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Culture Under Threat: Freer Gallery of Art Unveils New Exhibit on Ancient Yemeni Art in Danger

September 6, 2018

The International Council of Museums’ “Red List” for Yemen, published 2018
The International Council of Museums’ “Red List” for Yemen, published 2018

Yemen: Culture and Conflict

In April 2018, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutierres declared the war in Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Since the beginning of hostilities in 2015 between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s government, three million people have been displaced, and up to 22 million could be at risk of famine. Conservatively more than 10,000 have been killed. Yemen’s rich cultural heritage, too, has been devastated by the conflict.

A new exhibit at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. provides an opportunity for the public to learn more about Yemen’s heritage, now under threat by the ravages of war. Shelling in Taa’iz set fire to the town’s museum in 2016, destroying the building and its renowned collection of Islamic copper vases and golden clocks, which has been repeatedly looted throughout the last several years. All three of Yemen’s cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Historic Town of Zabid, the Old Walled City of Shibam, and the Old City of Sana’a, have been inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, the latter two in 2015 due to airstrikes and shelling. In a 2015 statement, then-UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova condemned the destruction. “In addition to causing terrible human suffering,” she said, “these attacks are destroying Yemen’s unique cultural heritage, which is the repository of people’s identity, history and memory and an exceptional testimony to the achievements of the Islamic civilization.”

The loss of Yemen’s cultural heritage features prominently in the news, yet many Americans may be unfamiliar with the art at risk. While the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome fascinate the public imagination, Yemeni antiquities have remained the purview of archaeologists and scholars. This knowledge gap can impede efforts to save them. The Freer’s recently opened exhibit, “A Glimpse of Ancient Yemen” (on view until August 18, 2019) aims to fill the information vacuum. It celebrates Yemen’s rich heritage and reminds visitors of the war’s devastating effects on culture.

Yemen at a Glimpse

Lion with rider, 75 BCE–50 CE, bronze

The Freer’s exhibit is truly a glimpse, as it consists of only five antiquities from the museum’s permanent collection: a sculpted head of a woman, a cast bronze statue of a lion and rider, and three funerary statues. Despite its limited scale, the exhibit provides a highly informative look at an under-studied subject. “A Glimpse of Ancient Yemen” does not overwhelm or confuse viewers. Its intimacy allows for museum guests to interact more closely with the objects, which have been carefully chosen to represent the artistic styles and ways of life of the ancient kingdom of Qataban, in modern-day Yemen, around the last century BCE and first century CE. All were excavated by the archaeologist Wendell Phillips and his associates during expeditions in 1950 and 1951.

An informational wall panel provides key contextual information on Yemen’s ancient history, describing the confluence of trade routes in Timna, capital of the Qataban kingdom. Caravans laden with frankincense, myrrh, and other valuable goods enriched this dynamic region, earning it the Roman name Arabia Felix (Arabia, the Prosperous). The Freer highlights two vibrant cultural traditions from this period: alabaster carving and bronze casting.

“South Arabian Mona Lisa”

An alabaster and plaster head of a woman, found in the Timna cemetery by Phillips and dubbed the “South Arabian Mona Lisa” by Freer curators, is one of the most stunning antiquities included in the exhibit. Its polished stone surface glows in the twilight of the gallery, reveals the truth. The unknown Yemeni artist has elongated human proportions to grant the subject an aura of elegance impossible for a human face to attain in reality. Veins running vertically through the creamy stone reinforce the gracefulness of the swan-like neck.

The undulating pleats of a trapezoidal plaster hairstyle — having survived nearly intact since Antiquity — frame the woman’s gentle face. The diagonal sides of this coiffure direct the viewer’s gaze up, past the stately neck, along the transversal of the nose, showcasing the delicately sculpted features. An ambiguous smile, reminiscent of that belonging to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, graces her finely molded face. The soft bulge of her cheekbones and the shallow concavity of her dimples suggest warm flesh and a personable spirit within. She raises one incised eyebrow as if registering the momentary laughter of an ancient joke, now frozen in time.

A Portrait of Plunder

This sculpture features prominently on the cover of the International Council of Museums’ “Red List” to combat looting in Yemen. ICOM regularly publishes these informational booklets for areas in crisis to help government officials, military personnel, and individuals learn how to identify art objects at risk of theft or illegal exportation. Looting has plagued Yemen for years. In 2012, the Museum of Zinjibar was plundered. Then, in a high-profile discovery, a cache of likely stolen Yemeni artifacts was found in the Geneva freeport in 2013. In a recent report, Yemeni cultural authorities identified 21 antiquities of illicit origin for sale in online marketplaces. Since the latest round of fighting broke out, looting has worsened, as thieves use political chaos as a cover to rob museums and archaeological sites.

The Aden National Museum, home to one of the premier collections of Aksumite and Roman coins in the world, is missing over 1,000 coins. In 2017, authorities seized a shipment of unprovenanced ancient Yemeni copper antiquities in Oman. In 2018, Yemeni port officials discovered a stash of smuggled ancient Islamic glassware, jewelry, and woodwork. In a region rife with terrorism, the sale of artifacts on the black market may be an enticing funding opportunity for extremist groups. In fact, the culture minister of Yemen, Marwan Dammaj, has accused Houthi rebels of looting museums, archaeological excavations, and cultural heritage sites and selling their finds abroad. The handsome antiquities on display in the Freer can only hint at the vast numbers of treasures under threat in Yemen today.

The Freer’s “South Arabian Mona Lisa” is the standout star of the exhibition, but this does not mean that the other Yemeni antiquities are insignificant. These objects, impressive in their own right, recount for viewers the history of the ancient Qataban kingdom. A large cast-bronze statue of a boy riding a lion attests to the diverse, multicultural society produced by the intermingling of Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Persians along trade routes. The naturalism of the figures’ modeling attests to the Greek influence in Arabia, as does the iconography. The lion with young boy rider is a common motif of the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and a popular deity in this region. Bronze casting, like alabaster carving, was a notable Qataban tradition, making this artifact a striking visual testament to cultural exchange in ancient Yemen.

This sculpture rewards close looking, as one can witness an interesting contrast between the doughy physique of the toddler and the taut musculature of his steed. In a twist of irony, the two mirror each other, each lifting up a paw (for the lion) or arm (for the boy). While awkward, crouching below the sculpture and looking upwards allows the visitor to obtain a new perspective on the artwork. This angle better reveals the faces, which appear downcast from a head-on view. From below, on the other hand, the lion and boy appear to be grinning; the lion even seems to stick out its tongue at a jaunty angle. Perhaps they, too, are amused by the same joke that brought a smile to the face of the museum’s Yemeni “Mona Lisa.”

Profound Traditions

A glass case with three funerary statues, two carved from alabaster and one from travertine, reveal more about the ancient Yemenis’ cultural practices. Fashioned in a similar style as the sculpted woman’s head and unearthed in the same cemetery, they suggest a profound tradition of remembrance of the dead. The statues stare forward with gaping eyes, hands clasped as if in prayer or outstretched as if to present a votive offering. While their features are stylized, inscriptions on bases of two of the statues provide a hint of detail about the deceased they honor: one is identified as “Gabi of the family of Hani’mat,” the other as Wahab’il dhu-Dhamar’il. Today, they seem to mourn the ongoing loss of Yemen’s cultural heritage, the destruction of the artworks linking the Yemeni people with the proud history of their ancestors.

The turmoil in Yemen, makes the Freer’s exhibit all the more imperative. “A Glimpse of Ancient Yemen” provides additional context to the war and its victims, which encompass not only human lives, but also cultural heritage.

Andrew Lokay is an intern at the Antiquities Coalition. Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, he is now a student at Stanford University, where he studies International Relations and French. If you are interested in interning at the Antiquities Coalition please send a resume and cover letter to