I’m not usually one for enthusing about retail outlets, but just occasionally I’ll go a bit wild. In old Sana’a, with its combination of gob-stoppingly amazing architecture and brilliant suq, it’s all to easy to walk past treasures without seeing them because, let’s face it, the brain can only take so much stimulus at any one time. Especially if you’ve only got a few days in town and you don’t have a decent guidebook. I’m sure I’d have discovered these places if I’d had more than a few weeks in Sana’a, but I’m not so sure I would have found them in that time if I hadn’t been told about them. When I’m at home, I consider shopping to be a necessary evil, whereas when I’m away, it’s more like sightseeing. So I’m not suggesting you go shopping per se; I’m just saying you might enjoy a look at some of the more contemporary delights the suq has to offer. I did. If, on the other hand, you are not keen on art or embroidery, then forget it.
It’d never really crossed my mind that there might be such a thing as a modern art ‘movement’ in Yemen, much less a couple of great art galleries and some excellent artists. There is a thriving Graphic Art Society in Yemen with over 250 members, but in a country where there is no financial support or encouragement for artists and nobody’s got any money to buy their work anyway, only a handful of artists are able to make a living out of it. Two such artists are Mazher Nizar and Fuad Al Futaih, both of whom have exhibited abroad to international acclaim, and it’s easy to see why. What I found particularly interesting, looking at their work, was the apparent relaxation of the traditional rules regarding the representation of humans and animals in Islamic art. Although using different media and having their own distinctive styles, both artists have concerned themselves primarily with representations of women. In a country where the vast majority of women are veiled and dressed in black, the works of these two artists are surprising, refreshing, and very colourful. Considered to be the ‘patriarch’ of modern art in Yemen, Al Futaih’s work can be seen in the National Art Centre near the Al-Abhar Mosque. If you’re looking for a souvenir with a difference, there is something here to suit most pockets. Original paintings can cost up to US$2,000, but there are also excellent quality prints at around YR1000 or, if you’re really short of dosh, postcards cost YR100.
In 1993, Al Futaih founded the Modern Art Group to encourage promising artists, one of whom was Nizar. Inspired by the traditional architecture of Yemen, Nizar’s early works were finely executed watercolours of local buildings and street scenes, many of which are depicted on postcards for sale around the city. Eventually, he too experimented with mixed media producing colourful paintings of animals or women often accompanied by decorative symbolic images such as birds. These are such a contrasting style to his early watercolours, it’s hard to believe they’re by the same artist. The place to go to see Nizar’s work is his Gallery Al-Bab, which is set into the city wall on the right-hand side as you enter through the Bab al-Yaman. The gallery itself is a wonderful place, full of winding corridors, narrow stairways, and small whitewashed rooms exhibiting not only Nizar’s work but the work of other contemporary Yemeni artists. The stairways will eventually lead you to the terrace above the Bab-al-Yaman, which is a great place to idle away some time looking down on the crowds entering and leaving the old city. The prices of the paintings and prints vary depending on the artist, with Nizar’s work being pretty much in the same price range as Al Futaih’s.
My final hidden treasure is a building that, by coincidence, contains an art gallery, among other things. The National Handicrafts Training Centre, which is sort of near the Old Sana’a Palace Hotel and sort of on Al-Sulayhi Street (just ask), is housed in one of the few restored samsarah dotted round the suq. Also situated in the building are a number of slightly pricy shops selling silver, brassware, wooden items, and trunk loads of jewellery. A visit here is worthwhile, not only to see the beautifully yet simply restored interior of the building, but also to see examples of more contemporaneous handicrafts from Yemen. A small shop on the ground floor sells modern craft items such as embroidered bags, purses, and jackets produced by the National Women’s Centre for Development Handicrafts, which was set up to help disadvantaged women earn a living. (The main branch of this organisation is just north of the Al-Abhar Mosque, but when I visited, they were in the process of doing the place up so there were no crafts on sale). The pricey shops in the restored samsarah are worth a glimpse simply because between them they have a broad range of items from all over Yemen. If you’re planning on travelling around the country and you hit these shops before you go, then you’ll have an idea of what comes from where and the max price you should be paying for something.
I’m sure there are plenty more treasures hidden away in the suq, some of which may well be far more interesting than those I went to see. However, until someone else finds them and writes about them, I recommend those mentioned above. (PS The photos have little or nothing to do with the content of this journal entry – I just thought I’d put them in anyway).