Women, Art, and Social Change: Insights from Boushra Almutawakel
Connection Point Director Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel about the inspiration behind her work, and her perspectives on women, art, and social change. Her responses are below.
Can you share with us a little about your personal background, and what inspired you to pursue a career as an artist?
I was born in Sana’a, Yemen in 1969 and grew up, along with two of my three siblings, in my great grandmother’s house in the old city in the Sailah.
My father was a soldier and a revolutionary, and when the monarchy was overturned in 1962, he worked for the newly formed government. When he differed with the leading head of Yemen at the time, he was transferred to Egypt as a diplomat (which turned out to be a good thing, and helped define who I am). We lived there for a few years, and then he was based in the US for five years and France for one year, after which we returned to Yemen in 1982, where I completed my high-school education. I worked for a year before going to the US with my brother to pursue my undergraduate degree in Business.
It was during my university studies that I discovered photography. I had a list of 25 things I wanted to do before I died, and one of them was to learn photography. So my chance appeared when I signed up for a basic black and white six-week course during summer school. I took it as an elective and was smitten. After the course came to an end, I wanted more, so I worked as a lab assistant and volunteered at the school paper and yearbook, anything that would give me access to film, paper, chemicals, and the glorious darkroom. I would spend hours in the darkroom losing all consciousness of time. Although since I was a child I was always interested in the arts, and even dreamed of being an artist, I never took being an artist seriously. Even my photography, I did out of sheer love, and with no intention of becoming an artist or exhibiting and selling my work. It was a serious hobby.
After completing my degree in International Business in 1994, I reluctantly returned to Yemen following a civil war. I was depressed for some time after my return, but things picked up as soon as I got a job. I built a darkroom in the basement of my parents’ home so I could continue with my photography. I joined up with a group of artists who met regularly. I was, along with a few other artists, a founding member of Al-Halaqa, an artists’ cooperative and network. We got funding, rented a house as our headquarters, held workshops and monthly exhibits; we hosted international artists; we published a quarterly journal about art, artists, poetry, archeology, tourism, culture, and more. I started participating in exhibits. Then to my great surprise people started buying my work. Next thing you know, individuals offered to commission work and hire me for photographic projects. In 1998, after working as an educational advisor, helping students apply/pursue academic study abroad, while pursuing my “hobby,” I decided to quit my job and work full-time as a professional photographer. It was the best decision I made. Some of my earliest clients included the UN/UNICEF, Care International, the Royal Netherlands, as well as individual clients, while at the same time continuing to exhibit and sell personal work. I had the great opportunity to travel all throughout Yemen, to some of the poorest and most remote areas, to learn new things and meet the most fascinating people with pride, strength, ingenuity, and resilience. It was truly eye-opening.
In 1999, my husband was fortunate to obtain a scholarship to do his Master’s in the US. Apart from the 6-week course in college, I was mostly self-taught, and took this as an opportunity to study photography for two years at Portfolio Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Upon our return to Yemen in 2003, I was quite busy with the start of a new and growing family, and didn’t do much photography outside of family snapshots. Then for a while I felt such doubt and lack of confidence, questioning my choice in careers. I felt I should be doing something more than being a photographer, especially in Yemen, a very poor developing country… I thought why didn’t I become a doctor, or a lawyer to help women, or work in development…at one point I seriously considered quitting photography altogether.
It didn’t help how others perceived me, from my family to my peers. No one understood what I did nor seemed to approve of it. In essence, I was not taken seriously. Every time I was introduced and would tell them I was a photographer, when they asked what I did, I was always met with, “It is nice to have a hobby.” It was then I came to the realization that if I didn’t take myself seriously first and foremost, I couldn’t expect anyone else to. It had to start with me.” As soon as I decided, things changed for me.
Because I had four little children, it was (and is still) always a challenge. Whenever the opportunity came to participate in a photography workshop or exhibition, I took that opportunity with very intense and focused attention and action. I also found that my work had relevance, and that I may visually portray what is on the minds of many women in Yemen and elsewhere. I found my voice, and I discovered that I could help somehow through my work.
I have so many ideas and things I would like to do, and I do them at my own pace. Although I would like to work more regularly, my children at this time are my priority. They will not be this little for much longer, and I don’t want to be too stressed and distracted working. That being said, I still somehow manage (with the help of my husband, mother, in-laws, my nanny, and by the grace of God) to do some work. Although I had wanted to become an artist as a child, I never dreamed that I would actually become one. It all happened so gradually and organically.
Can you tell us about your current work, and in what ways it addresses issues related to the status of women and social change?
As an Arab Muslim Yemeni woman/mother of four girls, living in Yemen, but also having lived in the West, so many questions come to my mind, as they come to many. Why are we all so covered up? Why don’t the men cover up? They are just as attractive as the women. Why are women considered less than men? Why do women inherit one half what their male counterparts do, even if they have more financial obligations? Are women truly weaker mentally and physically? Why, throughout most of history, are men the instigators and perpetrators of violence and wars, and yet women are portrayed as the vixen essence of evil? How would the world look if it were ruled by women? How would things be if men menstruated, were the ones who were blessed with childbearing and most of child-rearing? Would we be as unfair to them? As women we are the source of life, the essence of it all, yet why isn’t motherhood held in much higher regard?
Why is it that women in the US still do not have equal pay? Why are there not more women in important roles such as heads of state, chairs of boards of corporations, film directors, maestros etc? How can anyone marry off their eight-year-old baby? Why is it that it seems women are victims of oppression everywhere, including the West? Where is Islam and culture in all of this? And so much more. In my work I try to search for answers and address only a few of these never-ending questions visually. I would never be able to keep up with all of the questions. I try to play devil’s advocate and challenge both the social norms I was brought up with and those around me as well as stereotypical Western views about women from the Middle East. I think it helps that I was exposed to my own and Western cultures. Some of the themes I look at are identity, the hijab and its many connotations, love, self-expression, the politicization of Islam, the inter-connectedness between Islam and culture (where does one begin and the other end?) fantasy and the freedom to express such fantasies, beauty, childhood, and interculturalism.
I don’t presume that my work has the power to bring about change, and I truly admire women who are really out there, feminists, activists, writers, leaders, artists, who have and continue to work toward real change for women in policy, governance, law, culture, and more. I have been truly blessed and so surprised at the positive (even when it is negative ) reaction to my work … making me see I am not alone in these questions, and that many join me in my feelings, while many others strongly object. The discussion, debate, and discourse that my work seems to conjure may be a very small part of the bigger movement toward positive change for women. As an artist I can’t also be the critic (although I am very critical of myself and my work to a certain degree). It is my job to just put it out there and see what transpires. I am so grateful for all of the people who have supported me, from my family, to teachers and mentors, my gallery, institutions and museums, and to so many of the virally savvy younger generation who have given my work a much wider audience, through the internet, than I would have ever imagined.
What insights can you provide us on the role of art in cross-cultural dialogue and understanding? And what are your thoughts on the role of women working in these fields?
I am only now beginning to truly understand and appreciate the power of art and its impact on social, political, and even economic affairs. Art is a very powerful universal language that can bring people together, creating bridges and better understanding. When you hear a beautiful piece of music, it speaks to people of different cultures, religions, languages, and races. It touches something we all have, it touches our souls. And that I find is so profound, going beyond differences, borders. So although on a mental intellectual level there might be lack of understanding, we can connect at a higher level through art and culture, helping us to find common ground in our humanity.
I think that women working in these fields are providing a social, educational, intellectual, and cultural service. They put a mirror to the cultures from which they come, asking people to look at themselves, at our religion, at women’s social situation, and more. They put forth questions that their society and women like themselves ask, sometimes at a great risk and sacrifice. Many are courageous, because they risk asking the questions that are on the minds of many, many who for many reasons cannot or do not ask. To me they are heroes.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.