Shubbak A Window Shining Light on Contemporary Arab Culture

Shubbak A Window Shining Light on Contemporary Arab Culture


Shubbak when translated, means “window “. The name was the name of a Festival which is devoted to a deeper cultural exchange between the Arab World and Britain. This is the first of its kind in Europe and it was initiated by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London. The Festival provided a wonderful opportunity to see the work of contemporary Arab writers, photographers, painters, composers and other creative artists.

This is important as Art and Culture know no boundaries and through such exchange the path to political peace might be found.One of the significant Art Exhibitions was held at The Royal Geographical Society in Kensington. It was named “The Artists’ View – 7 Artists in Yemen”. In July, 2010, The Ministry of Tourism invited a small group of European artists to visit Yemen and their work shows their appreciation  for the hospitality they received.

Yemen, formerly South Arabia, was historically a bridge between the East and the West. In this country political boundaries have varied without precise definition or longevity for centuries. Yet, art, culture, architecture and language remained unaltered. In ancient times this country produced frankincense and myrrh which were used in religious rites in and beyond Egypt. Rich merchandise was brought by sea from Africa, India and the Far East to Aden and Qana.

This together with the frankincense and myrrh was taken in camel caravans northwards to the Mediterranean countries, including Egypt and Rome. The various states, although often warring with one another, grew rich on taxes and tolls and trading goods. Today they would have been called ‘Middlemen’. Cities  rose with monumental architecture, temples were erected, coins were struck, arts and crafts developed and these people came to be noticed by other ancient civilisations. They were the heirs of classical culture and were the medium through which those ideals led the world to its renaissance. This Exhibition personally reminded me of my time as an Archaeologist in Arabia.

We built a new Museum to house their treasures of jewellery, gold filigree work, wrought semi-precious stones, alabaster and coins. Their sculptors were certainly masters of their stone. It is not surprising the visiting artists were so happy. The ever changing terrain of sandy plains, hill passes and volcanic areas are very impressive. The fragments of black volcanic rock, scattered over the silver sand beneath the brilliant sun, produce an effect akin to the negative of a photograph.Shibam in the Hadramaut is a Unesco World Heritage site. It was described by Freya Stark as ‘The Manhattan of the Desert’ Philip Braham’s paintings capture the magic of this city. His ‘Qat plantation at Al Hajarah’ is interesting. It was good to see ‘Ishmail’l Temple at Hutaib’ included in his work . This artist  says, “I do not work from sketches or make paintings  directly in front of the landscape, because nature changes much too quickly for me”. He absorbs every aspect of the place and then takes photographs and works from them.

The work of Aurelie Pedrajas is delightful, especially her ‘Woman with Vegetable in Wadi Dhabab’ and ‘Yemen Boy’Philippe Bichon’s two paintings in one is great. I loved the work in pencil and water colour with a jambiya, sheath, and belt on the left, with Ali in traditional dress on the right. His black felt tip rendering of  “Souk in Great Mosque Quarter” in old Sana’a is stunning.Charles Foster-Hall’s water colour of ‘The Tailor of Sana’a’ with his sewing machine, is truly gifted and captures the personality of the tailor and his attitude to perfection. Charles` ‘Market at Tarim with tea shop scene’is evocative and his ‘Sana’a after the rain’ is very specialStephanie Ledoux’s portraits of children are moving.

They are the future.The links in the history of Yemen and Britain are strong.  I would like to see more research  into the art history of this country. Whence came the inspiration for the skyscrapers of Shibam ?I understand from the RGS that further information can be obtained from

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