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Abdullah al-Ameen’s work brings dreams to reality by means of a paintbrush. His naïve style is full of mythological stories, personages and buildings; a style that he continued to develop after he won the golden medal at the Arab Exhibition held in Kuwait in 1987. Since then, he has explored children’s literature, illustrating fantastic stories rooted in Yemen’s history that his wife, Leena Jamil, tells their children (The Enchanted Lake, Snowdown books, UK). A student of the famous Russian Academy of Arts, he returned to Yemen after obtaining his master’s degree and has lived in Aden since.
Yemen Observer (YO): --What is your story as a painter? How did it all start?
Abdulla Al-Ameen: - It all started long time ago, now I am in my fifties and when I look back I see that it has been a long time since I began to paint. Thirty or forty years ago, when I was a young boy studying at school, I first started to draw. Since we had many British people living here in Aden, in that time of my childhood they were the ones bringing things for children, like colors to paint. They also brought teachers and that is how I started to paint and to like painting and drawing. Then, when I was in secondary school we started to make a newspaper for children and that was one of my first experiences in working with art. Also I need to say that my dad played an important role: he was a very good man, he worked with the ships at the port and he used to bring me colors to paint. He liked what I did, what I painted at that time. Then, when I finished secondary school, I studied realism with an Egyptian painter, doctor Abdul Aziz Darwish, who studied fine arts in Italy and obtained his doctorate in this discipline. The Ministry of Culture provided with a studio for young people that wanted to become artists and Darwish was the teacher. I studied with him and that is when I painted still lives and portrays, which constituted my first step to study under the realist school. During this period of my life I used to work in the morning with the National Shipping Company and in the afternoons, from two o’clock until ten at night I would spend my time painting and studying art. After this period a good chance came along: the Ministry of Culture gave some of us the opportunity to go and study in Russia, at the Academy of Arts. I had a very good chance because I had finished high school, I was very young, and I had three years of experience in learning painting. At that time, Russia sent five people to Aden in order to choose students that would travel there to study theatre, plastic arts and dancing. When they saw our studio and what we were doing they liked it and we had the chance to go to study to Moscow. This was my first step, a big chance after finishing high school. My mother was worried at that time and she used to tell me that I would not find a way to gain my life with painting whereas my father supported the idea of me going to Moscow and becoming a painter.
YO: -How was to go from Aden to Moscow at that time?
AA: -It was a big change, but Moscow is a lovely city. There were so many wonderful things about Moscow like its architecture, exhibitions, and theatres. I spent one year studying the language and preparing for the examination to enter in the Academy of Arts and it was a good thing that I had a strong background in realism. Moscow gave me the possibility to enjoy a good life during the six years that I lived there. I went to a good school and I enjoyed the artistic atmosphere of the city. It was 1978, Mikhail Gorbachov, and later on the golden times of Russia, and for us coming from Aden it was not difficult and not easy: In my case, I went from a small city to Moscow, with some ten million people; there were theatres like the Bolshoi theatre, music…What does art mean? It does not mean painting only, it is all this that we had the chance to enjoy in Russia. One of my favorite things from Moscow was something that I haven’t seen in any other cities of the world, be it the United Kingdom or Finland, Denmark, Germany and many places I have traveled to: if you go to the metro in Moscow you will see great artistic works, sculptures, ceramics, paintings from very famous artists. The metro is like a museum and also if you go to the parks you find sculptures as well. There are so many exhibitions, museums like the Pushkin museum, and every year they would send a student from the academy to another country to learn about art… we went to so many of the former soviet republics to see art there. This experience was also beautiful for me because I had the chance to see the original works of big painters like Cezanne or Van Gogh. During the time I lived in Russia it was very easy to travel everywhere by train, it was a great experience.
AA: - I came back to Aden with a master degree in fine arts and I started to paint in Aden. At the beginning I worked at the Ministry of Culture in order to have a salary to maintain my life. Throughout my life, my grand father had given me so many mythological stories to fill my childhood and so when I finished and came back I made a studio for working on art inspired by all these stories. I thus made small exhibitions in hotels in Aden, then I worked on portrays and things I learnt in Russia, I worked on photographs, and then I had the chance to travel to Kuwait in 1987 for the Arabian Exhibition, a big exhibition. At that time I was working on finding myself, my style, something that would define me and my work; I was working on fantastic, Arabian themes…I traveled with that work and it was the first time for me to exhibit my work and to be seen at the biennale in Kuwait. In this occasion my work was awarded among so many good and famous artists, I couldn’t believe I obtained the first prize. From this biennale I learnt that my style was good since it was awarded with the golden medal. I learnt that I had to continue with this style.
YO: -How do you define your style?
AA: - There are three nice things I see in my way of painting: architecture, mythology, and our Arab people from Yemen. There is a lot of fantasy, which you can see in the book I did with my wife. This stories start when we talk about my grand father’s stories, then we start to make a composition of the stories with mythology and dreams involved in it. My style is full of dreams and through the paintings you can see dreams come true. My children talk to me and make up stories about flying horses and imaginary things, and with my good Russian background I can see the composition and colors, and that is how I put everything together. Every part of my work has an open meaning, there is continuity in the cities I draw, they are not closed. When I travel in my country I see villages, people, architecture, and I keep these pictures in my mind, and then when I start working this comes out as a mosaique, a composition with dances, buildings, people…all this is in my mind: a woman that I make fly in my painting, like a bird, like the migrating birds that I have seen so many times in the port of Aden.
YO: -Are these your sources of inspiration?
AA: -These things inspire me and they are a reflection of what I have in my mind and in my heart. I work out of pictures I have in my mind, dreams, things that can be on a greeting card from Canada…I continued to work on this style until now, but I don’t think a style is a closed thing, I have space to create new things. This is the phase I am going through now, I don’t know if this style will change, it is open.
YO: -How do you see the evolution of art in Aden?
AA: -Before unification we had an institute for fine arts established by the Ministry of Culture but after unification I don’t think they give good chances to artists as it used to be.
YO: -What are the obstacles you see?
AA: -Many of my friends have traveled to the Gulf because they found opportunities there, so people had to leave Yemen. Also you need education in arts, schools, departments, and they don’t have any plans to develop this in Aden.
AA: -In Sana’a artists have more chances than in Aden because all the governmental institutions are there; the government is there. This affects everything, for instance theatre, we don’t have any more theatres or dancing groups in Aden as we used to. All this needs money and we don’t have it here, there are no chances here. Everything is in Sana’a. In Aden the government has problems in other terms and they don’t care about art, about education in art, to educate people in what art means…there are no galleries, no museums. There are Victorian architects in Aden whose work is not being restored, there is no interest in improving architecture, they build houses without taking care of what they build…all this is art as well.
YO: -Is there an artistic movement particular to Aden?
AA: -We have many artists here in Aden but we are not recognized. Working for the Ministry of Culture is paid with US$ 200, which is nothing when you have a family, children to maintain. We have to sell to foreign people only, who are the ones who buy. It takes two or three weeks to paint some of these paintings and then people pay only US$ 50 or 100, which is not enough to live. Is difficult to be an artist in Yemen. However I have good contacts, I sell my work, but everything goes outside Yemen.
YO: -You used to have an art gallery, what happened?
AA: -I had to close it because during the past three years we couldn’t sell anything. Yemeni people are very poor so only foreigners buy, but for the past three years nothing could be sold.
YO: -Is the Yemeni Fine Arts Union in Aden trying to change this situation? AA: -The headquarters of the Union are in Sana’a, not in Aden. I don’t think they are very active, we don’t have exhibitions in Aden. For me an exhibition means that I work for a year, I make an exhibition from my money, and then nothing gets sold and if that happens is to foreigners.
YO: -And what about education in arts?
AA: -In Aden schools mean money and people that go to schools are poor as well. If you go to school you don’t find music, theatre or fine arts any more. Before we used to have teachers from Russia, and many of the students that went to Russia became teachers upon returning, but now there isn’t anything. I think other Arab countries are like this too, there is a problem with art. In my case, I try to live in this difficult context.
AA: - Yes, it started with stories that my wife writes and that I started to illustrate. The story deals with Yemeni mythology and when I traveled to London about two years ago, they saw our project and liked it. This is how it ended up being published in both English and Arabic.
YO: -Are your projects focusing on children since this experience took place?
AA: -Yes, children’s literature, illustrations for children, or paintings for UNICEF to illustrate their campaigns has been part of my latest work.
YO: -What are your projects for the future?
AA: -I hope to make a good project for an exhibition to go outside and present my work outside Yemen. The last exhibition I did was in Saudi Arabia, where I was invited to show my work. Also I have a small project with a publisher from Dubai to work on illustrations for children’s books. With my wife we have another story we are working on. I have a nice family, a small house, a small life. I am not rich. I have worked painting for 25 years more or less. I am a simple person. At home, my wife cooks and starts telling me and our children stories, then we continue the story and when we finish my wife writes it and then I take the writings and start making illustrations for it. This is how my life is.