People: Nouf Alhimiary

By Payal Khandelwal

Activism led by art is slowly becoming a mighty force to be reckoned with. Nouf Alhimiary, a young photographer based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is one of the proponents of that force.  She is part of a new generation in the contemporary arts scene in Saudi that’s unabashedly propagating art’s role in bringing about a change in society.

Nouf is making the women of her country play a central role in her work and raising highly relevant questions in the process. In perhaps her most important project till date – ‘What she wore’ – Nouf does a brilliant spin off on the famous online trend of women reflecting their style and individuality by posting their pictures in different costumes on different occasions. For her project, Nouf gets various Saudi women to pose in different areas; but in this case, they all end up wearing the exact same costume, Abaya (a full-length, sleeveless outer garment worn by Muslim women in some parts of the world), that makes them look uncannily similar from a distance. The work, that instantly evokes questions about identity, gender and sexual politics, has been exhibited at many places so far including the Venice Biennale in 2013.

Over a long conversation with Nouf over Skype, I ask her about her journey of becoming a photographer, her inspirations, women who play a central role in her life and work, weaving poetry into photography, her future plans, and the role of technology in her work.

Tell me something about your childhood.

I was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It’s a city overlooking the Red Sea, and is a part of Hijaz, the western area of Saudi Arabia, more popular for Medina and Mecca. This region is full of immigrants, including my parents who aren’t originally from Saudi.

I have five siblings, and I am the eldest one. Growing up, I was always an introvert, usually uncomfortable in social settings.

What were some of your creative influences while growing up?

I have always been in love with drawing and painting. It was an essential part of my life while growing up.

I was also extremely interested in fiction. Around the beginning of middle school, I had just started learning English, and was discovering literature and poetry for the first time. I instantly fell in love with it. The first book I ever read was Harry Potter. And I know that almost everyone loves Harry Potter and it’s a universal book, but for me, it was truly very special. It nurtured and impacted me so much that when I went to college, I decided to take up English literature.

 

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Nouf Alhimiary

When did you realize that you wanted to be a photographer?

Well, I have quite a few turning points actually. I had always loved seeing pictures in magazines. And in my family, we had this 35mm manual camera which was a highly prized possession, taken out only for special occasions like Eid. None of the children were allowed to use it ever.

I was always fascinated by it. Towards the end of middle school, I told my mother that if I got above 96%, then she has to give me the camera to shoot with as a gift. When I finally held the camera, it was a huge moment for me. I shot some ridiculous pictures to be honest, but I was instantly in love with the whole process.

What kind of pictures did you take?

You know you look at fashion magazines and you have these ideas in your head as to how you want your pictures to look, but it doesn’t end up looking like that at all! I made my sister, who was 11 at that time and one year younger to me, pose in different clothes and hats. I was “art directing” her. And mind you, I had never seen a photographer work before so all this was based purely on my speculation. This was my first ever attempt at taking pictures. It was euphoric, and I finally asked my parents to get me my own camera, any kind of camera. They got me a small digital camera which I used to take pictures everywhere.

Eventually, I started participating in photography and art competitions in school. And for one of the big competitions, during high school, I requested my parents to finally get me a proper professional camera. When you are a teenager, you don’t see the weight of the things you are asking from your parents. A professional camera was really expensive for them at that time, but they got it on monthly installments. I won third place in that competition.

Then during a trip to Hong Kong much later, I finally bought myself a Minolta X700. And after winning a competition hosted by a British foundation, I travelled to the UK where I got to meet curators, artists, visit art galleries etc. and that’s when I realized that people actually have real careers in arts. That’s when I started taking photography very seriously. I started trying to make projects that had powerful concepts behind them. Through my photography, I wanted to think about things that really mattered to me and showcase those things. And this is the phase that I am in up till this point.

Being a woman photographer in Saudi Arabia cannot be easy. Did you ever think about the challenges when you were just starting out?

Honestly, not really. Though the challenges do exist, but the reason I never thought about them is that I have lived here all my life, and those challenges are not something that I have to consciously think about. They are a way of life in Saudi. I have never had an alternative, so my mind just lives through them.

Of course, there are some things I would like to change in terms of my photography. I wish I could just go to any street or any location that’s not indoors and take pictures. I want to be able to take a woman out on the streets and have her model for me, and not be afraid. Sometimes we try to do that, but it just doesn’t feel safe.

The first book I ever read was Harry Potter. And I know that almost everyone loves Harry Potter and it’s a universal book, but for me, it was truly very special. It nurtured and impacted me so much that when I went to college, I decided to take up English literature.

How much does Saudi inspire your work?

It inspires my work in a lot of different ways. There aren’t many photographers here who are documenting us, our identities, and our life here. Nobody is really documenting how young people exist here, especially young women. There is so much to explore. It’s a very raw land. So anything and everything is new and fresh for me, and I love that.

When I think about taking up new projects, I strive for original stuff. I want to be able to capture the women that I actually see around me. It feels more personal and that’s really inspiring to me. My photographs look like what real life around me looks like.

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Free

Though the challenges do exist, but the reason I never thought about them is that I have lived here all my life, and those challenges are not something that I have to consciously think about. They are a way of life in Saudi.

Many artists believe in art for art’s sake, but now a lot of art consciously strives towards bringing important changes in society. What’s your view on that?

This is a really important question for me right now. I graduated last year in English Literature and I now want to do my post graduation in Arts. Since there aren’t any formal degrees for Arts in Saudi, I have to apply abroad. And what I have seen is that in a lot of these Masters in arts/fine arts, the people who are selected or the work that’s exhibited is mostly about art for art’s sake. A lot of that stuff is ridiculous and meaningless according to me, and that’s not bad. It’s contemporary art. But personally, I feel that art has a duty to bring about change in the world.

Culture is definitely influenced by arts. People still aren’t realizing how necessary art is for society. It’s still overlooked and underestimated. In Saudi, for example, we don’t have formal arts education and there is no scholarship for anything that’s even remotely considered arts.

I don’t shy away from activism in my work. I have had a lot of people here who support what I do in my work in terms of women’s rights and feminism, but I have also had a lot of people who tell me not to associate myself with these things. There are a lot of advices I would take and probably change myself accordingly, but this is not one of them. The topic of women’s rights is really fundamental to me. I would like my work to be a part of art activism even if it’s not too powerful. Just the fact that I am representing women like me and women around me is activism for me.

Your personal project ‘What She Wore’ raises powerful questions on Saudi women’s identity. How did it all begin?

In 2013, there was this talk about an arts week that would take place in Jeddah, and one of the curators spoke to me about one of the themes for the exhibition. The theme had something to do with shedding light on things that go unnoticed because they are always there.

So I was already taking these series of pictures of myself in college for that. And in one of the pictures – the one in which I am standing next to the skeleton and that’s now a part of What She Wore- I was wearing Abaya. It is of course mandatory to wear an Abaya in college and everywhere else in Saudi. And then one day, I got inspired by this online trend of ‘what she wore’ which is basically an archive of women showing off what they wore in different settings and places. Those pictures that I had already taken and that title just clicked together and inspired me.

I decided to create a typology. In photography, typology means taking a series of photos in which everything is different but there is one shared element which doesn’t change. So in my project, the shared element was the Abaya. No matter where these (Saudi) women were, they were always wearing the same outfit. It raises questions on the identity and individuality of these women.

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What She Wore

No matter where these (Saudi) women were, they were always wearing the same outfit. It raises questions on the identity and individuality of these women.

You exhibited this work at Venice Biennale. Did you exhibit in Jeddah too? What were some of the reactions in these different places? 

I exhibited that in quite a few places actually. The first exhibition was here in Jeddah. Those responses were quite different from the ones in say Venice Biennale or Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival. Overall, the reactions were nothing negative. People were intrigued and interested.

The only place where people were slightly taken aback was Jeddah. Some people here asked me ‘what do you mean by this?’ and ‘do you disagree with Abaya?’, etc. So some people did take offense slightly. I find that quite interesting because in that particular exhibition, the access wasn’t just limited to people in arts. In Jeddah, people from all walks of life could walk in, as opposed to Venice and Sharjah where people who were already experienced and well-versed with different facets of arts.

Who are some of the women in your life who have particularly inspired you?

A lot of women around me have influenced me in one way or another. I am not saying that all these women were activists. But they have inspired me just by living their lives, overcoming their own circumstances, handling the way of life here and all the pressures that come with it. And by not breaking at any given point. One of the women who particularly inspired me is my grandmother from my mother’s side. We might not agree on anything, but how she lived her life and how she brought up her five children has influenced me a lot. She came from Sudan to Emirates to Saudi, all on her own. She wasn’t even educated.

All these acts of bravery tend to go unnoticed because they are all done by women. These people deserve much more. No offense to men, but the society has the tendency to acknowledge men much more than women.

 

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Desire to Not Exist

What’s been your family’s reaction to your work?  

My parents still don’t think that art is a career, and I completely understand where they are coming from. They have had a different life and they are just trying to look out for me. I appreciate when they try to help me with whatever I am doing, like how they got me that expensive camera on monthly installments. They have enabled me and given me resources, and I really appreciate that.

On your website, the first featured work is a portrait of a woman along with a beautiful poem titled ‘Woman’. Have you written that poem? Also, is this liaison between words and pictures something you are working on consciously?

Yes! Actually, it’s very interesting of you to notice that.  In fact, why I am not exhibiting a lot since the last one year or so is because I am not sure how I want to exhibit my work. My work is not just about the photography. It is also about the writing that goes along with it. I am still not sure how to put that side by side in a perfect way; but yes, the words matter to me a lot. Literature matters to me a lot. Poetry, I feel, specifically has the power to capture human essence.

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Woman

Culture is definitely influenced by arts. People still aren’t realizing how necessary art is for society. It’s still overlooked and underestimated. In Saudi, for example, we don’t have formal arts education and there is no scholarship for anything that’s even remotely considered arts.

Who are the photographers whose work you really admire?

I am very much interested in activist photography about women. So accordingly, wome of the photographers I like are Shirin Neshat, Lalla Essaydi and Zanele Muholi, among others.

What are you currently working on?

I am actually working on my college applications right now for my post graduation. They take a huge chunk of my time. I am in a point in my life where I am trying to find out where I belong exactly. I feel like I am having an existential crisis, especially at this time, when I have graduated and I still don’t know where I am going to be next. Though I am trying to be comfortable with this place because, as we all know, this is a normal state of being. If anything, we are almost always in the state of unknown.

So are you looking forward to living in a new country?

You know I am the kind of person who worries a lot. If I don’t think too much, then yes, I am very excited. But if I think about the new place and all the hardships that will come along with it and about questions like where is my place in the world and where can I go and be myself and enjoy different experiences, I get worried.

That’s a very valid concern.

Yes. I am not sure where I want to go for my Masters. If you had asked me probably three months back, I would have said I am going to the States (USA) but now I am not so sure about that. There are a lot of things that are not particularly ideal there, and it might not be the most hospitable place for people like me in particular.

I have one last question for you. What kind of role does technology play in your life as a photographer?

Without the internet, I wouldn’t have continued creating art, or found the motivation to put my work out there.

You know I tried to engage with the art scene here in Jeddah, and the art scene here is like at most places. There is enough good art, but there are a lot of pretentious people who can make you feel like you don’t belong here. Sometimes even people who put your work out there are only interested in selling it. And this type of mentality has troubled me so much that at one point I was really done with exhibiting my work or being in those circles because I just didn’t feel comfortable. I am the kind of person who takes things deeply and everything affects me a lot.

However, thanks to the internet, I found an audience for myself. I found people who have the same concerns that I do. I found artists like me. I also found artists that I have admired, and I got to follow their journeys, their works, and their art activism. I also found people from Saudi that I could easily interact with online. People here wouldn’t talk about issues like gender and sexuality in streets per se. There is a culture of fear. But on social media, we get to meet each other and talk about these issues comfortably.

So, the question about technology’s role in my work is the most valid and important question right now. May be, my art wouldn’t have existed without the internet.

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Dictionary of an Eye

All these acts of bravery tend to go unnoticed because they are all done by women. These people deserve much more. No offense to men, but the society has the tendency to acknowledge men much more than women.

FEATURED IMAGE CAPTION:

Becoming Spring

IMAGE CREDITS:

All the images are photographs by Nouf Alhimiary.© 

USEFUL LINKS:

http://www.noufling.com/

https://www.instagram.com/noufling/

 

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