Written By: Anahi Alviso-Marino
Article Date: Jan 31, 2009 - 6:16:17 AM
Boushra Almutawakel -honoured in 1999 as the First Yemeni Female Photographer by the Empirical Research and Women’s Studies Center at Sana’a University- is a truly pioneer in the world of photography in Yemen. This young and active woman studied in the United States, working as a photojournalist on the university newspaper and as a photo lab assistant at the School of Communications. Upon her return to Yemen in 1994, she also worked on the educational sector and as a photographer has undertaken projects with the United Nations, the Dutch Embassy, and the Social Organization for Family Development among many others. Almutawakel was also a founding member of the al-Halaqa artist group, which created in 1996 a space for exhibitions in Sana’a, connected with international artists in order to forge local and international debates. Since 1998 she became a full-time photographer and has held several exhibitions inside and outside Yemen. Although she started to be recognized for her work as a photographer, she continued her studies and in 2003 won a scholarship to specialize in advertising photography in Atlanta, United States. Her current work is an engagement with social interpretations of culture in Yemen, where she works and lives.
Yemen Observer (YO): -How did you become interested in photography? What were your beginnings?
Boushra al-Mutawakel (BAM): -
While attending university, I made a list of things I wanted to do before I died and learning about photography was one of them. I was always fascinated by photography, but it seemed somewhat mysterious to me. So I enrolled in a six week summer course in basic black and white photography, and so began my relationship with and love of photography.
YO: -What does photography have that you did not find in any other kind of artistic expression?
I always had aspirations of becoming an artist since I was young, however I left them somewhere along the line toward becoming an adult. My discovery of photography reignited my love of art although my experience in other artistic forms is limited in comparison to photography. In any case, I think photography (the type I do) is more immediate in rewarding the artist and I find it is not as lonely as other forms of artistic expression (at least in the initial creation of it).
YO: -How was –and is- your experience as a Yemeni photographer?
My experience in Yemen as a photographer has been mostly positive. I have been able to easily get access to people and places, for the most part. Sometimes people are surprised or shocked that I, as a Yemeni woman, am a photographer in Yemen. Sometimes I feel I am not taken seriously in such a profession, which to many is viewed simply as a hobby.
YO: -What are the challenges you faced working here? And the achievements?
Photographing women has been a challenge at times. If I have a project that involves me photographing in a public place I receive some snide remarks and comments. The thing I have most difficulty with is having access to photographic materials, accessories and resources. Also I wish there was a stronger network of photographers in Yemen. As for the achievements I feel very lucky to be considered one of the first female photographers in Yemen. Also because I am a woman, I feel this has helped me to have more access. One of my most memorable experiences was being involved in a photographic workshop with children, many of which used to beg or work on the streets. Photography has allowed me to visit amazing places in Yemen as well as meet some very special individuals. Also for me the achievement regardless of where I am, is the working process, from a conceptualization to actualization. Sometimes I am sad to complete a project, because I enjoy the process more than anything.
YO: -How do you see the situation of photography in Yemen and of arts in general?
The most prevalent form of photography in Yemen is the portrait and tourism photography as well as photojournalism. There is also an increase in advertising photography. In my opinion, photography as an art form is still relatively new here. There is still the argument of whether or not photography is art and I feel like photography is the black sheep of art in Yemen. Although there are several prolific artists in Yemen, I feel that art in general in Yemen is not given the importance and support it deserves, which is a shame. There are few places to see, exhibit and/or sell art. There are very few schools that teach art as a major or even as a subject. Art in a very poor country is last on the priority list. On the other hand, art is all around us in Yemen (living art) whether in the architecture, costume, body art (nagsh, sabgha, henna) jewelry, etc. So in some respect I feel art is part of everyday life without it being consciously and deliberately defined as “art.”
YO: -What do you try to express through your pictures?
Mostly in my personal work I try to express my personal ideas and impressions. I try to tell a story, capture a moment, a mood, or a part of someone’s personality. Sometimes I am just drawn to certain ideas, emotions, individuals, themes, and I feel a need or an urge to capture or express them through my photography.
YO: -Are there specific themes that attract you more, or particular sources of inspiration?
Although I do commercial photography I am most interested in fine arts and documentary photography. I am particularly drawn to the individual and universal stories, and roles of women, whether in regards to women’s empowerment, the veil, motherhood, friendship or the day-to-day life of women. There are other themes that I find fascinating and am instinctively drawn to them such as intercultural couples, hands, dancers. I find inspiration from my culture and religion, feminism, women, books, other artists, and from my little girls.
YO: -What can you tell us about your work on women?
Last year I was commissioned by the French Embassy in Yemen to travel to different parts of North Yemen, to cover their programs in women’s empowerment. I traveled to many remote villages to look at women in literacy and microcredit programs. In the past I have done development projects related to photography of women. Throughout my work, whether artistic or documentary, women have always been a dominant subject.
YO: -What is exactly the project you are currently working on about the veil?
After September 11th there has been an increase in the West in all things Middle Eastern. I found that we, as Arabs and Muslims, were either demonized or romanticized. Part of this romanticism is the way Middle Eastern women have been portrayed artistically as exotic, mysterious creatures. So although I had produced some photos that happened to include the veil, I wanted to stay away from creating and publishing such stereotypical clichéd work. However, since I had so many different views on the veil, I thought I owed it to myself to have my say. I started the series dedicated to the veil while attending university, where I attended a lecture by the feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi. At that lecture she said that she felt that women who wore the hijab or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup in the sense that they all hid their true identities. I thought that was an interesting way of looking at things, and decided to interpret this photographically. As an Arab woman living in Yemen I had many different views in regard to the veil, and none of them are as simple as black or white. I found the veil to be an intriguing and complex topic, and through this photographic series I wanted to explore and express these personal views. In addition I wanted to challenge both Arab and Western views of the veil.
YO: -How do you respond to the possibility of your work being catalogued as Orientalist outside Yemen and as problematic inside your country? BAM :-
I don’t feel like my work is Orientalist because I am an Arab Muslim Yemeni woman living in Yemen as opposed to, say someone from the West. The basis of my work comes from personal experience, from my own daily thoughts about and questioning of the veil especially as someone who wears the veil in Yemen. I don’t find that my work will be problematic as it would be controversial. I fear that maybe some aspects of my work may be misinterpreted and misused. I feel that the current environment is not ready to receive some of my work at this time. But then again I may be underestimating the tolerance level for my work.
YO: -What are your future projects?
I am participating in a project/exhibition with the British Council titled “My Father’s House,” which will be opening in Muscat, Oman on February 8. I will be exhibiting my work with other artists from the region as well as three other British photographers. I photographed the interiors of different houses in Sana’a. I also did a series of my ancestral homes in Sana’a. The veil series, which I hope to complete and exhibit this year is also a work in process. Other projects include photographing and interviewing key women who have made an impact in their communities as part of a mentoring program for younger women and also in progress, is a project on intercultural couples. As a mother of four girls, I also hope to do something on motherhood.
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