By Amal Abdul Aziz
Ibi Ibrahim is a visual artist and film director from Sana'a, Yemen. He draws his inspiration from being raised in a conservative household and culture. His work circles the challenges people live through in Muslim conservative societies vis à vis sexuality, individuality and identity. Ibi Ibrahim was born in 1987 and currently lives and works in the United States.
1. Who is Ibi Ibrahim, besides being a visual artist, writer & director?
I feel I'm on this self discovery journey. As years pass, I learn more about who I am and what my purpose in life is. I am curious by nature, and always look for something to grab my interest. To many people, I'm the artist who's a rebel against censorship. To me, I'm a just a dreamer from Yemen.
2. When did you know that expressing yourself through art was your "calling"?
I've always been drawn to art as an observer. Sadly, growing up in the Middle East, there wasn't much room to express my interest in being an artist as a young boy. My family never paid attention to art, or such things. I've always known that I wanted to create work that is to be seen and observed - I feel that was due to my personality as an outspoken person. Even though I was shy for a long time, once I gained full independence and ability to express my thoughts without fears or obligations, I just went off and couldn't stop. I think gaining that ability came as a result of seeing my country and society from a different perspective - that happened when I left the Middle East and moved to the United States.
3. Your current home is New York City, a mecca for many photographers. What brought you there?
I wanted an escape. I was in Yemen, and I felt unhappy. I just started taking photos and had my first exhibition here. I felt I could do much more, and I thought to myself, I need to be somewhere where I am able to pursue my dreams - I can't give up on my dreams. They are not just dreams that you can either achieve or not. To me they are obligations. I must do it. No other option. It didn't take me long - maybe a few days and suddenly I found myself in New York and my journey as a starving Yemeni artist began. It was the best decision I ever made. Following my dreams always brings peace to my mind. That's my biggest achievement, the rest are just rewards.
4. In your work why do we see a lot of sexual content related to your subjects?
It's my way of establishing a dialogue, and talking about what's really wrong with our society - at least from my perspective. To be honest, I had no intentions in creating this dialogue to act a social commenter, but I feel as I presented my first collection, each photo was its own dialogue. I still sometimes think I am just a boy holding a Canon camera, who aims to take a beautiful photo so people can stop, observe and enjoy the beauty of a certain facial expression by a man or a woman.
5. Were do you draw your inspiration from?
Towards the beginning, the ideas came from personal experience and childhood memories. Remembering friends of mothers coming to our house, complaining about their husbands being abusive towards them - some used to cry often and found comfort in my mother's lap. Seeing women give that level of comfort and support to each other has made me naturally aware of women issues, and believing that I should dedicate much of my work towards those women - not that they need help in any sense. I always believed that only women in the Arab world can bring themselves the justice and equality they deserve.
As I create more work, I try to be more aware of current issues and incorporate it into my art. The Arab Spring changed much of our lives. I am looking into making some work related to that topic within the upcoming few months. I plan on focusing on Yemen mainly.
6. Are you trying to empower sexual exploration in the MENA region because it's a taboo subject?
I feel that sexual exploration has become a taboo subject recently. I watch old Egyptian films quite often, and I can clearly see that sexuality was common in those films unlike today's film. So you can see that the idea of sexuality, and exploring it has been quite common in the region at one point, at least. Maybe what I am trying to do is to bring back that era of freedom of expression in art and cinema.
7. How has your art been received in Yemen and the Arab world compared to the West?
I have to be frank in answering this question - I wasn't much welcomed by galleries in the Arab world when I started my art work. However, once I was picked up by western galleries and started exhibiting my work in the West, the interest from the East came through. It's really disappointing how the Middle East art world/public perceives a person at the start of their career. Why must we await the west for the approval? I keep asking myself that question.
Regardless, I am still at the beginning of my career so I can't give an accurate answer to this question - let's revisit it in few years.
8. Is the Western art sphere receptive (welcoming) of Middle Eastern artists?
Certainly, but then it also depends on the talent and work of the artist.
9. With the Islamic brotherhood getting more power in the region, how do you believe that will effect artistic expression and freedom of expression in the region?
I'm rather frustrated with much of censorship going on in the Middle East in all aspects. For instance, the website Tumblr is blocked in different Arab countries such as Yemen and Kuwait -- how could a blog be blocked? This decision is absolutely backward and ridiculous.
I certainly believe that much censorship towards artistic freedom of expression will occur with the rise of the Muslim Botherhood. However, I believe that the role of artists is to be the rebels against censorship. I can never allow anyone to censor my art work. My art is my voice, and if I allow someone to take it away from me, then what's the point in living?
10. Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
Making art, film and maybe music.