“I remember the moment my Yemeni grandmother scorned my aunts and cousins for making fun of my tattoo. The room fell silent. She said that by insulting me, I was also insulting her mother, and all of the women who came before her. Soon after, she shared faded photographs of my great-grandmother, who was beautifully adorned with lines and geometric patterns all over her face. My grandmother told me, ‘There was a love of individuality that my mother took in pride. I thought it was lost, but now I see her in you.’”
Inspired by the story of her late Yemeni great-grandmother, Yumna Al-Arashi searched for and photographed the last generation of Muslim women with facial tattoos in North Africa.
The disappearance of these tattoos has been linked to the spread of literacy, Islamization, and capitalism, as well as the importance of style and self-identification with religion. The tattoos often represented women’s power and connection to the earth with symbols of agricultural living and planetary reference. They also carried spiritual power, protecting themselves and their entire families from evil djinn (spirits). Once Islamization came about, the woman’s power, as well as any symbolism attributed to it, began to disappear.
Al-Arashi set out to find the remaining women who carry this cultural tradition and tell their stories. She shares reflections on her work in an interview with ICP Projected curator Wesley Verhoeve.
The project was funded by the Arab Fund For Arts and Culture and the International Women’s Media Foundation.
During the day, Face can be viewed on monitors inside the ICP Museum and during evening hours, images are literally “projected” onto the windows of the ICP Museum; they can be viewed from the sidewalk outside the Museum and are most visible after sunset.
About the Artist
Yumna Al-Arashi, born to a Yemeni father and Egyptian mother, was raised in the United States. She studied international politics at the New School in New York City and her ongoing photography work has received support from the US Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies, the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, National Geographic Abu Dhabi, and VSCO. She was named an up and coming female journalist by Forbes Magazine in 2011.
Al-Arashi’s work confronts her own struggles of identity and placement in the social realm as both a woman and a Muslim. Her background in politics and journalism shines in her work, where she explores humanitarian matters such as women’s rights and labor injustices.