On May 26th, 2011, the U.S. issued an “ordered departure” for all non-essential diplomats in Yemen, amidst bloody clashes between supporters and opponents of then Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Even in their early days, these encounters left dozens dead and more injured—all the while, Saleh promised he would keep the latest violence from “dragging the country into civil war.”
By year’s end, the death toll settled at 2,000. By the end of the decade, the 2011 Yemeni Revolution had exploded into an even bloodier civil war, which has so far left more than 100,000 dead, including 12,000 civilians, as well as estimates of more than 85,000 dead as a result of an ongoing famine caused by the war. The United Nations has called this famine “the worst in the world in 100 years.”
This is the backdrop for Mohammed Murshed’s show, “Patterns Do Furnish a Life,” on view through November 21st at SATOR Projects.
Walking into the gallery, which has migrated this season to a long and narrow retail space in Portland’s central eastside, I was struck first by how little I understood the subject of Murshed’s work. Outside of rumors of North Korean, Russian, and U.S. arms deals related to the Yemeni civil war, I had heard little of the war itself, and I knew nothing of its human toll. But Murshed doesn’t let media oversight distance his audience from his work’s intimate, mesmerizing presence.
Murshed’s looping video piece, Hope (2021), welcomes visitors into the gallery by asking “What does hope mean to you?” His interviewees’ responses echo throughout the space: “War destroyed all my dreams,” one individual says. “I never forget that there is a thing called hope,” says another.
By introducing the show with this question about hope, Murshed levels the playing field for both artist and viewer. It also impresses the fact that Murshed’s solo exhibition, though transparently personal, is far from a relic of someone else’s country or a memory of someone else’s war; It’s a conversation between past and future, pain, possibility and reality.
Just past the video installation, digitally-printed textile works criss-cross above the center of the gallery on clotheslines, draped in golden, midday shimmer. Painted works on canvas wait patiently on far walls, and a sketchbook sits sprawled open atop a pedestal.
On most pages of the sketchbook, wide, inky-black brushstrokes smother pages of poetry and prose, rendering them illegible. On others, images from rural Yemeni villages whisper through a haze of shadowy smears, some more obstructed than others. Flipping through the book, I felt an immediate, ominous sense of erasure.
The first of Murshed’s series of paintings—including Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, Masjid Ashrafiya, Barran Temple, and Masjid bin Alwaan (all completed in 2018)—create a similar effect of erasure, recalling only dominant outlines of buildings from Sana’a, Yemen, where Murshed grew up. These architectural landscapes swap out sky blues and grass greens for a careful palette of golds and greys—a dreamscape where shadows gesture toward both presence and absence.
What charges these pieces with emotional power is the fact that Murshed hasn’t seen these places since he fled to the U.S. in 2011, during the Arab Spring—the anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. He painted each of these landmarks from memory, so they are at once landscapes and dreamscapes.
Installed opposite the 2018 paintings are a group of paintings from 2020. These have poetic titles: More books, not weapons. Humanity is more valuable than heritage beliefs; Pass down life, not corruption. Endorse intellectualism and wisdom, not ignorance and hate; No patience for discrimination. Fairness, not hypocrisy; No for passing down ancestral historical vengeance that keeps humanity in suffering (all 2020). The more recent paintings represent what might be the next phase of Murshed’s process.
While still a definitive continuation of his “love letter” to Yemen, these later paintings move away from the idylls of memory and toward a more unsettling present. Blue, red, and black paint graffitis Yemeni structures in blood-like splatters, the brushstrokes charged with the clamour and frustration of violence.
Subtle red film also distorts the color of the sunlight passing through the gallery windows. Murshed uses red lights in his studio to create a calming effect; the red film in the gallery helps to reproduce the environment in which the paintings were produced.
Murshed’s textile works dominate the gallery space. The movement of one of Murshed’s largest pieces—Celebrate the beauty of traditional Yemeni patterns, but it’s hard to celebrate when your home is still in Yemen getting attacked. From the inside and the outside. Hopefully, one day we’ll see Yemen free from all evil (2020)—mirrors the movement of the painting of a mountain behind it (Mount Improbable (2019)). The textile piece’s cheetah blots of black, its blood-orange, pink and purple brustrokes, and its border pattern of tiny red eyes also converge at a common center, itself a yawning, backgrounded eye. What’s more fascinating than Murshed’s creative process, he digitally paints these on an iPad then prints them on polyester, is the fact that he creates these multimedia textile pieces with a Yemeni audience in mind. I’m told these pieces are perpetually out of stock.
After considering Murshed’s question, “What does hope mean to you?” I’m compelled to turn the question back to him: What does hope mean to Murshed?
“Love gets abstracted by the Patriarchy,” Murshed explained to curators Ashley Gifford and Kyle Cohlmia. “Yet, love also forms an awakening in the consciousness of people: an awakening that is dangerous to patriarchal existence.” By overpainting the memories of his hometown with (dis)ornamented patterns of violence and trauma, Murshed tells a new story about pain as he works toward healing. In these works, he not only sheds light on an overlooked crisis; he also suggests a method for processing crises, one that makes room for collective remembering, love and anti-Patriarchy activism, all at once. In Patterns Do Furnish a Life, Murshed depicts both anguish and hope with equal care.
SATOR Projects is located at 1607 SE 3rd Avenue. It is open Friday through Sunday from 12pm-5pm. “Patterns Do Furnish a Life” runs through November 21st.