“I love strong female figures,” Yumna Al-Arashi once stated in an interview. “I document them and share their beauty because they inspire me, and I believe they can inspire others as well.”
This is only one of the reasons why, in the wake of International Women’s Day on March 8, Berlin-based gallery Anahita Contemporary is presenting a selection of this fierce artist’s work. The exhibition I AM WHO I AM WHO AM I will be the first time Al-Arashi is presenting her photographs in Berlin.
Born and raised in Washington DC, Yumna Al-Arashi studied politics and sociology of the Middle East and now lives in London where she is working as a photographer, filmmaker, writer, and lecturer. Her studies and an ongoing interest in learning about cultures allow for additional insight and context in her art.
I AM WHO I AM WHO AM I
For Al-Arashi’s first show in Berlin, photographs representing a multifaceted portrayal of female protagonists including portraits of the artist herself, manifest solidarity, respect, and support, as well as an overarching connection between the women in the photographs. In these works, the artist wants to concentrate on what unites us - the experience of living in a human body.
With her self-portraits, Al-Arashi aims to deconstruct and question the power dynamics between photographer, subject, and audience. High earning photographers today are still predominantly male. And that gaze transfers to the photograph and the way it is perceived later on. Yet the person in the picture oftentimes has no say in said perception. By taking matters into her own hand, being both photographer as well as the woman being photographed, Al-Arashi is reclaiming her own gaze.
"My work is a representation of me, and I contain multitudes.”
Another important aspect that is intertwined with this is that she is also taking back her own body. Erotica, sensuality - beauty even - in the female body are more often than not linked to sexuality. This leads to women being objectified, detached from the person seen in the photograph. Patriarchal societies profit from this sort of capitalized female body. In other words, the narrative for too long has been male photographers taking pictures of naked female bodies and profiting off of them.
Al-Arashi wants to reclaim that power by taking pictures of her own body, on her own terms, in a safe environment. Not giving into any marketable beauty standards or ideas of how a female body is supposed to look like or behave.
And this is so very important in today’s society. We live in a time where people monetize “leaked nudes” of celebrities or basically anyone they can get their hands on. Those photographs are sold by someone who is not the person in the photo or has their consent to do so. But god forbid a woman decides to post her own photo of her own however-fairly-dressed body on the internet or selling those photos. She gets slut-shamed right away. Because how dare she take back her power!
This is why women owning and (re-)claiming their bodies being visible is crucial.
”Confusion can challenge us to question the world around us, and that’s what we need.”
Yumna Al-Arashi’s work does that, and more. Through engaging with themes spanning sexuality and the Middle East, she works at the intersection of two relevant topics. In western media, the representation of Muslim women is one-dimensional: Oppressed, hijabi, Arab. This completely neglects their different values, customs, cultures, and languages, as well as those of people from Arab nations.
Al-Arashi clarified: “We are so different from one another, just as every other person would be.”
In two short films, she dives deeper into that topic. Face documents the decline of facial tattoos among women in the Middle East and North Africa. Those tattoos were a sign of power and matriarchal strength, but are rarely seen with the younger generations. As it is generally the case for Al-Arashi’s art involving others, it was even more important for this project to respect the voices of the interviewed and have them tell their stories themselves.
The 99 Names of God is a film about the rituals of Islam. Al-Arashi did not find herself in the representations of the religion, since there is no real portrayal from the perspective of a woman, by a woman. Being of Yemeni-American heritage herself, the artist revolves her work around her roots and explores the themes of her artworks against that background. For this short film, she wanted to make those voices heard that have been silenced by a history written by men.
This kind of substance is important to her work. At a time, where everyone can be a photographer, and pretty pictures are everywhere, pretty just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Text by Stefanie Regina Dietzel