Story:Ian Clifford & Wajdi Raweh
Around 200 people attended the opening of the “Coal, Frankincense and Myrrh” Exhibition at Weston Park Museum on 30th October. The exhibition celebrated the links between Sheffield and the Yemeni Community that has lived here since the 1950s. Yemenis from all over Sheffield and further afield joined others at the opening.
Introducing the exhibition, Nick Dodd, the Chief Executive of Sheffield Museums and Galleries Trust, explained how Yemeni sailors first began migrating to Britain by joining the British merchant navy. In the 1880s sailors began to arrive in ports such as Liverpool, Cardiff, Newport and South Shields. Nick referred to some of the fantastic photography in the exhibition, including Tim Smith’s photos from the steelworks in the 80s and breathtaking recent photographs of the Yemen.
The exhibition was opened by the Ambassador from the Yemen to the UK, His Excellency Mohamed Taha Mustafa. The Messenger asked His Excellency when it would be safe to visit the Yemen, given recent civil unrest in the south of the country. His Excellency insisted Yemen was safe to visit and that thousands of tourists were visiting the country. Speaking to those assembled, the Ambassador referred to the recent visit of the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh to the UK in 2006 and welcomed the decision of donor countries to give £4.7 billion dollars to the regime.
Chair of the Yemeni Community Association, Saleh Alnoud, spoke powerfully about the debt the younger generation of the Yemeni community owed to their fathers and grandfathers who had worked long hours in the steel works. Saleh said integration was a two way thing. Yes, the Yemeni community must integrate into British society, but UK society also had a duty to become more aware about Yemeni culture.
The involvement of local Yemenis in the exhibition was evident from the loans of wedding jewelry and memorabilia from the steel works such as crane driver licenses. Most amusing was the comment of Awadh bin Awadh Hussein who returned back from Sheffield to the Yemen some years ago:
“Tell my friends from Sheffield that I’m still alive, and that I miss the place!”
Some, particularly those in the Yemenicommunity, felt the exhibition fell short of their expectations. While the photography was fantastic, the concentration on rural and village scenes failed to reflect the past heritage of the Yemen or the thriving city-life of the present day. Others pointed out that the voices of the women left behind in the Yemen while their husbands toiled in Sheffield steelworks were absent. When the Messenger put these concerns to the Museums and Galleries Trust, Kim Streets, Head of Curation said:
“The aim of the exhibition was to explore home and belonging through the experiences of Yemeni families in Sheffield and to explore the contribution of Yemeni people to the cultural life of Sheffield and the UK.The main emphasis was on the UK part of the story: exploring leaving family and friends in the Yemen, moving here, settling, working in a new country and the prospect, for some people, of moving back to Yemen in later life.”
The exhibition is well worth a visit as an important attempt to bring the lives of one of Sheffield’s oldest ethnic minority communities into our museums.
The exhibition continues until 13th April, with workshops and events associated with the exhibition, including a Yemeni Cultural Day on 13th February and a symposium about the South Yorkshire Yemeni community’s social and cultural experience today on 28th January.
Contact Jon Bradley. Tel: 278 2686.