What is art to you? What does art mean in our society?
Art is many things to me. It’s storytelling, making a statement. It’s the language of the soul. It’s a way to connect, a universal language that transcends borders and differences. It’s a feeling or thought that must come to form (whether in a painting, in a poem, a musical piece), a necessary birthing of something from within that must come out somehow. Art knows no bounds or limitations. Art transcends the limitations of borders, language and culture — it unites and polarises. It can be soothing and shake you to your core. In our society, art is very essential and sacred. It reflects back to society its beauty, history and savagery. Artists can be activists bringing attention to social, religious and economic issues. They confront our societies with truths that are too painful to face at times. Art also can soothe the world, bringing much-needed joy and beauty, making certain times more bearable, somehow. It can be a much-needed distraction or inspiration, a respite from the every day. Art can withstand the test of time telling us something of our ancestors before us.
What are your thoughts on the following quote: “Art is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted?”
I find it to be true. Art in the form of music, poetry, photography and film is a form of comfort and escape from our every day worries and routines, and an inspiration. At the same time, some art is disturbing in that it makes us question the norm, shakes us to our core, moves us to tears, inspires and even frightens us.
What are your thoughts on the following quote by Etel Adnan: “One paints only oneself?”
It’s similar to a quote I read, not sure who it is by, that states that the world is not as it is, but rather it is how we are. Our reality is based on our mood or state of mind or being. Artists create from their perspective, their unique point of view, as distinct to themselves as their fingerprints.
When did your interest in art begin? What prompted you to embark on a career in art?
It started when I was a girl of maybe ten years old. I was living in the States at the time. We had an artist, a woman who was staying with us for some time. I was fascinated how she could so easily capture my essence with simple scribbles with a pencil on paper. Later, in my late teens, while working as a teacher’s aid, I took a daily art class with Giza Alwazir for a year, and it was truly joyful for me. I felt light and completely lost in creating. I felt completely lost in the work. I became the artwork I was working on, which is such a liberating feeling. Also what I was feeling and going through was showing up in my work unconsciously.
When working/living in the West, are you ever made to feel as if you have to speak on behalf of the Arab/Muslim world?
Yes, all the time.
How do you feel about being labelled as a female artist or a Middle Eastern artist?
It is true, but I don’t like being pigeonholed sometimes. I am grateful for the interest in my work and as it relates to my gender and identity and culture. I am a woman from the Arab world, something I am proud of. However, I am a little tired of it at times. I feel like I am regurgitating the same thing over and over again. I hope to create new work and move from just being a female artist from the Arab world and that my work will be of value in and of itself, rather than just for the fact that it — or I — meet a particular criteria.
Do you consider yourself representative of your gender and/or culture?
I hope that I am representative of both some of my gender and parts of my culture.
Do you consider art a way to freedom?
Yes, a freedom to release and express my love, anger, pride, fear or joy. When I do create I find it therapeutic, somehow. Deep immersion in creating art or anything with one’s hands, and/or being lost in someone else’s art, I find art can be freedom from the self and the constraints that self may pose.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I wish. I would think it too presumptuous to think so. I have a great respect and admiration for certain activists and their causes and what they do to try to bring about positive change — even risking their lives. I express selfishly what is important to me. I later found out it is important to others as well, which has made me feel more validated, somehow. I used to think, “Who cares what I think or what I have to say?” It was only through the mostly positive feedback that some of my work has received that I realised that if it is important to me, it is probably important to some others as well. I have found that what I or others have to say has value and the struggles, questions and thoughts I have are not unique to me. I have also seen how polarising some of my work may be, but I see now that it can be a good thing.
Do you think that an Arab artist should live in or be connected to the West in order to attain success, exposure and recognition?
I can really only speak for myself. To a certain degree, yes. When I started out, I did my work purely for the pleasure of it and for me, and most of it was created while in Yemen. However, when there was interest in my work, whereby individuals or organisations were willing to pay me for my work, they were for the most part Western. I worked with the Empty Quarter and East Wing Gallery, both in Dubai.
Although there has been interest in my work from Arab institutions and individuals, the bulk of it has been from the West. Most of the well-known institutions, museums, galleries and art critics are in the West. However, there is a thriving art scene in the Arab world, with more galleries opening up, and curators, bloggers, magazines, etc. There are more museums and galleries opening up in the Arab world. But it is still relatively new compared to the West. With the digital age, it is becoming easier to create and share work all over the world. Most of the work I created while living in Yemen got most of its recognition from being shared online, in the region and in the West, without promotion from my gallery. I definitely think that being connected to the West as an Arab artist somehow is conducive to greater “success,” recognition and overall exposure. However, I felt much more inspired and liked more of the work I did while in Yemen
Which female artists do you admire?
Tamara de Lempicka
Do you feel that some of your artwork is specifically targeted to an audience of women?
Yes, it is. I start with myself, as the work is something that reflects some of my personal thoughts or issues, and by default it deals with mostly female issues, naturally appealing to a more female audience.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am still working on the veil, as well as themes of motherhood, depression/mania, mixed families and couples, mixed media.
Which venue do you dream of exhibiting your work in?
The Guggenheim or MoMA would be nice.
You did not start out as an artist. How and why did you make the switch? What attracted you to the art of photography?
I have always been interested in art, but never considered it as a career. Unlike my brothers, I was never encouraged to be anything in particular, which has its advantages and disadvantages. I took a basic black-and-white photography course while studying business at the American University in Washington DC. I fell in love, and so worked with the school paper and year book, and school photo lab — anything to allow me free access to film, chemistry, darkroom and cameras.
Upon graduation, I returned to Yemen, where I joined up with an artists’ group. We would have workshops and regular exhibits. I was a founding member of Alhalaqa, an artists’ collective in Sana’a. We had a centre where we would hold workshops, invite artists to teach and exhibit, etc. My work started to sell, to my great surprise, and then I had offers to do photography work for organisations such as CARE International and UNICEF. I was doing photography firstly as a hobby.
Then I built a darkroom in my parents’ home. I quit my job and became a fulltime photographer. In 1999, my husband was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to pursue higher studies in the U.S. I accompanied him to Atlanta, Georgia, where I completed a two-year photography programme at Portfolio Center. Although I love photography, I find it is not enough for me, somehow. I think in an ideal world I would have loved to be a painter.
You are a female artist who deals with human issues. Would you define yourself as a feminist?
Very much so. A friend of mine pointed out that in many of my images she felt as if I was fighting for something, which is how I am. I am the eldest of three brothers, coming from a very religious, male-dominated, sometimes misogynistic society. But misogyny is not exclusive to the Arab Muslim world, it is everywhere. I have always fought for my rights or being treated fairly with my father, when he was alive, my mother, my brothers, my husband and even with other women. I feel it is a constant for me. I have four daughters. Yes, I consider myself a feminist.
In your portfolio series Hand you choose to capture that body part. Can you explain your choice and its significance? Why did you choose to capture them in black and white?
When I started photography, I started with black and white. Other than some jobs that I did in colour, I continued doing black-and-white photography until I went to Portfolio Center, where we had to do many assignments in colour and I really liked the result. I love hands. There are certain types of hands which I find so appealing and beautiful. It’s as if they are expressive, talking to me somehow. We do so much with our hands and our fingers: write, knit, play instruments, cut, eat, hold, sew, brush, gesture — it is an extension of ourselves. I would love to do a book of hands I love.
Do you feel connected to any photographer or artist?
One of my favourite photographers is Cig Harvey. Her work is so simple and poetic, it goes right to my heart. Marwa Adel creates beautiful mysterious imagery filled with emotion that is so moving. Some of the other artists whose work I love are listed above.
When and why do you choose to use colour as opposed to using a black-and-white filter?
I started with black and white, and still love black and white and use it from time to time. However, I also love bright vibrant colour. I use colour to emphasise beauty, design and, of course, colour. I have bad eyesight, so I have a tendency to move in on objects to get a closer look, as well as liking vibrant colour. I feel like I can see things better that way.
What type of camera do you use in your photography? Do you use any type of editing software, such as Photoshop?
Currently, I am using the Cannon Mark III. Yes, I use photoshop.
In The Hijab Series you have a piece that depicts a man wearing the veil, as of the woman. Can you comment on the artistic process behind this piece? There seems to be an emphasis on the hands — is this incidental or coincidental?
I had always wondered how it would be if men were required to veil and not women. So I translated this thought into this series. The emphasis of the hands is purely coincidental. I posed them in the way all sitters were posed so seriously and still back in the day in the black-and-white photos taken in studios in Yemen. Later, I saw that the hands are on the lap as they are during prayer.
In Mother, Daughter, Doll you begin with a mother, child and doll wearing colourful “modest” wear. However, in each successive photograph there is a progression towards complete blackness and their smiles fade away. Can you explain the significance?
Yemen is a very conservative, mostly traditional country. In the past 15-20 years with the spread and promotion and spread of Wahabi/Salafi/Saudi Islam throughout Yemen, it even started to become more and more conservative. One of the ways you could see this in everyday life was the covering of women with layers upon layers of black fabric. I had got used to seeing little girls with the hijab, but was quite shocked when I saw little girls wearing the niqab. I just did not feel it had anything to do with Islam as I understood it. So this series depicts this phenomenon. To what extent must a woman be covered to be deemed acceptable? What purpose does this over covering achieve? Pureness? Closeness to God? Salvation? Protection? If it is to protect the women from the peering eyes of men, then shouldn’t there be more focus on the men? On their adherence to God’s instruction to look away? Are they animals who cannot control themselves?
You moved to France in 2013. Why did you decide to settle in France? How good was your French then? What is your opinion on the law in France from 2010 banning veils covering faces in public places?
My family and I moved to France for my husband’s work. I am wary of the burka/niqab ban. On the one hand, I feel this law infringes on the rights of the women who may choose to cover their faces. They are unfairly targeting an already weak minority: Muslim women. I feel such laws don’t really help anyone or serve any real purpose and that time, energy and resources could be put to better use.
If they would like for the Muslim community to be better integrated into French society then they should accept them as they are first and try to understand them better, not conditionally accept them: You must act, eat, dress and behave like us in order to be accepted as one of us. I find that to be an arrogant and superior way of thinking, much like colonial times. The Muslim community is marginalised and ostracised, making many young frustrated, unemployed, angry, misinformed young Muslim men ripe are targets for radicalisation.
On the other hand, with all of the current terrorist attacks I can see how this fear is used to further the right wing political agendas, creating a greater divide in French society between the French Muslims and their French countrymen. So I can see how the burka may be seen as a security risk of some type, hiding the identity of a potential terrorist. I still do not support such a ban. I feel the way the French have treated some of their Muslim citizens goes against the Republic’s motto: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. It seems to be true if you are white and secular.
You were living in Yemen when the Arab Spring revolts started in 2010. What impact did the Arab Spring have on you and on your work?
The Arab Spring had more of an impact on me and my family than it did on my work. When the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and then Egypt, I remember like so many being glued to the television in shock and awe. When the Arab Spring came to Yemen, I was intrigued. I visited Change Square and had lots of friends who were activists or participants in the revolution. But I was not convinced, somehow.
Although I was not a supporter of Ali Abdalla Saleh, I did not like the way he was made to step down. I also did not like the way that they humiliated our leaders, from Saddam, to Mubarak, to Gaddafi and to Saleh. It was rather humiliating. It is not to say that they are innocent and did not make mistakes or commit crimes, but why are only our Arab Muslim leaders put to the stand? Why are Bush, Cheyney, Rice, Rumsfeld and others who have committed horrific crimes against humanity, why are they not made to stand trial and hang? The Arab Spring may have started genuinely with young people wanting a true change, however, I felt that the West, under the guise of these revolutions (as well as financial, media and other forms of support), got rid of their “dictators,” just as they had helped keep them there for years.
The aftermath of these revolutions and overthrowing of these rulers has been catastrophic in Iraq, Yemen, Syria (which they have not managed to topple, but will do so at any price, even if it means the annihilation of the Syrian population), and Egypt and Libya. Although I went to Change Square several times and photographed, the novelty of it wore off very quickly when I saw how disingenuous and horrible it was: Change Square was basically being run by the Islah party, which is heavily funded by Saudi Arabia. It was a sham. Yes, Saleh needed to go, but it should be on the terms of the Yemeni people through elections, and not in this way. I was worried and fearful for my family at the time and so it didn’t really have an impact on my work.
Did you meet or have a chance to work with the Yemeni 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman?
Yes, I have met Tawakkol. I have never had the chance to work with her (my husband has) nor do I want to. I am not a big fan of her to say the least. She is not an advocate of peace nor an advocate of women’s rights. She is from the Islah party, which is a right-wing Islamist group funded by Saudi Arabia. When there was a movement to make a law changing the minimum age of marriage for girls to 17, she was one of its opponents. She incited violence in many of the protests she led, and it is because of her that many young activists died. She is highly disliked by most Yemenis. I frankly do not understand why she was awarded the NPP. I think it was purely political (the West trying to make ties with the Muslim Brotherhood) and has diluted the virtue and value of such a prize.
Why did you choose to capture women wearing men’s traditional clothing? Did you receive any opposition, and if so what type?
Well, I had been focusing on women’s clothing and modesty, and it had completely escaped my mind that not only are women expected to be modest, but traditionally men are also expected to be modest: Traditional clothing included long, loose thawb/gameese, with sirwal (long loose white shorts) and a head covering. I thought the men’s traditional clothes were conservative and modest enough that even women could wear them. So I tried it out. Yes, I did receive opposition. It is frowned upon in my culture for women to take on male qualities, as it is for men to take on women’s qualities.
In three of your artworks in this series, you seem to have been inspired by the art of patchwork. How did you create these pieces? There seems to be references to art forms which are traditionally associated with women (tapestry and embroidery), did you intend for this? The different pieces, squares and rectangles, in each photograph represent alternatively veiled women and decorative elements alluding to their interiors. The margins of the collages are embellished by decorative elements. Their composition is apparently reminiscent of Islamic miniatures, of the tradition of illumination and the art of illustration in Islamic art. Can you comment?
The images are not of patchwork but rather of three traditional veils from Sana’a, Rada’a and Almahweet. The fabrics have (block) print design on them. I created a collage of close-ups of certain details of each veil, cut them up and made a collage. Afterwards, the same small collage was created using Photoshop. Here I was trying to show that traditionally our veils are not black and bland (which comes from Turkish occupation in the form of the sharshaf and Saudi Arabia), but rather are decorative, beautiful, colourful, like living art. In many rural areas, the women didn’t even cover their faces, and some of the hair would show. Unfortunately many of these veils are not worn any longer or are worn by older generations. Most have been replaced by the black sharshaf or the black abaya from the Gulf.
Although among the younger generation, in protest to the Saudi aggression against Yemen since early 2015 and the killing of many innocent civilians and indiscriminate destruction of Yemen and its people, there has been a revival of all things Yemeni, which I am very pleased to see. Yemeni millennials are using these veils and other Yemeni traditional symbols in films, fashion, design and more, using them in traditional and non-traditional ways, always in a way that expresses deep pride in our shared Yemeni identity. I am a founding member of a group called I Love Yemen on Facebook that focuses on all things Yemeni that we love, from veils, to music, poetry, food, Yemen’s terrain and landscape. We have nearly 150,000 members.
In the photographs where only the women’s eyes are shown, is it reflective of a photographer looking through a lens? Is it a traditional or a religious reflection?
Neither. I simply was wondering if you could tell the expression of someone veiled except for the eyes, and I put it to the test in this series, and found out you can very much tell someone’s expression just from their eyes.
Growing up I had loved playing with Barbie. So as an adult I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Fulla doll. I liked having a doll that resembled someone from my culture: darker hair, larger waist, smaller bust and wearing the hijab as I do back home. So at a workshop I started with just portraits of Fulla. After being encouraged to actually play with the doll by my professor, I really got into it. I would play out everyday scenarios from my life and the lives of my friends. So I found a way to tell these stories in a safe and non-confrontational manner, while getting in touch with my childlike imaginative side, and I would photograph these scenarios.
Multicultural identity is at the core of your series of Portraits. Your portraits navigate between the East and the West. Can you expand on this point?
I have lived in the West and the East and, I feel connected to both and this is reflected in my work.
I was lucky to meet and work with the Franco-Moroccan photographer and filmmaker Yasmina Bouziane, whose work I exhibited at the Institut du Monde Arabe in 2006. Like you, Yasmina addresses questions of identity, gender, Orientalism and colonial photography. In 1993-94, Yasmina produced a series of 36 self-portraits (the same number as a roll of film) titled Inhabited by Imaginings we did not choose, in which she photographs herself dressed as a man.
What are your thoughts and comments on these two photographs?
I have seen these photographs and was happily surprised to see her self portrait dressed as a man. I would have loved to do that, but it would have been too risky. Although I am not familiar with the complete work, I do identify with these two images.
Which project did you enjoy working on most and which one did you find most challenging? Why?
I enjoyed working on my Hijab/Veil series. The Mother, Daughter, Doll series was quite challenging because I had to photograph and re-photograph my daughter and myself several times. She was six at the time and did not enjoy being photographed while wearing the niqab, over and over again, as she was hot and could not breathe.
by Mona Khazindar
Featured image: Mona Khazindar portrait, photo by Shadia Alem and Boushra Almutawakel portrait, photo by Celine Nieszawer
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 108-117.