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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Singer-songwriter and cultural ambassador, Maya Azucena, and photographer/multi-media artist RaeMaxwellare like those two gals you meet at a friend of friend's around-the-way get-together and immediately feel in the midst of good company. They're sharp, powerful, beautiful and funny; the kind of women you can chat animatedly with about world affairs and then effortlessly switch to deep ponderance over why so many urban menfolk choose to shout out, "God Bless you ma" in lieu of proper come-ons. In short, they're my kind of women.It's easy to see why the duo are a good match; Maya's talkative and open nature is perfectly symbiotic to Rae's subdued and introspective vibe. CultureFphiles spoke with the uber talented ladies about their work on Lines In My Skin (LIMS), an online photo essay, shot by Maxwell, detailing a day in the life of a woman in an abusive relationship. Azucena plays the starring role, pulling from her real-life experience in a former abusive relationship of seven years. I was drawn to LIMS via the juxtaposition of images; Azucena’s initial joyful disposition contrasted sharply with images of her and her abuser in their home. I was also intrigued by Maxwell’s use of color, saturation, and tone.
LIMS premiered as an installation and panel discussion at the Brooklyn arts and event space, Free Candy, in March of 2012 drawing roughly 100 attendees. CultureFphiles spoke with May and Rae to chat about their experience creating LIMS, how they navigate their own process of creation, and the far-reaching effects of the project.
How did Lines in My Skin come to fruition?
Maya: I was introduced to Rae through a common friend and I thought she had an incredible eye. In the course of us meeting, we also had this mutual artistic respect and so we just put it out there, like, let’s do something together. I had this vision of dealing with my domestic violence experience. I was in a very abusive relationship [for seven years] and I thought that she would be able to handle something edgy and dark. I knew it was going to be a very vulnerable experience for me and Rae’s work inspired me to have the courage to approach the idea.
Rae: I didn’t know that.
Maya: Yeah…I was brainstorming and I could see this visual image of me in a fetal position on the floor. I sent the idea to Rae and she responded that she had had a vision of that the night before. I was blown away that she had somehow come up with the same idea without us even consulting one another. The synergy somehow felt divine. I had a specific visual to photograph the interaction between me and a man. Rae had the idea to start with me being very composed, beautiful, free…and then gradually show the descent to me being balled up on the floor.
You’ve mentioned in the written piece of the photo exhibit that you believed you were strong, and that’s why you stayed in the relationship. That alters the image we have of women in abusive relationships as weak or passive.
Maya: And the thing is, is that at the time I had the same persona. My nickname was happy-go-lucky. I’m motivational and inspirational and identifiable and very sunny… people had no idea this guy kept me up all night punching me in the arms or pulling out a knife on me. I didn’t tell anyone. A couple of my best friends knew he was abusive but they didn’t have a clue of the extent.
Did you view the abuse as your own personal battle?
Maya: I didn’t view it as a battle. I viewed it as me trying to help him become the potential I saw in him…he would often say to me, ‘well, you know what I’ve been through.’ But what occurred to me was that your reasons do not constitute an excuse. You have reasons - but you are not excused from your actions and that’s what I got confused in my own reality. The other thing was that I didn’t think I was being abused. I knew I was with an abuser but…it’s just a weird perspective. I was like ‘I’m strong, I’m not one of these girls, I’m not afraid of him’ so I didn’t realize I was suffering the same circumstances of a person who is afraid to leave. It was like an addiction. I stayed because I was obsessed with succeeding. We were going to succeed at this thing. I thought I could believe in love for the both of us, and those were my errors.
Rae, how did that affect the way you came up with the storyline and shot everything?
Rae: I feel like the first time we really spoke about it [the abuse] was when we were about to shoot. We spoke briefly about the visual goal but I didn’t know her actual situation until she was in my home. I’m glad it happened that way because we wouldn’t have the product we had now. We must have about 150 photos from that shoot but we selected 50 to tell the story.
Maya: I wanted it to be really daring. I love Rae’s instincts. She pushes boundaries – she has contrasts in the images…unexpected combinations. I am, personally, wanting to push my fans expectations of me…I wanted them to be able to really get how severe an abusive relationship is.
How did that feel?
Maya: It felt very vulnerable because this is one of the first times I’ve dealt with it in art. I write about it [and] I sing about it in my songs but it’s sort of peripheral…but this was very literal.
Were there moments where you thought, I don’t want to do this anymore?
Maya: No. Never. I feel that having the courage to tell your story is the very thing that can change peoples lives and that’s more important than your privacy on the issue…as vulnerable as it makes me feel to share it, the courage to share it is a power that I think can change young women’s lives so the risk is worth it.
Rae, you mentioned you had experience with domestic abuse; was that hard for you when shooting?
Rae: I think I’m really good at locking emotions, sometimes to a fault. I tend to be very visual but feel like there is a madness going on up in my head…I tend to shoot in the dark a lot with no lights - so when I was shooting, I had to ignore my own fantasy of what I think she [Maya] experienced and try to focus on what she experienced at that time. I also was thinking of what others close to me have experienced with domestic violence so I wasn’t even thinking of me, I was thinking of what other people had told me, and trying to focus on the task at hand.
Maya: It was actually very practical and technical. I didn’t feel super emotional during the shoot. It was seeing how the photos manifested once I saw how she captured these moments. I was like, wow - you do get it.
How did you feel when you were choosing the photos?
Rae: The first person who saw the photos were my mother. When my mother saw them, she started bawling…and I thought, maybe we have something here. When I’m looking at my work I just feel like I fucked it up. It takes some time. When you’re looking at an image or video over and over again, I lose perspective. So, sometimes I have this terrible fear.
Maya: When I saw the photos I was like, she nailed it. I felt so good about the decision to do this project with you. I had no idea until we were at the panel for the installation that you had any personal experience with domestic violence until then.
Rae: Because this was about you.
Maya: I know but I had no idea that this was relatable to you. When I saw the images I was blown away.
Can you elaborate a bit more on the fear you were feeling? Do you often question if the work is good or not good?
Maya: I was entering new ground on this project because my forte is singing. It was very vulnerable for me to write my story [the written element to the photography installation]. I wanted to make sure the writing had literary integrity so that people wouldn’t get distracted by some inadequacy there and lose the actual story. So, there was a bit of a fear and an anxiety in exposing myself in that way.
Rae: I never look at the photos as I’m shooting because I feel that that is a luxury. We used quite a bit of film that day.
What do you mean when you say it’s a luxury to look at images when you shoot?
Rae: I have this weird thing with technology which sort of makes me a hypocrite since most of my career relies on technology these days, but I feel like the images I just lit and planned out…I feel like it’s almost not fair to see it after I take it…not until I get home and put on my Thelonious Monk or have a glass of wine and I can edit and then I get to see everything that I’ve created. Aside from lighting yes – you have to look at the picture to make sure you’ve got the lighting right more or less but once I start, I don’t look- I can’t look. So of course I’m sort of doing it to myself because I don’t really know exactly what I have just created. I just feel like it’s not fair to be able to see that…because it was never like that. No great art was created like that a hundred years ago and I have a bit of a grudge about that.
How did it feel to be at the actual exhibit/installation?
Rae: I never imagined I would end up at an event like that where there was so much support and unity. It was kind of hard to be in a room where we were the center of the attention and that was kind of strange for me but I felt so happy that I got to do this with you and that I got to help you do this.
Maya: It was groundbreaking for me. This is the furthest I have revealed this particular element of my life. I guess I had to be ready but I was super glad it was with you. It’s also the kind of thing that if it is handled improperly, it wouldn’t be effective. It was very important to me that a person who doesn’t relate to the story at all can pull any image out and it has artistic value. This purely on a photographic level is a dope ass fucking project…if you pull any image out, it has integrity as a piece of artwork.
What did you take away from this experience?
Maya: I went to Tanzania after the exhibit. I was doing a performance as part of a community event to discuss domestic violence in the community of Arusha and the surrounding area. A male choreographer from Madagascar, who lives in Arusha, saw Lines In My Skin online and was so moved by it that he performed a modern dance piece to it in Tanzania with 8-foot high images from the photo shoot behind him and quotes from my story in rotation. He actually dressed up as a woman in a relationship and danced with a male counterpart and did this intense dance. By having the courage to tell this story… seeing how it can impact people globally and the power of art to do that and how profound it is. It was groundbreaking in their community. One, a man talking about domestic violence in Tanzania is incredibly unusual and the fact that he was so moved he dared to do something that was never before done, dressing up as a woman and performing a modern dance…this is stuff we can imagine in New York. It is unimaginable in their community. That allowed me to see the potential of this project.
Rae: The fact that I even got up on a discussion panel was unimaginable for me. I realized that if I didn’t, I would be the thing that gets women into trouble in the first place. Where they hold themselves back from doing what they really should do. I felt like I would be such a hypocrite if I didn’t just get over myself and get up there and talk. Personally, that was fantastic but the thing about me is that I’m shooting a lot for other people and so I felt so happy that I was able to give something to Maya in a way that made her feel like ‘ok, I acknowledged and I dealt with it in the best way possible.’ I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I was able to give her something out of such a shitty experience. That to me is what keeps me going. I want people to look at my work and keep something that I created with and for them.
To hear and learn more about Maya Azucena's music and her humanitarian work, click here: