Why you should care
Art can appear in the unlikeliest of places, and express what many people think and feel.
The streets of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, bear the scars of jihadist attacks and sectarian clashes that have engulfed the country since 2011. Yet among bullet holes and crumbling facades appear colorful murals with messages of hope and calls for civic action.
Behind them is Murad Subay, a 27-year-old painter. His poignant and often ironic murals have become part of the city’s landscape and have earned him the nickname of “Yemen’s Banksy,” after the famed U.K. street artist.
Unlike Banksy however, Subay’s images are collective projects. By inviting others to join, he’s managed to create over 2,000 murals in just two and a half years.
“My campaigns would not be anything without other people,” he tells OZY.
Even soldiers put their weapons down and took brushes instead.
— Murad Subay
The artist’s public image is also a far cry from Banksy’s. Unlike the mysterious British painter, Subay works in broad daylight, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, sporting small glasses and curly long hair. And the government has yet to take measures to stop him.
His timid demeanor vanishes when he talks about politics. “Yemen used to be a great civilization and now is at the worst point in its history,” he says.
Yemen, with a population of 24 million, sits strategically at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where a strong Al Qaeda presence has drawn repeated drone strikes from the United States.
In 2011, Subay took to the streets of Sana’a to protest the country’s dysfunctional economy and institutionalized corruption. Demonstrations escalated into a violent uprising that pushed Yemen to the brink of a civil war and forced the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in favor of his prime minister, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
“I thought, ‘Going to the street to throw stones is not enough, we won’t change anything. So what can I do? I can paint!’” He chose graffiti. “I don’t need an hour-long lecture to convey a message, with street art I only need a split second.”
His first campaign, “Color the Walls of Your Street,” came in March 2012, when he used social media draw a crowd to paint over ”the scars of the clashes.”
Hundreds showed up and by-standers joined in. “It was like a carnival!” recalls Subay. “There were friends, families, kids… even soldiers put their weapons down and took brushes instead.”
Murals of bright colored flowers, smiling faces and calls for peace soon appeared all over Sana’a.
He began painting the portraits of 102 people, including journalists, politicians, writers and activists believed kidnapped or killed by Saleh’s regime.
Neighbors supported it. “Murad has chosen to cover the walls with color on the street that was filled with phrases which gave rise to hatred,” says Sana’a resident Nadia al-Kaokbani, referring to the inflammatory slogans from political groups.
“Yemen’s Banksy” was soon painting in other Yemeni cities like Aden, Taizz, Ebb and Hodeidah. Encouraged by the hundreds who joined, Subay chose to tackle a sensitive issue: forced disappearances.
In September 2012, under the title “The Walls Remember Their Faces,” he began painting the portraits of 102 people, including journalists, politicians, writers and activists believed kidnapped or killed by Saleh’s regime since the 1960s.
After the campaign attracted media attention, the issue of disappearances went back on the political agenda. Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour vowed to continue the debate and a special investigative committee was formed.
It’s hard to say his campaign has had much impact.
“Everything is much worse,” says Subay. “The country is still in the hands of the same few.”
Danya Greenfield, Yemen expert at the Atlantic Council, agrees. “Sadly, most of the decisions are being taken by a very narrow group of elite members of the political class and tribal leaders,” she says. “And so the ability to actually influence and access the levels of power I think is pretty minimal.”
“Terrorism and sectarianism had never been a problem in Yemen,” says Subay. “Now they’re growing stronger every day.”
The turmoil, along with falling oil production and water shortages, has left Yemen’s economy in shambles with a 35 percent unemployment rate and high food prices. Subay has no full time job, though he occasionally works for the Ministry of Culture.
Yet with his friends and family helping to buy art supplies, Subay seems inspired rather than discouraged.
He focused on a different subject each month, including gun control, sectarianism, child recruitment, corruption and drone strikes.
He won the “Art for Peace Award” from Italian Veronesi Foundation this year. Subay’s refused offers from several institutions, including the United Nations, to pay for art supplies, in order to preserve his independence.
Growing up in a family of modest means with seven brothers and sisters, Subay dreamed of being an artist, not an activist. He started at 12, teaching himself to paint on canvas by copying the works of great artists. His family supported his passion but, with no local art schools, he chose to study English literature at the University of Sana’a.
Subay’s third campaign, “12 Hours,” started in June 2013 and finished only a month ago. “I realized Yemen had so many different problems I had to put them all together,” says the artist. So he focused on a different subject each month, for 12 months, including gun control, sectarianism, child recruitment, corruption and drone strikes.
They’re his boldest works yet, painted with spray and brush: A man putting his rifle in a trashcan saying “I want peace,” a young woman holding a white dove, a U.S. drone flying over a child who’s writing on the wall “Why did you kill my family?”
Subay hopes to continue his art training, though he’s already fulfilled a big part of his dream.