In conversation with

Yumna Al-Arashi

Photographer, filmmaker

yumna al arashi photographer at home

Introduction

Introduction

This year there have been a number of different entry points into Yumna Al-Arashi’s art: The 99 Names of God, a poetic short film exploring the rituals of Islam; the anthropological project Face, documenting Middle Eastern women with facial tattoes; a campaign for Lonely Lingerie, which saw models Naomi Shimada, Riya Hamid and Ayesha McMahon pay homage to the female form in an Italian marble atelier.

The Yemeni-American photographer engages with themes spanning sexuality and the Middle East, training her lens on both the cultural backgrounds of Muslim women and beautiful, playful nudes. “It’s completely normal to do both things,” Yumna says. “The human body unites us – it becomes an easy way to relate to each other. I don’t think that changes whether you’re wearing jeans or a hijab”.

When it comes to consuming content, Yumna treads carefully – she’s on something of an internet hiatus, preferring instead to dive into theories of sociology and culture. Hers is a creative mind fostered by longform articles and trips to art museums while growing up in Washington DC.

Question and Answer

Tell us a little bit about your short film which was recently shown at Tribeca.

It was part of a new showcase called N.O.W (New Online Work), which was about different religions and the rituals that are associated with them. They asked me to do the one about Islam, which I was wildly happy to do as it’s a topic I don’t think people ever see in an artistic or positive light. There are so many spiritual things in the western world that we’re all really into right now – like yoga and connectedness to nature and meditation and astrology – which actually are really embedded in Islam. But obviously Islam is going through a really hard time right now, so they don’t get the justice they deserve!

yumna al arashi islam books

What’s the story behind it?

I’m always inspired by Yemen – it’s sort of the subject point of the Middle East for me because I’m from there and have spent so much time there. We filmed in Oman which is right next door, so a lot of the cultural and visual things that inspire me about Yemen are quite similar – It felt like I was in Yemen but not one affected by war and poverty and political backwardness. The story revolves around a woman and the costumes that she’s in – and that’s not just black burkas. Often people see Islamic women wearing full-on black, black, black but actually that’s a new thing. The costumes are actually quite colourful – one way to protect from evil spirits was to cover the face in really badass looking masks, so there’s a lot of that in the film.

“I'm not necessarily here to defend all women”

Do you feel a responsibility to portray women in a certain way in your work?

I’m not necessarily here to defend all women. A lot of my work is about the cultural historical backgrounds of Muslim women. I do feel a responsibility to defend them and also to showcase some of the history; to share what I’m learning to help others get to a point where they’re not completely brainwashed by mainstream media. And then a lot is me and my friends naked, and just playing around and creating. I think it’s interesting that people are seeing a duality where a Muslim woman is exposing her own body at the same time as defending the hijab – it always turns into a headline, right? Like “Muslim woman takes Naked Photos!” But it’s completely normal to do both things. The human body unites us – it becomes an easy way to relate to each other. I don’t think that changes whether you’re wearing jeans everyday or a hijab everyday.

yumna al arashi art drawers

As a young woman, which voices shaped the way you saw the world?

I grew up in Washington DC which has incredible art museums which are all free. I would skip school and go to the museum – that was my jam. I loved the sculptures – the women weren’t necessarily sexualised even though they were nude and it was really interesting to see that. Also I remember these Persian paintings and illustrations where there was a lot of storytelling and different themes in one piece, like a sort of timeline – a lot of times they were quite naughty and I was like “oh, that’s really close to where I’m from!”

Are there more spaces for Muslim women to push boundaries today?

Growing up I had no idea of any other women like me who were interested in the same things as me. Now there’s a bunch of different spaces – there’s gal-dem, Azeema. Bidoun was hugely inspiration to me (they’ve stopped the print magazine though they still have the archives).  It was the first publication for me that brought Arab culture into the 21st century and I felt like it was really relatable. It was about creating a community that wasn’t gender-based. It wasn’t like any dynamic where it feels like women didn’t have the right to talk about art. It was totally open and awesome.

Azeema Magazine
"Growing up I had no idea of any other women like me who were interested in the same things as me"

How did studying politics and sociology affect the way you approached photography?

I was really interested in journalism and documentary and the only way to really approach those topics is to know what you’re talking about. It disciplined me and gave me the proper tools for doing documentary work (I don’t do a lot of that now but I still carry over those lessons in my personal work). It’s so valuable – being able to talk to people about things and know the history and to write. It gives what you’re doing context. You never want to misrepresent people or make false assumptions.

yumna al arashi books

Who are some political voices you trust in today’s unstable climate?

That’s a questions I’ve been asking myself a lot! I prefer reading longform my favourite magazine is Harpers – It’s a New York-based publication that’s been around since the 1800s and they will always be my interest in a monthly slow read. They’ve published writers like Rebecca Solnit and Edward W. Said. It’s really well researched – it takes its time and it’s not trying to pump things out for likes and shares. That’s what I’m interested in for my own work as well as the work that I read.

harpers magazine
"Harpers takes its time and it's not trying to pump things out for likes and shares"

Are there any specific websites you turn to to stay up-to-date?

I’m trying my best these days to stay away from news and sort of internet stuff. I don’t find it to be healthy anymore. I’m interested in learning about culture and the way the world is changing from a sociological point of view. My friend has this magazine called The Creative Independent, which features incredible creative people from Bjork to David Byrne. They do a lot of great work into understanding what it means to be a an artist in this time and age when it’s difficult to be artists – both financially and because we’re all so saturated with visual imagery.

yumna al arashi
yumna at home

You’ve recently started your own newsletter…?

I think they’re so much better than social media! You can curate what you want to get and you hopefully trust the opinions of the people you’re signing up to.  And you can see what people are up to in a long-from way. I think people are a bit tired of how shallow and fleeting social media media can be – newsletters are a great alternative to that.

What was the last thing that you read and really enjoyed?

I just finished reading this sci fi novel called The Book of Joan which was amazing, I couldn’t put it down. It’s been a while since I’ve read a fictional book and had that feeling. It’s a post-apocalyptic book and it’s like Joan or Arc in the future. I’m really into sci-fi these days and I think I might be interested in making something along those lines.

It’s a post-apocalyptic book and it’s like Joan or Arc in the future
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