with Ibi Ibrahim
“Don’t put on the camera,” warns Ibi Ibrahim. “The electricity might cut off, and then I’ll have to turn the generator back on, which could take a couple of minutes.” Ibi is skyping from Beirut. The self-confessed travel head will fly to Amman, Jordan, before then flying homebound to Sana’a, Yemen, a place, since four months prior, he calls home again. There’s another warning too. “I’m really not good at this whole virtual thing”.
Ibi Ibrahim, from Yemen but born in the United States, is a visual artist who’s surprisingly good at conference calls. Working (usually) within the mediums of photography and film, his to-date work reflects on his experiences in Yemen, as well as a whole host of nomadic experiences. Ibi has also lived in Libya, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq, whilst he has completed artist residencies in Berlin (GlogaAir), Paris (Cite Internationale des Art), Beirut (Beirut Art Residency), and Amman (Darat al-Funun, LAB Space).
"I hold no responsibility for the previous statements or work I once made, which are inspired by a state of mind and emotion that I don't live anymore,” says Ibi in a typically affirmative fashion. DEPARTURE, a collaborative project with Hosam Omran, is definitely a “right now” piece of work, having just wrapped up its screening in Berlin at the exhibition “On Echoes of Invisible Hearts: Narrative of Yemeni Displacement”. It evokes a real experience, something that once happened to him after he once finished an art residency in Berlin in 2015. “When the (Yemeni) war started, I tried to go back but flights were grounded,” he says. “I found myself stuck in Jordan for weeks and weeks waiting for the airport to reopen. It was horrible.”
DEPARTURE, true to form, is a layered evocation of his anger. Birds fly in migration on a video, then animated drawings show a woman leaving Yemen. Above it all are the voices of Yemeni’s discussing their experiences. And around it, within the gallery walls, are hundreds of photos (around 300) sourced from an open call depicting what happened there. His decision to add physical photos led him to a gallery setting, rather than the big film festival screen. “I don’t know if they are short films or art videos,” he says. “I just do.”
The juxtapositions of the piece are myriad: from the now of the video, to the photographs of the past. The birds moving in groups, the woman leaving alone. Leaving your home country is hard and there are many ways you can leave. But he tries not to overdo his work - topic notwithstanding - from heaviness. On the contrary, beauty is key. He takes the time to mention the Yemeni artist Saba Jallas, who also took part in Echoes - an exhibition he enjoyed for its diversity of narratives and curated by Lila Nazemian. Photographs taken with her mobile in the aftermath of an explosion are shown side-by-side with cartoon drawings reimagining the lethal smoke. “Many Yemeni’s who saw the exhibition argued nobody should create beauty out of war”, he says. “But when you wake up and see smoke out of a window? Obviously, you want to create something else.”
On Echoes of Invisible Hearts: Narratives of Yemeni Displacement, curated by New York-based Lila Nazemian, is the work of his foundation DIWAN AL FAN, the arts program of his recently registered Romooz Foundation. Ibi had noted there was hardly any knowledge of Yemeni contemporary artists on an international level and wanted to see it presented strongly in Europe - and particularly in Berlin where he had been living. “Lila exact words were “let’s do it ourselves” and the rest was history,” he says. Supported and fully funded by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Germany’s oldest political foundation, she then spent two years turning it from an idea to execution.
Apart from taking the exhibition to new places in the coming year, Ibi’s focus right now is laser-tightened: helping the next generation of Yemeni artists. He directs me towards his Instagram page for artists, which depicts the work of his foundation, which started back in Berlin in 2014 to support Yemeni artists and now is based in the Yemeni capital Sana'a. “One idea I’m trying to present to other artists is that your project can be an idea, not necessarily an object,” he says. “Something beyond a painting or a photograph”.
The lack of funding or fine art institutions in Yemen has led to this lack of innovation. “We’re talking about a country that, in the ’70s or ’80s, offered graduated high school students full grants to study in Europe or the USSR,” he says. “The new generation is looking at previous generations who have had fine art training, and they are thinking: ’Why are we this generation that is not taken seriously unless we have become international and left the country?’” And despite his own international experience, he deals with everything on a situation-by-situation basis, from a distinct Yemeni standpoint. “You can’t just bring a western mentality to Yemen.”
Politics isn’t off the menu, but Ibi’s not here to teach. “Don’t ask me, there are other sources who can better explain what happened (in Yemen) and all its complexities,” he says. Nevertheless, the symbiosis with his work is clear. SANS TOI (Without You), a selection of emotive, sensual, and majority monochromatic photos, discusses universal themes of sexuality amid religious conservatism. And on his mind for a future project is what he calls the “state of the currency”, as Yemen’s currency, the Riyal, is collapsing amid the difficulties of war, causing much hardship and hunger.
“I’m not sure why,” he says. “But I keep coming back.” Incidentally, he just asked a friend there how things are prior to his return. There are airstrikes in the capital “every now and then”. "Inside Yemen, we all understand that we're in constant danger, but our desire to live is stronger so we carry on living,” he says. “Making music, films, arts and whatever brings us closer to the notion that we could be free.”
Despite everything, creativity in Yemen is still alive. “In the midst of all this, you find the writers writing novels, artists painting, art managers operating creatives spaces, and young businessman opening cafes. Life ought to go on,” he says. “As artists and creatives, we have a responsibility to be the voice of the unheard, to document those times and be that witness in history books,” he says, affirmatively.
Ibi’s plans for the future are nomadic in nature. There is lots of travel planned. DEPARTURE is now off to show in New York at the Queens Museum. He is preparing for a solo exhibition at the Basement Cultural Foundation in Sana’a, and he wants to visit Tbilisi, Georgia. But in the grand scheme of things, the present-minded Ibi remains predictably cryptic. “I can’t think about what’s next,” he says.