Photographer and filmmaker Yumna Al-Arashi’s work intimately captures where past and present, work and personal, public and private life intersect.
By MAX BERLINGER
Photography YUMNA AL-ARASHI
The first picture Yumna Al-Arashi remembers having an impact on her was from 9/11, of a man falling, having jumped from New York’s Twin Towers. “That was really intense to see and so moving,” says photographer and filmmaker Al-Arashi. “I think that’s when I understood the power of a photograph to tell so many stories — to be moving.”
Ms. Al-Arashi’s work does just that — moves people — with it’s deeply personal approach and exploration of female identity, nature, sexuality, loneliness and personal connection. It also reflects a sense of time and place, and how these ideas intersect and exist simultaneously. It makes sense that this is what her work would focus on: a self-taught artist, she studied social inquiry at The New School in New York City. “The course was amix of political science, history and sociology,” she says. “It was incredibly valuable for my work.”
Identity and personal history connect her images, but also connect Ms. Al-Arashi to the viewer. A Yemeni-American, she was born in the late 1980s and was raised in the Washington DC area by her father from the age of three. “I had older siblings, much older than me, so I spent a lot of my time on my own in my own world. It was nice. We were surrounded by beautiful naturethat I’d spend a lot of time in.” The human body in nature, the connection between flesh and earth, haunts many of her images with a sort of quixotic yearning that gives so much of her work an unexpected heft.
By being a woman, by being multi-racial, by working in a field dominated by men and the male gaze, Al-Arashi is challenging what we see when we look at an image. “What I’m more concerned with, is how we as women are on our way to being as successful as any man has the chance tobe. I want to help pave a road for our daughters, just as the women before me did.”
That she looks to her past, thinks about the foremothers that brought her to the present, is telling, and is the sort of thinking that she brings forth in her images, which often feature the female nude, but never in a predatory or suggestive way. There’s a warmth, an empathy, that she brings to the soft and muted, dusky colors. “It’s me,” she says of her sensual, dreamy aesthetic. “I’m soft and although I’d like to deny it, I’m a romantic. I love to love and I love beauty.”
That you can see beyond what she shows you — a woman’s body in nature, the curve of a flower, the deserted cobblestoned street in a village — and feel the emotion beneath, the layers of humanity contained within, is a special talent. But in a way, it’s also shockingly simple. She allows the camera to capture what she sees, who she is. “My interests lay comfortably in the seat of identity,” she said. “It’s a journey being a first generation person in a world which suddenly decides your identity is the root of all evil. Can you imagine? Being a young person, hearing the racist and war-driven rhetoric in America? My entire life has been unlearning the noise of western media — and asking everyone watching to join me on my journey.”
Al-Arashi moved to London almost two years ago, in part to escape a culture that recognized her identity but could not move past it, to see the humanity beneath. “I really needed to get out of America. It felt suffocating. The racism, the classism, the politics and exploration of Americans. I needed a break. There was a trauma my father tried to escape from in his war-torn home. He took us to America and, in turn, America felt like it was headed in the same direction. I’m learning so much away from it — but I’d be learning anywhere. That’s just a part of getting older and living life. Any form of growing would help my art. Whether in London or in Tokyo or in Yemen. Life helps my art.”
“While her images may have a hopeful, positive beauty — almost meditative in their feeling of acceptance and peace — that doesn’t obscure their more plaintive, thoughtful moments. By showing herself, complementing the beauty of nature, and then placed alongside images from her past, a portrait that is nuanced and layered emerges. It’s avisual representation of past and present, of everything that made her who she is today, and how all those facets are working together to create the harmony of selfhood. The pictures are plain in their straightforwardness, but contain a shocking feeling of profundity.
“I’m speaking with my body and it reflects on time and ruins and change and the fragility of life. I hope people feel good when they look at them. I hope people can feel me.”