The Murals of Yemen’s Haifa Subay

14 May, 2021
“War is point­less; it has tar­get­ed every­thing in Yemen; there’s noth­ing left,” says Haifa Sub­ay (pho­to Mohamed El Sayaghi, Reuters).

Farah Abdessamad

Haifa Sub­ay is a Yemeni artist, born in 1992. Liv­ing in Yemen, she expos­es the human face and cost of her coun­try at war through evoca­tive, social­ly-con­scious graf­fi­ti art and street murals. Haifa was behind the cam­paign #Silent_Victims which high­light­ed the every­day suf­fer­ing of the Yemeni peo­ple. In March 2021, Yemen entered its sixth year of armed con­flict. Over two-thirds of Yeme­nis still require urgent human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance. This inter­view took place in April 2021.

Farah Abdessamad: When did you start paint­ing murals? Was this a new form for you, or did you already paint or cre­ate in some oth­er ways?

Haifa Sub­ay: I start­ed paint­ing murals in 2012. It was the first time then for me to paint murals in the streets, but I’ve been draw­ing since I was five years old, and like any oth­er child it was a hob­by at first. I start­ed paint­ing with my broth­er [Murad Sub­ay] and we kept our own, sep­a­rate styles. In 2012, my broth­er launched two cam­paigns in which I par­tic­i­pat­ed, “Col­or the Walls of your Street” and “The Walls Remem­ber Their Faces” which denounced forcible dis­ap­pear­ances. We need­ed col­or, a lot of col­or in our lives, it was a dif­fi­cult time. In 2015, I thought about launch­ing my own cam­paign but I could­n’t do so until August 2017. This was “Silent Vic­tims,” my first cam­paign. It was my start­ing point in graf­fi­ti and it touched on many impor­tant issues. I had hoped for the cam­paign to con­tin­ue over a longer peri­od of time but when the Houthis tight­ened their con­trol over Sana’a and under their pres­sure I had to stop “Silent Vic­tims” and street art in the cap­i­tal city. I then moved to Aden. I’m stay­ing tem­porar­i­ly in Sana’a right now. I would want to draw but I can’t paint out­side. Instead, I may paint in my house!

FA: I was curi­ous to know how you relate to the her­itage of Yemen. Does it feel close or some­what dis­tant? Think­ing of a for­eign audi­ence, many out­siders acknowl­edge Yemen as a coun­try of rich tra­di­tion and cul­ture — the Old City in Sana’a, hand­i­craft, poet­ry and folk music for instance, to name a few. Of course, it’s a cliché, too; Yemen is much more than that! But it’s an image which also brings pride and maybe hope to peo­ple. Would you see graf­fi­ti art or mur­al paint­ing as a sub-cul­ture, a counter-cul­ture, or an art form more for younger peo­ple?  

Haifa Sub­ay: Yes! I feel so close to the her­itage of Yemen. I real­ly adore our his­to­ry and tra­di­tions. Graf­fi­ti art is quite new to Yemen and it came as a reflec­tion of the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in 2012, after the 2011 Rev­o­lu­tion [an unprece­dent­ed youth-led upris­ing which saw the top­pling of Ali Abdal­lah Saleh after more than thir­ty years of pow­er]. Though it is dif­fer­ent, graf­fi­ti art dis­cuss­es the life we live in Yemen, the chal­lenges we over­come and the war we sur­vive. Graf­fi­ti is not exclu­sive to young peo­ple but it’s young peo­ple who per­form art in the street. More estab­lished artists tend to pre­fer gal­leries rather than the streets (I think, only my opin­ion!). Actu­al­ly, it’s rare now to find any­one paint­ing in the streets due to the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion, espe­cial­ly in Sana’a and the north of the country. 

FA: The choice of reclaim­ing male-dom­i­nant streets is quite a pow­er­ful one. Often in Yemen but also in oth­er places deal­ing with the weight of the past, streets are a place of memo­ri­al­iza­tion for trau­mat­ic events. Streets com­mem­o­rate peo­ple and events through por­traits of shahids for exam­ple, the pre­dom­i­nant­ly male mar­tyrs who died at war (and these days, plur­al, wars). Many of us from the region remem­ber the women of Sana’a who went out and joined the rev­o­lu­tion of 2011 and we haven’t seen them as much in recent years since they have most­ly been silenced. In 2014, slo­gans of the Houthi move­ment (“God is great, Death to Amer­i­ca, Death to Israel, Curse to the Jews”) appeared in neigh­bor­hoods around city land­marks in Sana’a, in sten­cil form and large ban­ners. I know you’ve had dif­fi­cult encoun­ters with Houthi author­i­ties and you even­tu­al­ly moved from Sana’a to Aden for safe­ty rea­sons. How have res­i­dents been sup­port­ive of your work over time, and why was it impor­tant to you to make pub­lic art, that local Yeme­nis could inter­act with in their dai­ly life?

Haifa Sub­ay: The atti­tude of peo­ple in Sana’a and in the north in gen­er­al has changed over time, as has their per­cep­tion of graf­fi­ti art. They used to encour­age me so much — though some used to harass me, too. These days, every­one is afraid of the Houthis and I hear a lot of crit­i­cism against painters and artists. “Poor peo­ple need the mon­ey you spend on buy­ing paint­ing mate­r­i­al!” It’s eas­i­er in the South where one can find walls to paint on and author­i­ties won’t stop artists like in Sana’a. 

FA: How do you feel the war impact­ed your art? When you think about peace, what does it look like?

Haifa Sub­ay: The war affect­ed my art a lot. It made me paint the human­i­tar­i­an cat­a­stro­phe and the tragedy Yeme­nis live with. This war impact­ed every­one! I see the peace when the sounds of guns turn qui­et, when I won’t hear airstrikes and mis­siles being dropped. I see peace in the smile of civil­ians — with­out the fear of an impend­ing explo­sion near them. I see it in the laugh­ter of chil­dren, in the inner peace and psy­cho­log­i­cal calm which I have not expe­ri­enced for a long time. I see it in talk­ing about the beau­ti­ful things we have in Yemen and the end of news relat­ed to death. Yemen is stun­ning but the media only focus­es on the dark side. If the war would­n’t have hap­pened, I would draw the same pieces because the issues I am inter­est­ed in pre-date the war, they are not new. The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion only made them worse. It’s hard­er for us to live at this time, before the sit­u­a­tion was­n’t as bad. The media was­n’t talk­ing about issues like the war.

FA: Let’s talk a bit about some of your work. You paint­ed a mur­al when you were preg­nant with the words “we will sur­vive” next to it. Who is “we” and has your rela­tion to art changed when you became a mother?

Haifa Sub­ay: We is “Me and my lit­tle girl child”, this is “we.” This mur­al was cre­at­ed for every preg­nant woman and for all moth­ers. Since becom­ing a moth­er, I’ve become more care­ful, espe­cial­ly about the choic­es and deci­sions I take. Moth­er­hood will def­i­nite­ly have a pos­i­tive effect on the art that I pro­duce. I’m con­tin­u­ous­ly inspired by the Yemeni peo­ple, our his­to­ry and my lit­tle daughter.

FA: Are you still with a col­lec­tive or work­ing main­ly as an indi­vid­ual artist now? Are you receiv­ing any exter­nal support?

Haifa Sub­ay is a moth­er and an advo­cate for peace in Yemen.

Haifa Sub­ay: I still work as an indi­vid­ual artist. I don’t exclude the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cre­at­ing a team. My hus­band sup­ports me (he’s a great man, real­ly) and I pay for my paint­ing mate­ri­als from sell­ing art. I lost my pri­vate com­pa­ny job in 2016 and it’s hard to find jobs in the pri­vate sec­tor, inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions or NGOs if you don’t have some­one to help you. I don’t accept sup­port from any exter­nal par­ty, whether in-kind or finan­cial, because I don’t want any­one to claim that they sup­port me — I’ve refused this before. Oth­er artists I know hold on to their non-cre­ative jobs when they have one to make ends meet, or some­times they have to depre­ci­ate their art just to be able to sell it quick­ly.  

FA: Your “War and Humans” exhi­bi­tion was show­cased in the Sin­ga­pore Bien­nale in 2019 (and short­list­ed for the 12th Benesse Prize). What are some of your cur­rent and upcom­ing projects?

Haifa Sub­ay: I’m work­ing on my new cam­paign “Women and War”. I’m plan­ning to paint more about issues relat­ed to women. This cam­paign will focus on women in the time of war. I want to por­tray women not only as vic­tims but also show the oth­er side, the bright side — peace, hope, hap­pi­ness — which gives the pos­i­tive ener­gy we need to car­ry on liv­ing in these hard times.


You can fol­low Haifa Sub­ay’s work on Face­book, Insta­gram and Twit­ter


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