If you live in the West, you’ll probably find it difficult to believe that one of Yemen’s first women photographers first picked up a camera in the 1990s. Boushra Almutawakel is celebrated for not only breaking the gender barrier in regards to Yemeni photography, but her provocative and engaging works have yielded interest internationally, landing her in The New Yorker, Rachel Maddow‘s blog, The Economist, and in prestigious galleries in embassies and museums around the world.
The globetrotting mother of four spent some of her childhood and early adulthood living in the U.S. Her homebase is currently in Yemen, where she lives with her daughters and her husband. It is through the lens of her camera that Boushra most boldly negotiates her Western sensibility with her life in the Middle East, where an interesting narrative unfolds.
What do you find compelling about images through photography? Why not painting, or some other medium?
I was always intruiged by the arts, including photography.
I got into photography by chance, and it’s something that happened over time. I wanted to learn about photography as part of a bucket list. I did not expect to fall in love with it as I did. It was like magic! Also, it started it out as just a hobby that became a bit of an obsession. Eventually, I was invited to exhibit, my work started selling, and I was hired to do some photo projects. In the 1990s I was honored along with several other Yemeni women pioneers, as the first woman photographer in Yemen. Photography is a very powerful medium in the arts, journalism, the internet, and in the media. It is instant, real (although it can also be deceiving at times), communicates in a way everyone understands, and freezes moments in time allowing the viewer to leisurely study an image over and over again. I love creating and observing photographic images. There are images that are forever burned into our psyche. Although I am a photographer, I am also interested in other art forms and multimedia. If it were up to me, I think I would have been a painter.
“In the 1990s I was honored along with several other Yemeni women pioneers, as the first woman photographer in Yemen.”
How long have you been a photographer?
I have been doing photography since 1992, but professionally since 1998.
What do you shoot with?
Currently I shoot with a Canon 5d, and hope to get back to shooting medium and large format film.
Your work obviously comes from your subjectivity as a woman, but why is it that you photograph so many women subjects, including self portraits?
I have photographed many other topics, but I do love photography related to women. I am a woman, I have four girls, and so it comes most natural for me to photograph women or issues related to women. It is what is closest to my heart and what I know most about. I hope my work regarding women will generate curiosity, conversation, and debate, especially in the areas of social norms and stereotypes, and women’s rights. As women, we have sooo many issues to contend with, so many wrongs that need to be corrected, not just for women in the Middle East, but women everywhere. There is a lot of repression, oppression and misogyny–some of the things I would like to address in my work.
“There is a lot of repression, oppression and misogyny–some of the things I would like to address in my work.”
What type of socio-cultural-political commentary have you covered in your works so far? Especially relating to Yemen, and Islam?
I have photographed women and children in very remote areas throughout Yemen, photographing things related to education, health and development. I did a series under the title of “My Father’s House,” a British Council project, where I photographed interiors of homes of different socio-economic backgrounds. Before that I photographed a series on contemporary Moslem life in Yemen, looking at the integration between religion and tradition, where one begins and the other one ends. My latest series is on the veil. It is an ongoing series that I started in 2001.
Tell me a bit about the Barbie series, where you have an Islamicized Barbie positioned in various day-to-day settings.
Growing up, I played with the Barbie doll along with other dolls. As an adult, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Fulla a few years ago, the Middle Eastern Islamic version of Barbie. She comes with a headscarf, and abaya (a long black light coat), and permanent long underwear. You can purchase one that comes with prayer clothes and a prayer mat, and when you press her back, she chants a prayer in Arabic. I fell in love with Fulla, and bought my girls the doll. It was just nice to have another option to the blue-eyed, blonde, well-endowed Barbie. Especially a doll that was representative of my culture and religion (although I am not that religious). So I decided to photograph her. At the suggestion of a mentor/friend, I lost myself in play, taking me back to my days when I was a little girl playing with dolls. I created different scenarios, and photographed them. Slowly I started seeing snippets of my life or the life of other Yemeni women play out in these scenarios. I had such a blast. I still have a long way to go with Fulla and her adventures.
“It was just nice to have another option to the blue eyed, blonde, well-endowed Barbie. Especially a doll that was representative of my culture and religion (although I am not that religious).”
You went to school in the U.S. How was that experience being in a country that at the time (and still is today to a degree) anti-Muslim?
I first went to the U.S. when I was 6 years of age, living there till I was eleven. My family and I traveled to the U.S. for our summer vacations. I later went to the U.S. to pursue my Bachelor’s degree, and later with my husband to study photography. Overall, my experience in the U.S. was very positive, and memorable. I think since I went to the U.S. at such an early age, the U.S. felt like my second home. Although I was aware of prejudice against Arabs and Moslems, mostly through the media or other’s experiences, I don’t recall being treated badly because of my race or religion. Even during a period when in college I wore the hijab, I felt others embraced my difference, and were curious. Then again I spent most of my time in the U.S. in Washington DC, which is quite international, with people from all over the world.
Was there any particular experience growing up that you now realize had a significant role in defining how you see yourself today?
I had many (both good and bad) defining moments that make me who I am today. Some of these experiences are very personal, but all I can say I learned to break out of some of the limiting customs and beliefs that I was brought up with, to break through some very real fears that were just in my mind, I learned to be more independent, about the importance of working hard and doing your best, not matter what it was.
“…I learned to break out of some of the limiting customs and beliefs that I was brought up with, to break through some very real fears that were just in my mind…”
What are some prevailing themes in your life right now that you would like to translate to your photography?
I have so many projects I would like to continue or start some of which are photographing key Yemeni women, women who have made it or brought about positive change, etc, as a way of honoring them, and highlighting these women and their stories to other women and girls, to possibly inspiring them in fulfilling their dreams; continuing my series on intercultural couples, which I find fascinating, and motherhood–the magic and the madness.
Where are you showing/what are you working on now?
Currently some of my work is being exhibited as part of a group exhibit titled Contemporary Middle Eastern Art and Paris at the National Museum in Sana’a, Yemen. The British Museum in London acquired my work, and I will be part of an upcoming exhibit on Photographers from the Middle East at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.
Words by Boyuan Gao
All photography by Boushra Almutawakel
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