The street artist exposing world's 'dirty legacy' in Yemen

The street artist exposing world's 'dirty legacy' in Yemen
Murad Subay, recent winner of the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award, scrawls messages of hope as he carves out his own place in Yemen's war-ravaged neighbourhoods.
6 min read
18 April, 2016
Subay has launched five campaigns to promote peace through art [Sean Gallagher/IndexOnCensorship]

In March 2015, civil war broke out in Yemen between forces loyal to under-fire president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and factions allied to Zaida Shia rebels known as Houthis.

Saudi-led blockades and airstikes, backed by western governments, have killed thousands in the devastated nation.

But it was before this, in the Arab Spring of 2011, that Murad Subay, armed only with paint and brushes, entered the fray. He does not hold out much hope for the latest round of peace talks that were set to begin in Kuwait on Monday, but he will not stop painting for peace.

Subay has been frantically covering Yemen's crumbling walls with messages of hope and protest for the past five years.

But despite the sheer volume of murals he has created, the process is more important than the final product for this 28-year-old street artist.

"I want to engage the people with my art," he says. "I want them to participate."

The support he has received from the Yemeni people in his resistance to enforced disappearances, drone strikes and the continuing civil war, among other issues, is what keeps him going, he says.

Subay has launched a series of five campaigns to promote peace through art. But they have not been just been his own work. The artist is keen to acknowledge his expanding team of painters, including friends, family and, importantly, passers-by.

Read more: Yemeni artist and Syrian journalist recognised at freedom awards

In 2011, Subay set out alone with his paints to embark on his first campaign: Colour The Walls of Your Street. Within a week people were flooding to see him work, and to take part.

He smiles and scratches his unruly mop of curls as he speaks to The New Arab. "I met my wife the first time that people came to paint with me. It was love at first sight."

The world's 'dirty legacy' in Yemen

Unlike Banksy and his imitators in the street art world, Subay does not hide his identity - quite the opposite. He paints his murals in the light of day, and beckons people over to have a go themselves. His energetic enthusiasm is magnetic, if slightly chaotic.

The artist's approach was no different in Hoxton, East London, where, last week, he stenciled his first mural outside Yemen. By the end, it was not just Subay with paint on his hands - although he was the only one with paint in his hair. Half a dozen helpers, including Hackney street artist Stik, had joined in.

Subay painted his first mural outside Yemen
in Hoxton, East London [Sean Gallagher/IndexOnCensorship]

The final piece is a critique of what he calls the international community's "dirty legacy" in Yemen.

Foreign countries' unofficial involvement in the war is no secret: the Saudi-backed coalition is being armed and trained by Western governments, most notably the US, the UK and France.

The British government alone has licensed £6.7 billion ($9.49 billion) of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, an estimated £2.8 billion ($3.97 billion) of which have been used in airstrikes in Yemen since March 2015.

"Yemenis will not forget this," Subay warns.

Since Yemen's civil war began, nearly 7,000 people have been killed, including more than 3,200 civilians; 3.6 million young people are without schools; and blockades by the Saudi-led government have left more than half of Yemenis facing hunger.

The conflict - if reported at all - has largely been portrayed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the Saudis backing government forces loyal to President Hadi and Iran claimed to be supporting the Houthi rebels.

But this dichotomy is too simple a description, according to Chatham House's Yemen expert Peter Salisbury.

In a research paper, the analyst argues that the main drivers in Yemen's conflict are complex local disputes, exacerbated by external players.

This is an analysis with which Subay agrees.

"There are not only two sides to this conflict, there are many," he says - Salafists, Houthists and Harakists to name just a few. But the artist's work does not support any of them.

"I'm against every side in this war," he says, firmly.

Subay has even refused offers from the United Nations to pay for art supplies, in order to protect his independence.

'No hope' for peace talks

Yemen's latest shaky ceasefire, which began on April 10, has been marred by continuing violence. And the artist remains sceptical over the peace talks, which had been scheduled to begin in Kuwait on 18 April.

Read more: Peace delayed in Yemen as Houthis fail to show for talks

The negotiations will focus on the withdrawal of militias, the handover of heavy weapons and resumption of an inclusive political dialogue.

"I do not have much hope for the talks," says Subay. "And nor do other Yemenis. They know the real circumstances on the ground."

Subay's London mural shows the international community
watching Yemen's despair
[Sean Gallagher/IndexOnCensorship]

But the artist's acknowledgement of Yemen's desperate - some say hopeless - situation has not discouraged him from continuing to speak out.

His latest campaign, Ruins, commemorates the thousands of lives lost in the conflict, exposing war crimes in paintings on the broken walls of bombed-out buildings.

Another campaign, The Walls Remember Their Faces, saw the artist paint portraits of Yemeni citizens "disappeared" by the government. Among them were the faces of activists, journalists and politicians kidnapped or killed by the regime of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"They were very humble works," he says. "But they really mean something to the people."

Families would bring pictures of disappeared relatives for Subay and his friends to paint - and for seven months they did not let up, stencilling more than 100 faces.

On the back of the campaign, the United Nations pressured the Yemeni government to sign a convention against enforced disappearance. The government has so far refused.

The disappearances, which have been happening since the 1960s, are a delicate issue in Yemen - one that is still shrouded in secrecy. Sometimes the artist would return to his murals to find them scrubbed out. But his response was simply to do more - dozens of duplicates.

"We saw it as a challenge," he says.

'Yemen needs art'

The artist's rebelliousness stretches back to his childhood. Subay went to nine different schools and was suspended from several for getting into fights - fights he usually lost.

"I dislocated my shoulder seven times," he grins.

In January this year, his oldest brother Nabil, a satirical journalist, was shot in both legs by unidentified gunmen - a chilling reminder of the dangers Subay himself faces.

But he refuses to be silenced.

"Art cannot end our war," he says. "But Yemen needs art. It helps us ease the agony of war."

Subay won an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award last week in the arts category - for artists and arts producers whose work challenges repression and injustice and celebrates artistic free expression. Also nominated was comedian Sakdiyah Ma'ruf - read our profile of her.

Follow Fred Searle on Twitter: @fsearle91