When Boushra Almutawakel first started in photography in the 1990s—and for a long while afterward—she was the only female photographer working in Yemen. She gained international recognition in the early aughts for her “The Hijab” series, which aimed to challenge stereotypes about women who wore the veil.
Her subjects often feature women, including herself and her daughters, as well as family and friends. Almutawakel’s portraits convey the shared experience of women, regardless of background. Whitewall caught up with the Yemeni artist early this year, after her recent move to Dubai. We discussed her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the unrecognized labor of motherhood, and her interest in addressing both in her next body of work.
WHITEWALL: How did you first become interested in photography?
BOUSHRA ALMUTAWAKEL: I had always been interested in art and artists. So, while in college, I wrote a bucket list, and one of the items was to learn basic photography. I signed up for a summer six-week class in basic black-and-white photography. In the darkroom, after seeing my first photo magically appear in the developer, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop photographing. I worked in the darkroom, school newspaper, and yearbook—anything to give me access to film, paper, and a darkroom. After completing my undergraduate degree in international business, I had to return home to Yemen. While there, I continued to photograph, and I even built my own darkroom.
WW: You were one of the founders of Al-Halaqa in Sana’a, an artists’ group, in the mid-nineties. What kind of community did you want to create?
BA: We were a number of artists who met regularly and sometimes had exhibitions. We wanted to create an organization and a space where artists can meet to discuss ideas, welcome new up-and-coming artists, hold regular exhibitions, hold workshops, host international artists, and more. We also wanted to have a journal of culture in Yemen and to showcase work of artists, and that is what we did. We created this cultural group to provide a place for artists, art lovers, and those who were interested in learning.
WW: Where do you typically start with a new series? How does a project begin to form for you?
BA: I start with an idea that I write about, then I have a visual image, a dream, something I see and become obsessed with. Then I usually start making sketches and drawings. Then I plan out what I need to make it a reality. I write a list to go with the sketches. Since my photos involve people, I keep an eye out for who would be suitable. I approach my children, friends, family, and even total strangers. I schedule everything, go through my checklist, and schedule the shoots.
WW: Portraiture is such an intimate conversation between photographer and subject. What kind of relationship do you usually form with your subjects?
BA: I usually try to have a comfortable yet intimate relationship with my subject. I’ll try to ease their discomfort or nervousness. When I’m focused on my subject and completely present, when I look through my viewfinder and nothing exists other than my subject, at that moment nothing is more beautiful.
WW: Women are often a subject in your work, whether through portraiture or capturing their hands. What stories are you hoping to tell?
BA: I am hoping to tell the stories of all women, beginning with myself, my friends, family, women I hear about. Regardless of race, religion, country, social and economic status, there are stories and experiences that we as women all share: sisterhood; motherhood; injustice; inequality due to our gender; emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; oppression; financial inequality; depression and other mental illnesses; societal or religious pressure; self-doubt; overcoming hardship—and so much more.
WW: As a mother of four, how are you interested in capturing the experience of mothering in your work?
BA: I have four beautiful daughters. No matter how powerful men may seem, they can never give life. We as women are the source of all life. These beings live and grow within us for nine months, getting all of their resources from our bodies. Then, we go through life-threatening, extremely painful labor. I think most men could not bear or survive it. It’s an absolute miracle. Everyone on this earth came through a woman. That is truly powerful and magical.
Yet it is so belittled. Women are punished for having children by not having enough support, maternity leave—or any at all, for that matter. For those who stay at home, they are expected to care for the children, cook, clean, grocery shop, et cetera, for no pay. Motherhood should be elevated to sainthood. Motherhood is by far the most difficult, challenging, magical thing I have experienced.
Sometimes I just want to walk out the door and never come back. I don’t actually mean that, but when they drive me out of my mind and I imagine doing that. Other times I am overcome with how much love and emotion I have for them. As Khalil Gibran said, “Our children are not our children. They may have come through us, but they are their own individuals.” There are so many complex components to motherhood, and I hope to more explore this in my work.
WW: Is it important for you that your children are exposed to art as well?
BA: It is very important for my children to be exposed to art. I have boxes of their beautiful creative artwork when they were little. The quantity of artwork that they create sadly decreases as they get older because there are no more art classes in the seventh grade and there is no time to create art, which is a real shame and should be changed.
WW: What are you working on at the moment?
BA: While in France I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For the longest time I was in denial and refused to take the proper medication. As a result, I suffered a great deal. I was either in a state of mania or deep, debilitating depression. I was not able to work much. After going to a clinic and finally agreeing to take the proper medication, my mania stopped. However, I continued to suffer from dark depression. After moving to Dubai, I was still depressed. I thought I would never ever create art again. I lacked the desire or will to do so. I seriously thought I was done, and didn’t know what I would be doing for the rest of my life.
However, after finding a doctor here and getting on a new antidepressant that won’t cause mania, I feel slowly like myself again. I started to dream again, to visualize, to imagine ideas and images I’d like to create. I am not trying to get carried away but to take it one day at a time. I still have much to say and create.
I want to create work still on motherhood and on mental illness. I would like to bring attention to the latter. Many people suffer silently, not getting the proper help, support, and medication if need be. It is a rather taboo topic in our part of the world. I want to somehow help in normalizing talking about it, because so many suffer from it but we don’t really hear about it because we don’t talk about it.
I am also very interested in creating work using old alternative techniques using large-format cameras, film, non-silver techniques, where no two works are the same and, because there is the application of emulsions and other chemicals, works are painterly and you feel and see the imprint of the artist, like his or her soul is in the work.