Yemen’s First Online Political Cartoon Exhibit

The oganizers of the Yemeni coalition for independent women in cooperation with Tamkeen and the Arab Initiative for Education and Development, brought together the first Yemeni online cartoon exhibition on the electronic platform Zoom.

During the course of the show, Dr. Arwa Al-Khattabi talked about the importance of caricature as one of the bitter ironic methods experienced by the Yemeni people in reaction the reality of the dark Houthi militias and as a reminder of the Houthi crimes, especially the systematic cover up of the corona pandemic. The cartoon showed the black Houthi militias covering up the encroaching virus until, like a bomb, it exploded in the face of the Yemenis . As a result there were no longer enough graves to fit all their bodies. Al Khattabi compares the quill of the cartoon to a resistance weapon, mightier than any sword in exposing the Houthis and their crimes.

During the exhibition, the artist Samer Al-Shamiri reviewed a number of cartoons that express the reality of the suffering of the Yemeni people, noting that the Yemeni people are among the people most in need of artistic and cultural awareness to be able to spread the word and reach enough hearts and minds to rise up against Houthis effectively as one voice, despite all the differences, obstacles, and current lack of social cohesion brought about by the many complexities of the various crises and conflicts Yemen is dealing with.

Adding to the presentation, the human rights activist and lawyer Zafaran Zaid presented a number of caricatures participating in the exhibition, which expressed the suffering of those in prisons and detention centers and the arrival of the epidemic that could take their lives before anyone would learn their of their tribulations or take any actions to free them from their fate. She indicated that the power of the cartoon is in its unique ability to reduce all this suffering to a single image. Through the satirical template, the cartoon depicts and reveals Houthi crimes and abuses directly and in a way that can reach the global community, renewing the call to release the prisoners and the detainees, which up until this point has been ignored by the Houthi militias.

Likewise, Dr. Zaid weighed in, elaborating on the other contributing factors to the suffering of the Yemeni citizens. The pressures on the Yemenis, include fuel and gas crises, drought, water and food shortages, and famines, internal displacement, various epidemics, lack of physical and psychological stability and security, and last but not least, the corona. She also mentioned the comatose World Health Organization operating in Yemen, and working in a state of deep sleep. WHO appears to derive its directives from the Houthi militias while ignoring all other calls for assistance and reports by other parties. She added that many other people have informed her how the Houthi militias have exploited the epidemic financially to impose more levies on the oppressed Yemeni citizens.

As for the artist Osama Talib, he reviewed through his drawings the methods of the Houthi militia in deceiving children and young people into conscription and exploiting people in their livelihoods and their actions. Thanks to Houthi indoctrination and deception, regular civilians fall prey to the despicable racist and warped thinking that deludes them into believing supposedly religious testimonies and stories that they are being led by the Houthis to paradise, whereas in reality they are actually being led into the abyss. In another drawing, the artist shows how Abdul al-Houthi even leads himself into a dark tunnel. In the cartoon, the corona epidemic is the tunner, under a destroyed health structure.

Dr. Faiza Abdel-Raqeeb Salam, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture, praised the importance of this distinguished qualitative event, which is the first experience of its kind in Yemen, and she said that despite the small number of cartoonists (only three exist), they are doing an essential job in conveying the harsh realities of Yemen’s many troubles through art. Still, they cannot fully express the suffering of our people, she said, due to the oppression and persecution of the Houthis, who stiffle the free expression and limit the media and exposure for arts and criticism of their methods. They silence many talented artists and threatened or destroy any voice of the opposition through imprisonments, enforced disappearances, or murder.

Salam praised the artistic paintings that simulate reality, pointing out that arts and culture are a means of great and rapid impact on people, especially when they touch their issues, their suffering or aspirations, as well as a speech and a simple message in a deep, fast-impact context, especially today in light of the development in the field of media, in which this can reach mass public quickly without getting lost in many words and articles. Talking about the current exhibition, she commented how the message revealed the oppression and secrecy of the Houthis over the spread of the Corona epidemic and even the killing of the injured.

She also affirmed the ministry’s interest in all fields of culture and arts, including singing, theater, poetry, drawing, short story writing and caricature drawing because it expresses a breather for writers, writers and artists explaining that the ministry supports and encourages the creativity of citizens and that it is true human certificates that should be documented in pamphlets and booklets to be a witness to this conflict. The ministry seeks to implement the integration of artistic works into programming as much as possible, she said, and we have encouraged writers and citizens to write their stories and explain their suffering as a result of the Houthi coup and also encouraged children to draw and to document their experiences and feelings about their suffering. Many of them have produced works of art addressing their hijacked childhoods and the silencing of other voices around them.

She emphasized that such activities are important and that it is imperative to document such events and translate them into more than one language and distribute them to embassies and communities and present them to the world to expose the crimes of Houthi. She concluded her speech that the ministry will support any literary, cultural and artistic production that serves the cause of combating the Corona pandemic and supports the option to stop the war and the path of peace.

It is impossible not to concur with these observations and not to praise this unique initiative, which gets to the point: the message of the war must be conveyed in more than one way, and to speak to the hearts and emotions, as much as it appeals to reason, logic, and self-interest in resolving the conflict. These important opportunities, therefore, have a limited window of capturing and holding attention, and making the right impression on the audiences, which might otherwise never even give Yemen or the war or the Houthis a second thought.

The role of art in education is indeed paramount and should not be underestimated, but on the contrary, promoted, supported, and encouraged. It is also an important vehicle as a form of resistance to the oppression, in both holding up the morale of the Yemeni people, rebuking the oppressor, and showing the world that the fight continues actively. In its own way, art and political cartoons are a central form of information warfare, which in addition to being created, should be studied as an academic and military technique and a form of psychological operations, in order to understand what works best and for what purpose and how it can be used to help unite the people around a common cause and to bring down the enemy (the Houthis).

Information warfare “is a way of sharing, transporting, gathering, manipulating, destroying, or degrading information aimed at deceiving, disorienting, dismissing, discrediting, demoralizing, and ultimately, disarming the target. ” It is a military, intelligence, or a political tactic adaptable to modern day communications systems through technical as well as rhetorical and psychological strategies. It should take into account the audiences, the unique environmental and social factors, the available means of communication and dissemination of the message or information, and the unique individual personality, interests, and strength of the author, as well as the unique vulnerabilities of the adversary which need to be attacked and discredited or the unique characteristics of the allies and friends that need to be boosted and highlighted.

For that reason, various artists interested specifically in political and social art in addition to work on art qua art can help the war effort by working with military experts and psychologists in developing effective messaging that can then be transformed and translated into more directed and specialized work, fine-tuning the art into a technique, and perfecting the “quilt as a weapon.” Even when serving external audiences, the central function of the exhibit as an information warfare mechanism must be carefully evaluated in terms of who, what, where, when, how, and why gets to present each specific work. In the case of the outreach to the outside world, the weaponization is aimed at strengthening bonds with existing allies, recruiting additional allies, giving incentive to bystanders to join your effort in a specific way (through financial support or donations, political action, artistic contributions, or word of mouth/communications), and combating stereotypes and disinformation.

To that end, technical issues, mishaps, poorly organized events, or unvetted artists or allies, can do as much damage as doing nothing at all. And while the online distribution of the art does not bear the same financial investment and costs as physical exhibit, they have a potential to reach similarly great numbers of people – or the opposite- and to influence the course of events, and for that reason need to be as well thought out and planned as any physical event, and curated and coordinated with a professional level of care.

So how to reach hearts and minds effectively online without the benefit of the personal interaction with the work of art?

We must keep in mind the mindset of audiences from around the world which likely know very little about the situation in Yemen, and the various conflicts, interests, and internal issues & challenges, even if they follow the situation. Most of what they know comes from Western or other local media and is likely shallow, incomplete or biased. The the exhibit even online needs to be permanent, comprehensive, and curated professionally, as if it is a physical exhibit, but it also has to be put together in a specific order depending on which specific audience is to be reached, so in essence there should be multiple exhibits directed at various themes, depending on which issue is of greatest concern and the audience and which group of people is most likely to be interested or invested in that type of messaging.

One can build exhibits around specific issues and then target the marketing and outreach efforts to specific audiences, or, on the other hand, one can build the exhibits around specific target audiences, and then appeal to their unique interests, situations, and social and personal attributes, creating targeted works or putting together targeted exhibits based on what is available.

For the greatest possible effect, this means setting up permanent websites which can be shared with other NGOs, art collectives and and organizations, freedom of speech and expression groups, human rights activists, even major organizations such as the UN, UNESCO, and UNHCR.

It is very important to feature each individual artist, even if they are few in number, and give them an opportunity to reach out to the public and explain who they are, the meaning of their work, and why they do what they do. What challenges do they face? Have they been persecuted? Has their work been commissioned by anyone or are they volunteers? Whom have they been able to reach? Where do they publish? What is the reaction of Yemen’s public to their art?They need to be able to present either a short narrative about their work before the view of each work or give a voice over explaining the context of each piece, but in either case, there has to be translation easily available in multiple languages, and at the very least running English subtitles.

Moreover, keeping in mind that most of these works we saw today are focused on only one aspect of the situation – the Houthis and Corona, it is important to encourage them to cover the many other aspects of the challenges Yemen faces. At the same time, however, they are commenting in their way on a situation familiar to Yemenis and members of the Arab Coalition, but to few others. This means that for an effective exhibit, they should be asked to create some works that identify who the Houthis are and why they aren’t just another political faction or separatists vying for power against the Yemen government, but a ruthless terrorist organization oppressing the country.

The situation with corona is finally reaching the international press, but still, there needs to be an effort to explain through art that the Houthis are covering it up. At the very least, there should be a short description of the exhibit in writing just like in real museums setting up the context of the work. Also the aspects of the resistance art needs to be played up to the international community; many artists appreciate this context but need to understand why it is “resistance” art given that it comes from people supporting the official government, when usually it’s the other way around.

Resistance art is usually associated with independence movements and dissident groups. Therefore, to hit the right note, it’s important to inform them how the Houthis usuruped control includng abbout the education system and various factions supporting them such as the Hashemites, who they are, and why that ideology is driving the action, the narrative, and leads to the resistance. That means also identifying effective partners not just among human rights group but among artistic audiences, art collectors, philanthropists, and connoisseurs and asking them to support this work.

However, this does not mean just settling for the limitations of the internet space. We can have contacts with curators with links to galleries in the US, London, and other Middle Eastern countries who can help set up physical exhibits, which should be as interactive as possible. For those artists who cannot travel out of Yemen, there should be electronic recordings or even holograms and videos, and opportunities to engage in virtual reality way, whereas for any artists who are outside of Yemen who can travel, they should be assisted in doing so . They can answer questions from the audience, discuss their exhibits in person, and hear what their viewers would like to see more of in the future.

Furthermore, political cartoons can be sent to Western newspapers, magazines, and competitions to get greater attention, and financial support, and even sold off at galleries and auctions, online or physically. They need to be published as prints and art books and distributed as part of the curricula about Middle Eastern art, as well as to museums, collectors, educational groups and schools, and as tourist attractions elsewhere. To get wider interest there needs to be some commercial aspect to it that will both monetize and popularize it and create an interest and buy in from the professionals in the art world. There are competitions annually among political cartoonists in various parts of the world that also provide additional opportunities, for network, identifying new talent, and finding support.

Let’s look past the limitations of the current circumstances and into the amazing world of diverse opportunities that exists beyond the Houthi control of the press and international organizations that claim to be humanitarian but who remain silent in Yemen as part of a corrupt arrangement.

At the end of the presentation, Dr. Wissam Basandouh concluded by recalling the importance of this exhibition, which was devoted to showcasing another type of resistance to the power of the Houthi militia and its allocation to the subject of the previous event held by the Yemeni Coalition for Independent Women about the spread of the Corona pandemic in Yemen and the Houthi militia’s cover-up of it and its criminal abuse with the injured and the exploitation of the pandemic to blackmail international organizations And the exploitation of humanitarian aid and its use of the war effort. .

The exhibition concluded with a musical instrument playing the guitar, about the wonderful artist Marcel Khalifa Mawtani, played by the creator Osama Talib.

1- Continuing cultural and artistic activities as a means of peaceful resistance to the Houthi militia and its crimes.
2- Issuing a booklet that collects Houthi cartoon cartoons and translating them into different languages.
3- Make room for Houthi-resistant cartooning in seminars, activities and in the media
4- Launching an electronic campaign via social media for the photos participating in the exhibition, accompanied by an explanation of Houthi crimes in several languages

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