YUMNA by Lizzy Vartanian Collier
The first time I met Yumna was at her home in London to discuss her participation in Perpetual Movement, an exhibition I curated during Arab Women Artists Now Festival in London, where both Yumna and I live, in March 2018. Despite barely knowing me, Yumna made me feel welcome straight away, making me herbal tea and telling me all about her work; even offering me advice about my relationships – both personal and professional – within minutes of meeting, ensuring that my appreciation for her work, extended to her as a person as well.
It was clear from the outset that Yumna has a deep respect for women, culture and tradition, the common thread that links her whole body of work together. For Perpetual Movement – which was hung together on the theme of movement and inherited memory in connection to women and the Arab region – Yumna exhibited four portraits from the series Face. The images depict the last generation of women from North Africa to have been facially tattooed, a tradition that is now dying out. The work was inspired by Yumna’s own Yemeni great grandmother Aisha, who born in Aden, Yemen, and who herself was facially tattooed with marks at the sides of her lips. The matriarchal tradition dates back thousands of years and pre-dates Islam. Unfortunately, due to both the rise in the spread of Islam and the influence of western standards of beauty, the tradition is dying out, and very few women have been tattooed since the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, Yumna’s portraits highlight the beauty that these women and their tattoos emit. The photographs are intimate and gentle; you can tell that Yumna has spent time getting to know her subjects, learning about their stories and their lives; the women are portrayed both sympathetically and affectionately with respect. The designs marked across these women’s faces – and sometimes on their hands and limbs too – have a rich symbolism reflecting connectedness to the earth and the cosmos, as well as emitting spiritual powers and the ability to protect oneself from evil spirits
Born to a Yemeni-father and an Egyptian-mother, Yumna’s appreciation for her heritage is probably most prominent in her photographs of Northern-Yemen. Instead of a war-torn, helpless place, Yumna insists on promoting Yemen’s beauty. Her silky blue and pink images of the Haraz mountains, strong women completely dressed in black standing strong within the landscapes and remote ancient villages are completely spell-binding. Showing a different image of both Yemen and the hijab, the photographs project an unknown image of Yemen into the universe. The photographs that include female figures are the most captivating, and in a talk with Apple in London earlier this year she explained that she wanted to ‘make them look like superheroes.’ They are graceful, poised and completely in control of the whole image. Contrary to what the western media might lead us to think about these women – a cousin and a friend of the artist – they are graceful, composed and powerful – it is almost as though Yumna is defending them, standing up for them, championing them for more than what they wear, but for who they are, as well as their culture and traditions.
The beauty of Middle Eastern women is all over Shedding Skin, a film made inside a communal bathhouse – a hammam – in Beirut. Unlike the images taken in Yemen, these ladies are completely bare, with only towels to cover their bodies. That said, they are not exposed at all. The film is a delicate response to counter the restricted understanding of Arab women outside of the region. In the clip young and old sit together pouring water over one another and combing each other’s hair. They are all different: some have tattoos; some have short hair, while others have long. Yet, despite their individualities, they appear like sisters. The voiceover which plays on top of the film says: “…and I feel free. My womanhood is all I have left. Here I am away. Here I am not alone. I watch this layer of darkness glide off my skin and I wonder: do you really see such a different between you and me? We are shedding you off of us. We are looking for our skin so rich underneath all of what you’ve lazily plastered on. Can you see clearer now?’ It is so beautiful that sometimes I listen to it without even watching the film, it is almost like Yumna is giving a hug to all women everywhere. Yet Shedding Skin is especially poignant to Arab women, who are often stereotyped and misunderstood. The film beautifully informs the viewer that what western society has led us to believe about them is incorrect. Her women have literally been stripped of their clothing, their protection; they could be anyone. Shown in their most vulnerable state, Yumna rids them of the notions tipped onto them by Western media. Her camera draws the viewer into their private world, in a trusting, loving way, re-positioning her characters simply as women, without any unrequired additional definition of ethnicity and religion.
In her most recent film, 99 Names of God – which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival – Yumna continues to dispel stereotypes about Islam. The film embraces the rhythmic rituals that have run alongside Islamic tradition over centuries by piecing together old and new to create dreamlike imagery that breathes fresh air to a subject that is hardly ever seen in a positive light. Like her images of Yemen, the film begins with a woman, completely dressed in black, in a beautiful, but empty landscape. 99 Names of God moves inside and outside of mosques, plays the call to prayer, and shows women painting each other’s hands with henna. Instead of showing Islam to be harsh and violent, Yumna shows us that it is gentle, family-oriented and feminine. Projecting the importance of geometry, nature and spiritual connectivity, Yumna illustrates the details of Islamic traditions that modern media has failed to depict.
Throughout her work, Yumna projects her heritage and gender in a sympathetic, and loving light. Opposing what the media wishes us to think about Arab and Islamic culture, she shines a light on a culture, history and traditions that are yet to be appreciated for all that they have offered and have still to offer our world.
Written by Lizzy Vartanian Collier
Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a writer and curator based in London, specialising in contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. Her work has been published by Canvas, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Hyperallergic, After Nyne, the Guardian, Ibraaz, Jdeed, EVN Report, Tribe and Suitcase along with many other publications. Her recent exhibition ‘Perpetual Movement’, which took place during Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018, was featured in Vogue Arabia and the Art Newspaper, and later travelled to the debut Armenia Art Fair. Lizzy is also the founder of the Gallery Girl. You can follow her work on www.gallerygirl.co and on Instagram @gallerygirllnd and Twitter @lizzycollier