Even though these works were deemed too provocative, it was in fact his family’s reaction that forced him to leave the country – they did not support his artistic ambitions and tried to get him to give up photography completely.
“They were ashamed of what I was doing, and I left Yemen full of sorrow and anger. It’s hard when those closest to you are also those who are least understanding.”
Ibrahim moved to New York, where he discovered the arts scene and the city’s many galleries. He settled in the hip neighbourhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn and began experimenting by photographing his friends and any actors he met. He spent the net three to four years working with black-and-white photography, focussing on youth, individuality, sexuality and freedom of expression – topics that are taboo in the Middle East.
“I wanted to depict the resistance that I and other artists who grew up in a conservative Muslim society are up against,” tells Ibrahim.
The revolution has changed something
Nonetheless, Ibrahim moved back to Yemen a year ago. It is difficult for him to explain why, but one reason is the fact that it is in his homeland where he finds his artistic drive and inspiration.
“My frustration and my anger – many of my works are reflections of the feelings that I had when I was growing up and during my first year as a practicing artist. That’s why I need to be here.”
The revolution that took place in Yemen in January 2011 and which led to the ousting of ex-president Ali Saleh has also been a factor in his return, explains Ibrahim:
“The revolution has changed something. People of my age are no longer afraid of dressing how they want or saying what they want. People are tired of keeping their mouths shut. It’s a big step for a conservative society like the one in Yemen. I see girls who are more forthright, driving cars and taking control over their own lives. A lot has changed in Yemen over the last three or four years, and I want to be here to witness it and influence the development. Whilst others are working as human activists, I’m trying to do my bit through my art – I want to shake up the structures a bit.”
But creating controversial art in a country such as Yemen is by no means without its perils. Ibi Ibrahim receives death threats on a regular basis.
“I get death threats and am verbally abused because of my works. I don’t blame the Yemeni people but rather the county’s ministry of culture. How do they expect the world to become acquainted with Yemeni modern art when they don’t support any contemporary artists?” tells Ibrahim, who goes on to add:
“It’s a paradox that whilst there’s huge interest in Middle Eastern art around the globe at the moment there’s nothing new or interesting happening in on the arts front in Yemen. Only those artists who the government deem harmless are getting support and being allowed to exhibit.”
Most of the attacks targeted at Ibrahim come from men and are to do with his portrayal or women in his works. And this is something that confirms the 26-year-old artist’s claim that a woman’s body is not seen as belonging to the woman herself but rather to a man – “whether this be her husband, father, brother or even little brother.”
True moments in time
‘Intimacy’ and ‘vulnerability’ are the two words Ibrahim most often uses when talking about his art, for as he himself says: “We show our true selves when we show that we are vulnerable.”
In a number of self-portraits Ibrahim exposes his own vulnerability. One example is the series Sans Toi, in which he is seen lying in bed with an obvious lust for another person.