mar­riages and child mar­riage as well. “I remem­ber being treat­ed as the gold­en goose by my family—someone who could be sold into mar­riage in exchange for a dowry. [When my fam­i­ly came to Britain], I was beat­en in an attempt for me to sub­mit to a forced mar­riage, and I tried to take my life a num­ber of times to escape such a prospect. In the end I ran away from home, and slept in a park, before being tak­en into a hos­tel, where I had to live along­side drug addicts and prostitutes.”

The artist/activist has been cut off from her par­ents and sib­lings for years, and has received death threats for her out­spo­ken art and words that address the taboo sub­jects of forced child mar­riage and female gen­i­tal mutilation.

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Although she’s prob­a­bly best known as an inter­na­tion­al­ly exhib­it­ed artist, most of her work has a com­mon thread run­ning through it, which might explain why she has become increas­ing­ly in demand in the polit­i­cal are­na as a womenʼs rights campaigner.

Images of these issues are a reg­u­lar theme in her work and reveal why she is such a pas­sion­ate speak­er on the sub­ject court­ed by numer­ous char­i­ta­ble insti­tu­tions includ­ing the British non­prof­it, Free­dom Char­i­ty. Indeed, Tasleem is an ambas­sador for the orga­ni­za­tion on forced mar­riage, as well as a spokesper­son on child mar­riage for The Inde­pen­dent Yemen Group.

As a speak­er, Tasleem Mul­hall has spo­ken on Female Gen­i­tal Muti­la­tion (FGM) at the Inter­na­tion­al Women for Women and EBRD Con­fer­ence last year and for the Safe Hands Foun­da­tion at the Octo­ber Gallery. Her pre­sen­ta­tion so impressed the orga­niz­ers when she spoke at the Ear­ly Child Mar­riage Con­fer­ence held at the Col­lege of West­min­ster, they asked her to include her speech as a tran­script to sub­mit to the Niger­ian High Com­mis­sion­er in Lon­don, which was then pre­sent­ed to the Niger­ian Hous­es of Par­lia­ment in Nige­ria for their Bill to change the child mar­riage law. She has addressed MPs in the Hous­es of Par­lia­ment on many occa­sions, notably for a Unit­ed Nations Human Rights Con­fer­ence and for the Unit­ed Peace Fed­er­a­tion and The Uni­ty of Faiths Con­fer­ence. Tasleem Mul­hall was invit­ed by the START Foun­da­tion to take a work­shop to an orphan­age in Amman in Jor­dan, where she taught abused chil­dren and refugees to use the medi­um of art as a means to more freely express themselves.

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Although rep­re­sent­ed by Saatchi Art in Lon­don, Mul­hall describes her­self as “a self-taught artist, so I dont real­ly have a defin­i­tive style. I did­n’t go to art college—in fact I did­n’t even fin­ish school or col­lege at all, either in Yemen or in the UK.” She goes on, “My work is my reac­tion to expe­ri­ences I have gone through—it’s like a diary. What­ev­er affects me emo­tion­al­ly, I cre­ate art about it, and this helps me express how I feel.

“I show my vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty through my art and my work is very per­son­al to me. I want to make peo­ple aware of the lives of women in places like Yemen. Girls there are told, ‘Your job is to be a wife and moth­er and you should not try to do any­thing else.’ I have bro­ken with that tra­di­tion and I want oth­er women to see that they can do it too.”

Mul­hall added, “In Yemen there are no role mod­els for women but I want them to see that there are alter­na­tives to the lives they have been told to live. My vision is to inspire oth­er women. I want them to have hope about their futures, I want them to see beau­ty and I want them to expe­ri­ence freedom.”

“But now with the war in Yemen, there isn’t even school.” 

The artist lives in Lon­don and works out of Redlees Stu­dio where she show­cas­es much of her work, from pho­tog­ra­phy, oil paint­ings, and var­i­ous sculp­tures from small clay mod­els to giant met­al stat­ues. She is also high­ly pro­fi­cient in per­for­mance art and believes this is anoth­er lib­er­at­ing means for artists to express them­selves. She is the first British Yemeni female artist to be exhib­it­ed abroad and in many dif­fer­ent medi­ums. Tasleem also works as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist as her work often touch­es upon how women are depict­ed and treat­ed in Ara­bic cul­ture while still acknowl­edg­ing that women are sex­u­al beings.

Many may think that such polit­i­cal polemics should have no place in art, but her work express­es the world as she has expe­ri­enced it. Tasleems art may be con­tro­ver­sial but it has not stopped her being active with­in Yemeni orga­ni­za­tions in Britain and with the Yemeni ambas­sadorʼs office in Lon­don. While there are aspects of Yemeni cul­ture that she objects to, such as much of the treat­ment of women, she is still proud of her heritage. 

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Tasleem Mul­hall is cur­rent­ly at work on a mem­oir with jour­nal­ist Dominic Con­nol­ly. Her work has been fea­tured in group exhi­bi­tions in Lon­don at the Roy­al Opera Arcade Gallery and La Gal­le­ria Pall Mall.