Yumna Al-Arashi talks identity, art and the importance of the female gaze

Image by Jameela Elfaki

Image by Jameela Elfaki

Interview by Sunayah Arshad & Jameela Elfaki

Arriving at Yumna Al-Arashi’s London home, we were greeted with freshly-made banana bread and cups of herbal tea. Yumna was the vision of a perfect hostess and new best friend. Not only is she beautiful and kind but also intelligent and exceptionally talented in photography, visual art and writing. On her dining table, was an array of film negatives - we imagined that they were stunning unseen images from her travels in America.

Following a tour of her idyllic, creative flat, we began the interview and listened intently (whilst inhaling all of the banana bread). We were immediately immersed in the captivating experiences and stories she shared, which seemed so surreal in comparison to our own. Of Yemeni and Egyptian descent, Yumna was born and raised by her father in Washington DC. She graduated with a degree in International Politics with a focus on the Middle East, using her education to inform her art, but also to empower herself.

At 29 years old, Yumna has travelled all over the world, documenting her journey in the form of beautiful yet powerful visuals. Much of her work considers the female body and the Middle East/North African region, which she uses to educate and inspire others. We discussed at length the importance of the female gaze throughout her work, her views on societal issues, sexuality vs. sensuality, her identity and upcoming projects for the near future.

You have such a beautiful style, which emits grace, power and depth. What do you look for in an image when creating?

I’m always looking to create beautiful things. Lately with our youth, we’re seeing a lot of images of raw and almost harsh depictions of humanity. I think it’s necessary to not always make things look like fantasy and I think that women are really starting to take power in finding the confidence to show parts of their body like ‘look at my arm hair and my rolls of fat!’

I think it’s fantastic, though I’m still really interested in the almost Renaissance beauty of it. In that imagery, you’d see so much of the natural things that we’re talking about right now. It was graceful, beautiful and really alluring. The types of women that I photograph were never represented in Renaissance times and if they were, they were slaves or it was something orientalist where a white man had come into a brown space and depict it. It was never the people themselves depicting themselves. That’s what I want to do with my work - really take ownership of it. It’s about being able to use the beauty in an image to capture people and then tell them something. When you live in an image-based society, that’s the most powerful way of approaching something that you want to share.

Do you think your degree in International Politics helped shape how you wanted your work to be viewed? (For example, ‘Northern Yemen’ and ‘I Am Not a Machine’)

When I got that degree, I already knew that I wanted to use images to do something. I didn’t know exactly what route I wanted to go down, but I did know that as far as the imagery goes, I didn’t need to go to an art school. When I went to school for politics, I wanted to be able to empower myself, learn, write, understand and convey things properly. I went to The New School, which had a really avant-garde learning system, where the classes are 20 people max and the professor is someone who worked or works in the field. It was someone who really knows what they’re talking about. A lot of the time they were my idols. I would be going to school everyday and be like ‘uh you’re so cool! You’re everything I wanna be!’ We didn’t have any tests; everything was based on your ability to communicate with one another. To be able to do that, you had to read the material. It really taught you how to read, research, learn from history and think critically. That becomes the most important thing when you’re trying to talk about subjects like I do - human rights, feminism or labour. These things have a past, which we need to be able to look at and not just say, ‘this is wrong,’ but also understand how and why we got there. It can really make your argument so much more powerful.

Does your own background/heritage reflect in your work?

Oh yeah, of course! My family is from the two countries right now that have been completely flipped upside down, Yemen and Egypt. Yemen is in complete disaster mode and Egypt just went through a revolution, where nobody knows what’s going to happen next. We see how people are interacting with the internet and how that can start something to even overturn the government, but then the government takes complete control of them via the internet. We thought we could use this to start a revolution and we did, but then it totally turned back on us - what a crazy time for humanity! To be completely honest, I can’t stand when publications constantly label me as ‘the Muslim woman making art…’ but I can’t shed that label, it’s not something I can remove. It is who I am, I am a born Muslim, but I don’t necessarily label myself as one because I don’t believe in anything. I don’t believe in any sort of religion. The label is so heavy - it’s cultural, it’s blood, it’s family, it’s heritage, it’s everything. I don’t just think of it as a religion. Yes I was born into it and yes I spend half of my time in Muslim countries. The reality is, there’s all of this stuff happening in the world and I can’t shy away from it. I can’t be the person that’s like, ‘oh yeah, my identity has nothing to do with my art’ - it has everything to do with it!

Growing up in Washington D.C, with a Yemeni father and Egyptian mother, did you feel disconnected from your heritage? What has helped you understand your own identity?

A bit about my father’s history - he’s Yemeni, he grew up there and went to high school there. At the end of high school he went to Egypt to study in Cairo, where he met my mum. My dad came from a completely colonised environment - he lived in Aden, which was a British colony. He’s super British. He was (and still is) really smart; the UAE recruited him when he was in school to work for the government, because they saw how good he was at what he was doing. He was doing really well for himself, he’d already had my sisters and they all moved to the US. At that time, Yemen had started to go badly downhill, because England had left. He was seeing people become backwards and really conservative, when they weren’t before. He wanted to make a world for us that wasn’t influenced by religion or politics. At the time, America was dreamland. He wanted us to have our Yemeni heritage but didn’t want us to feel like the way we were living was wrong, because we weren’t forced to go to the mosque or cover our hair or fast or anything. We were allowed to do whatever the fuck we wanted and it was up to us whether we chose to do our religion the way we wanted. In a way, we had a distance to our culture because that’s another by-product of wars. You want to distance your children from feeling any negativity but therefore you allow the country to fall apart, as you no longer have people there fighting for it.

I’m the youngest out of four children and was the most curious, cause I had the most time away from Yemen, whereas my sisters and brother had all lived there. I was the only one born in the States. I think my siblings saw Yemen and were like ‘damn, this place sucks’. They wanted to be as cool and westernised as possible because they needed to fit into school, whereas I was born into it. Since I was a kid I was obsessed with Yemen and was like ‘I need to know everything and I need to learn how to speak Arabic!’ and I did, I pursued it super hard-core. After 9/11, living in Washington DC, it was just this ultimate confusion. You’re being called a terrorist and you’re like ‘I’m American, why would you say that to me?’ You just feel like a stranger you know? You feel so confused about your identity and you’ve done everything to assimilate because you want to be like them. I always got picked on for being a ‘terrorist’ because I was in that age group where people are the most evil to one another, whereas my siblings had already graduated high school, so they were around people that would never say something like that. I was in middle school and people were terrible to you, so I was even more encouraged at that point. That really pushed me to dive deeper, even though it was so much of a negativity at the time. I just needed to get control in my own way, so that’s what I did.

One of your most incredible pieces is ‘Shedding Skin’, what was your thought process behind the making of the project?

I had just finished shooting in Tunisia and it was my last day. We were trekking through blizzards into the Sahara and I was so tired. My producer and I went to a Hammam, which is normal to me when I’ve done something exhausting or when I need some cleansing. I think it was some sort of bank holiday where everybody was off work and it was so packed and crazy. I’ve never seen a Hammam like that in my life, it’s usually very chill, but that day everyone brought their babies and food inside, which I had never seen before. I got into a fight with a 60 year-old because she thought I stole her water bucket. I was like ‘Yo, we’re both butt-naked right now, I really don’t want to fight. This is a very vulnerable situation!’ It was insane but I thought ‘this is our space right now, this is women.’ We were at our most comfortable, yet it was everything that we weren’t allowed to be, like naked and loud. When women get into a space together and we’re comfortable, we know how to comfort each other and let go. There’s something really healing about that. It is to do with cleaning yourself and getting rid of the dirt from your body - the act of cleanliness is so big in Islamic culture. I think it also has something to do with the bonding between women and how we take care of each other emotionally, not just physically. It was also at this time that I realised I couldn’t go back to America. I was in Morocco when Trump got inaugurated but it didn’t really sink in because I was in a gas station just watching it. I landed into Tunis and he had set the Muslim ban, which meant that my entire family was therefore illegal. My siblings and father, working in the UAE, were not allowed to go there, even though my father had worked there 30 years or so. I’m the only one that has the right to be there. I was in Tunis and thought ‘I have to finish this project, I’ll deal with this when I’m done’. Then we get into the Hammam and I think ‘fuck, I really can’t go home cause I feel so disgusted’. It was that feeling when you’ve done something wrong and your parents are waiting for you at home…like that except I hadn’t done anything wrong.

It was even more disgusting because I had just finished this project, which really showed me how negative capitalism is, not only for women but also for the world. Everything was wrong. I was like ‘okay, I’m gonna go search Europe’. So I go to Paris and then Berlin. I then get a call from ASOS saying, “We can’t find anyone to fill the position of the lead female role of ASOS Supports Talent. Can you throw us an idea of your dream project and make it into a pitch?” So I made a whole pitch in one night. The next day, they were like “We love it. You’re going to be on the team  and you can push this production as much as you want.” At the time, I was living out of a suitcase with just thermals in it, cause I had been in the mountains of North Africa. They wanted me to come to a meeting in London, so I show up in nasty ripped jeans and a gross thermal like “Hi, I’m your lead woman, do you guys wanna take pictures of me?” I felt so lost and then this call came out of nowhere and gave me the ability to use my art to deal with it. Making ‘Shedding Skin’ was the best form of therapy because it gave me a space to talk about how I felt and share it with other women that came from similar backgrounds of not understanding our own identities/feeling like it had been taken away from us. The whole series is about bringing women together and feeling that support and having that one place that you can feel as comfortable as you should feel.

There is a clear femininity to your work. How important is the female gaze in photography?

I’d say it’s the most important and most needed right now. We have more empathy than men and the ability to communicate reality in a less dramatic, but honest, way. I’m thinking about photojournalism and although journalism has its standards, I do believe that we’ve lost ourselves in the media, news and the portrayal of certain places like those at war. People don’t see past the images of killings, crying women, dead babies, desert-land and blood. When women go into a space, we see so much more, we see the people; we see the beauty of the land. The female photojournalists that I know and work with, they have so much more empathy, really understand people and know how to communicate. The men are good at their jobs, they’re fantastic, but they just go in and do the job. When we need to show people other parts of the world, we need to have empathy. There’s the ability for men to continue propaganda whereas a woman would stand up and say when something is wrong.

Why is it so special for the female gaze to exist in the Middle East?

Yemen needs women. Men have been ruling there for far too long and they don’t know how to handle things. Women secretly have been ruling things that matter, like families and the land. We are the ones that keep the glue. Look who won the Nobel Peace Prize, a Yemeni woman! You see it in Yemen, it’s just dying to come out and through art we’ll be able to do so much more. This applies to the Middle East as well. Everyone knows that Middle Eastern women are the most powerful. You can’t go into a home without giving the grandmother or mother a kiss. Men know, in the home, they don’t fuck with the women.

Sexuality is a strong recurring theme within your work. You aren’t afraid to explore your own nude body as well as others, through photography. Why is this such an important subject for you to focus on?

I’ve always been a very open person and was raised in an environment where it wasn’t taboo to talk about sexuality or the body - it wasn’t a weird thing. It was so prevalent in the Middle East – people from the West would come back from visiting the Middle East and have these treasures like incense, spice and stories about how to please your woman. These people write stories about fetish and desire. It’s so deep in my culture and I know it, I feel it in my blood. If you read ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, it's all erotic, even Aladdin. Over time, as patriarchy has come in, it has been oppressed and is something that isn’t talked about. Back in the day, it was about enjoying the finer things in life. Even in the Quran, there is this idea that you must be able to please your woman or she is allowed to leave you. It’s just my style and is something that I find important. Who are we if we aren’t our nude body and if I can't show you how vulnerable I am through art, through my own body?

With regards to the last question, as an Arab woman, were you hesitant to share these images?

Yeah of course! Hell yeah. I was afraid of what everyone would say, from my dad to my sisters to my family in Yemen. For the longest time I tried to hide it, I wouldn’t post anything. I suppressed it because I thought it was wrong and I felt ashamed to be someone who’s really in touch with their sensuality. I wasn’t making the best art that I could at the time because I was trying to hide a part of myself, whereas I’ve now gotten over that. I realised that people aren’t actually as mad at me, like my dad. I thought he’d be so ashamed but he was like, “Listen, I don’t wanna look at the naked pictures, but you make beautiful work and you’re an artist and this is you, I know you and I raised you.” (My parents split when I was three and my dad raised me by himself). I was so relieved when he told me that he was supportive and from there I didn’t give a shit. I was like okay; if I have my dad on my side then everything else is all good. Still to this day my dad gets messages from aunts in Yemen saying, “What is she doing? She’s a disgrace. What will people say about our family?” and he just responds like, “Would you rather I beat her with stones and keep her inside the house?” Then they don’t respond. They realise that they’re the ones perpetrating these ideas. This is why women get to these sentences. We’re doing it to each other because we’re so angry at our own repression. We see someone feeling comfortable and we’re almost jealous and hateful. It allows for men to treat us worse because we’re not there to uplift each other, we’re constantly bringing each other down. We don’t always support the woman. I don’t think I was on the path to making good art until I became completely comfortable with that part of myself. For me, I make art and I use the body and sensuality in a way that, for me, is really personal.

What are your thoughts on the exoticism of female ‘Muslim/Arab artists’ and the overuse of the term ‘breaking boundaries’ by mainstream western media?

In the past 15-20 years, we (people living in Western cultures) have not seen brown or black people in the main front, even in conversations. Maybe in America, black culture started going mainstream. When it starts breaking its way in, it’s like ‘whoa! What is she doing? I thought this was wrong? You’re not supposed to do all of these things!’ The amount of times someone has asked me if my dad has taken violent action against me for the work I’ve made. It’s like okay...I need to help you as you don’t know any better and it’s not your fault. It’s so important to be calm, really understand and have empathy, because I could easily say, ‘you’re orientalising me and making me some exotic creature that I’m not!’ and by that you aren’t going to make any progress. You’ll keep creating distance with people and forever make a gap between you and a white person who wants to write about you and make progress. We need to share, teach, be patient and allow them to see it. We need to remind ourselves that the writers/artists are not themselves writing the headlines. You need to read the article and understand the whole situation. I still get mad seeing myself next to ‘Muslim woman/erotic art/breaking barriers’, but if that’s how it is for me to gain an audience, get their attention and then teach them, then that’s fine – call me what you want.

We recently saw that your ‘Face’ project was published in The National, with a full-page cover & spread in the Arts & Culture section (congrats!). What was it that you set out to achieve with this project and why do you think it has been so well received?

I see my work as a big board of a puzzle and each project is a little piece helping people put together a big picture. I had just released ‘Shedding Skin’ and although I had already finished the ‘Face’ project, I didn’t want to put it out until I had a really powerful body of work to then give people another piece of knowledge, for further learning. In ‘Shedding Skin’, I talk about the loss of power, identity, culture and connectedness to who we are as women and how people have stolen that away.  With ‘Face’, I’m still working on putting together a whole book. I spent around a year doing research on these tattoos, it wasn’t just going to take pictures of these women with tattoos on their face, it’s about showing the effects of capitalism on the region and the effects of institutionalised religion and how that has deeply affected women of the Middle East/North Africa. I do this with the tattoos because I love using powerful imagery to lure people in and these ‘exotic’ things that have always been orientalised to us, are these tattoos. People would go in and take pictures of these women with tattoos and leave, not giving any substance to what they mean. I learnt that they represent the depth of women’s power in the region. They represent agricultural symbols, the connectedness to the stars, sun and moon – they understand how to read the sun and moon to therefore grow crops. There are also symbols of protection from Jinn (evil spirits). The men didn’t have these tattoos, so the women were the ones who carried the power to protect everyone and control the driving forces of our life - food, spirituality and sensuality. You had women who were covered all over, purely for beauty, as that is what men searched for. They said that they would never marry a woman unless she had the tattoos. This project is really showing our loss of what I talked about with ‘Shedding Skin’, to give that reinforcement and history. I want to be able to teach people and see why/how did this happen. You see these tattoos everywhere; my great grandmother had them.

The Quran was once this book that only the higher people in societies could read as most people didn’t read. That kind of education wasn’t prevalent in societies or wasn’t considered education - education was how to grow crops or ward off evil spirits. The fastest and most powerful way to control a society is to introduce literacy, giving people something that they need to follow. The only way you can do that coherently is to have a literate society with the ability to follow one book. Once they have that power, they can then participate in a capitalistic society. I’m noticing that when I put together all my work and theory, you can see that these tattoos started to disappear at the same time these places were introduced to books and rules – most were coming out of Saudi Arabia. They were supplying all of the literature to the Muslim world.

We as women are the ones that suffer the most from capitalism. We’ve lost our power and respect in lands because we can no longer operate. We’re magical creatures. We love the land, we know how to work the land, we carry life, that’s our connection.

What is beauty to you?

Beauty is the comfort in oneself; it has nothing to do with physical appearance to me. It’s really when you see something that you find beautiful in somebody. I love style, I love makeup and the way people express themselves externally, but when I see beauty in people I see it from within, it’s something that glows.

Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects?

I’m working on the book of tattoos, putting together all the research about how women have been losing their power perpetually, using the tattoos as the visual representation of that decline. I’m also working on a series of self-portraits along the Roman ruins in the Middle East and North Africa, as another way of talking about the history of these lands and how the Arabs have not always been there. They were also people that conquered the lands and just like the Romans, they are probably going to be on their way out at some point. Sadly history repeats itself – humans are destructive! A lot of people don’t know that these ruins exist and it would be nice to show them.