Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Institute of Contemporary Arts: Debate on ‘The Trouble with Counter Culture’, July 24th 6:45 pm

Using history as its guide, the debate will assess the place of counter-culture in society today; does it exist, and if so, in what form? Using empirical evidence from previous cultural movements such as the Beats and Punks, the conversation will explore the relationship between subcultures and counter-cultural movements. Invited speakers include Dan Hancox, a Guardian writer who specialises in youth culture, music and politics, and Simon Warner, whose latest book looks at the links between the US Beat writers and subsequent rock artists from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain.


Haifaa Al Mansour’s ‘Wadjda’, in cinemas nationwide

Not only is Wadjda the first film ever to have been entirely filmed within Saudi Arabia, it is also a product of the country’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. Wadjda is the story of a vivacious young girl whose only desire is to ride her bike around her town with the boy who lives next door. However, the religious restrictions and societal pressures placed on women living in Saudi Arabia makes navigating this most simple of pleasures, a particularly complex task. Critics have said that while much of Wadjda is “very funny”, the picture also allows viewers to “get an acute sense of the little everyday frustrations and burdens that Saudi women have to shoulder”. Writing for the New Statesman, Steve Yates called Wadjdapowerful” and said that despite its “clear political intent…Wadjda is a very human film.”


Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, E2: ‘Stranger – An Exhibition of Self-portraits’, 5th July – 31st August

The Stranger exhibition sheds light on the significance of self-portraiture and is testament to the artistic and aesthetic breadth of the field, given the huge variety of interpretations seen in each artist’s different approach to self-representation. Each work displays the intimate and disparate relationships the artists have with themselves and the canvas. In works that have been completed over the past year, Tom Phillips’ Doppelganger depicts a long figure accompanied by his other self, whereas Ishbel Myerscough panits her body as obscured by her young daughter, representing their unity. The freedom the topic bestows upon the artists makes for an incredibly diverse and inventive collection.


Somerset House: Miles Aldridge’s ‘I Only Want You To Love Me’, 10th July – 29th September

Although Aldridge is first and foremost a fashion photographer, his work has both political and social undertones, often portraying women intensely bored with their glamorous but monotonous domestic lives. Within his photographs, Aldridge saturates colour to the point of fluorescence, which contrasts heavily with the grey-blonde locks and porcelain faces of his models. This striking contrast and the models’ vacant expressions are used to portray the idea that living in stereotypical domestic bliss and committing oneself to brazen, high-fashion consumerism are not sufficient tools for achieving happiness. Every photograph in I Only Want You To Love Me is heavily constructed, precisely posed and entirely premeditated helping to further the feeling of boredom present in the women’s lives. The exhibition contains large prints of Aldridge’s photography from throughout his career as well as previously unpublished material. It also features some of the story-boards, artwork, Polaroid photos, and magazine cuttings he has used to develop his ideas. With critics calling I Only Want You to Love Me an “exhilarating adventure” and “eerily glamorous”, it is not to be missed.


The Lowry Theatre, Manchester, M50: An evening with the National Youth Dance Company and talent from the Lowry’s CAT programme, Sunday 21st July 2013 at 19:30, Tickets from £6.00.

Under a new initiative funded by the Arts Council England and the Department for Education, a cast of 30 dancers aged 16-19 perform work specially commissioned by NYDC’s Guest Artistic Director, Jasmin Vardimon, winner of the 2013 International Theatre Institute Award for Excellence in Dance. The evening promises to reflect the youthful, vibrant spirit of the dancers involved combined with Vardimon’s renowned and unique style of physical theatre.

The Trouble with Counter Culture at the ICA: Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols screams into a microphone.
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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood