Ready to provoke a thought and open to evolve, Eman Ali loves to make bold conversation with her candid camera. Hasan Shaban goes behind the lens to get the big picture
Omani photographer Eman Ali, based in London, is an internationally known photographer who has been training her lens on unique subjects. Eman, who has been capturing a wide variety of topics and themes, draws inspiration from having lived as a woman in the Gulf.
Omani artists should speak up about the realities of their chosen career, including the struggles, she tells Y. “This will help the government, private corporations and wealthy individuals gain a better understanding of what this profession means and how they can take dedicated steps in the support and development of an artist’s career.”
Excerpts from the interview:
Your work clearly addresses controversial topics in the Middle East. Why did you choose to highlight such issues?
My work draws inspiration from my personal experience growing up as a woman in the Gulf. We live in a society where keeping up appearances means that people are often hesitant to talk about contentious subjects and that’s because there is a general reserve within Arab culture to raise matters considered taboo. However, this was not the case centuries ago.
We only have to look to the past to see that writers and poets were very progressive in their thinking. We find ourselves living at a time where the blending of conservative cultural values into religion has become so unquestionably ingrained in us that they eventually shape our perspective of life and how we must behave. My intention behind my work is to question these cultural complexities and to seek a shift in collective thought in order to not only explore its manifestations in contemporary Arab society but also to create a new narrative and representation of the Arab identity.
Tell us more about your gallery ‘Corridors of Power’
This project is really about my own personal, emotional response to the new infrastructural developments in Muscat. I love Oman because it is so untouched compared to the other Gulf countries. To me it really represents this Arabian paradise with its simple yet stunning landscape.
I am deeply in love with my home so when these grand architectural buildings started to appear in Muscat I didn’t quite know how to make sense of them. On a superficial level, I appreciated their beauty, however I wanted to look further and think about how architecture, in this case, is not only used to assert power and stability but also to signify change to come.
Composed like a still from a film, it was important for me to place myself in these photographs because conceptually it is about my relationship to these spaces as an Omani woman and how my body inhabits and navigates its way through the unfamiliar.
Through the poetics of space I wanted to create my own meaning and expression and the more I inhabited these physical spaces the more I felt that, although they exist in the realm of reality, they somehow seemed simulated. I wanted to convey this feeling of the artificial through the intensity of colour in my photographs and the highly reflective surface of the paper in which I chose to print on to further enhance the sense that these public spaces were somehow illusory.
You received a top award recently. How do you feel about that? Being an Omani, has your work ever recognised at a local level?
No, and this is a very good example of the lack of support I am getting as an Omani artist. There is so much that is not known about the reality of being a full-time artist and I want to create more transparency around this.
I feel so honoured to win the Woman of the Year Award in the category of Arts and I have my friends and family to thank for it. What is really important for me is to use the spotlight as an opportunity to raise awareness about artists’ needs in Oman.
In order for us to create a better understanding of what constitutes being an artist beyond the end product of a finished artwork, we must voice the realities of this chosen career path, which includes the struggles.
If Omani artists can come together and speak openly about this I believe it will help the government, private corporations and wealthy individuals gain a better understanding of what this profession means and how they can take dedicated steps in the support and development of an artist’s career. This includes, but is not limited to, acting as patrons and providing funding opportunities for projects, studio space, exhibitions, materials, workshops and artist residencies.
It is time Oman started implementing the infrastructure that would offer support to Omani artists and playing an active role in promoting the performing, visual and literary arts in Oman.
Tell us more about your work ‘Her Holeyness’
In this project I focus on beauty products and how they appeal to the fantasy of changing one’s body. I use this fact to build a picture of the female body as a set of surfaces to be maintained, manipulated and represented.
I choose to work with a vivid colour palette in order to reproduce the standard of colour advertising to accentuate its artificiality.
In Arab societies, I consider there to be strong religious and consumerist ideologies that act as influencing factors in the idolising of female purity. This creates a lens in which the marketing of beauty products can be viewed as an extension of religion and a purveyor of, in some sense, ultimate values. Innocence, purity and the desire for wholeness.
Have you faced any criticism for highlighting “sensitive issues”?
When you put something out in the world you will provoke a reaction, positive or negative. You must be open to the possibility of criticism but always have conviction in what you do. These are opportunities to engage in conversation so take from it what you will and leave the rest behind.