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.”
“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.
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.
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. Tasleem’s 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.
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.