Yemeni artist, Boushra Almutawakel, knows what you probably think about Yemen. “I want the wider world to understand that Yemen is so much more that the terrorist haven, foreigner kidnapping, poor and unstable country that is portrayed in the media.” Indeed, the past few years have seen Yemen catapulted into the international media as a country of conflict, crisis and extremism. This past February, President Saleh was ousted after ruling for more than thirty years, as Yemen was swept up in the revolutions taking place throughout the Middle East. Most recently, Yemen is in the headlines as an ongoing target of controversial American drone missions.
Boushra and her family lived in Sana’a throughout this time, weathering the storm. In addition to being an internationally recognized photographer, Boushra is also a busy mother of four daughters and an integral part of her extended family. A few months ago, after a particularly violent week in Sana’a, I was chatting with Boushra online, asking after the health and safety of her family when she wrote, “sorry, I have to run and take the girls to ballet practice!” This encapsulates Boushra’s work: life is contradiction, it is in the details and the minutiae that occur in the spaces between the loud headlines – it is ballet practice in the midst of a revolution.
“Yes, Yemen has its issues.” Boushra concedes, “But we are not defined by them.” Through her photography, Boushra offers a glimpse into more intimate aspects of life in Yemen. Her series “My Fathers’s House” is a collection of portraits of rooms from the homes of Boushra’s family which are heartbreaking in their humanity. At the end of the day, we all need to cook, wash and sleep – and her images tenderly remind us of all we share.
However, it is Boushra’s work with the iconic image of the veil, the “Hijab Series,” that I find most thought-provoking, and most capable of inspiring the more meaningful discussions about Yemen that she feels compelled to encourage. In the image posted above, “Mother Daughter Doll,” she presents the complexity of the veil. Boushra says she stayed away from the subject of the veil for a long time, feeling that it would merely reinforce clichés and stereotypes. “However,” she explains, “as an Arab Muslim woman who wears the hijab in her country, but who has mixed views on the topic, I felt I needed to discuss these views. The veil is an iconic symbol, and I felt that it is also a complex, multi-layered topic.” As the image above expresses, the veil can be everything from a personal fashion statement, to cultural heritage, to dangerous erasure.
“Yemen is rich, beautiful, a little wild, dynamic, complex, passionate, and full of people with grace, pride, dignity and resilience. Yemen is an underdog facing poverty, economic and political instability, unemployment, illiteracy, ineffective government, and with outside forces with everyone (the U.S, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others) interfering in its affairs, and literally pulling it in so many directions, that is has not had a moment to just breathe. Yemen and Yemenis have so much potential, if only it would be given a fighting chance to tap into that potential.” Boushra is herself an example of this potential, and her work asks us to consider more carefully those people and places about which we assume so much, yet know very little.