“My Yemeni great-grandmother had tattoos on her face, which always seemed extraordinary to me. It was very common for women her age to have tattoos, but no one ever spoke about it. They would just tell me that the tattoos were from the old times,” says London-based photographer Yumna Al-Arashi. But Yumna’s curiosity was not satisfied with this vague response. Her series, Face, captures the last generation of tattooed Middle Eastern women and reflects on the gradual disappearance of this age-old tradition.
Yumna often approaches her projects through an anthropological lens. “The focus of my work is mostly historical and I try to use photography as a means of communication. The aesthetic style comes second to the subjects I shoot and the stories I am trying to tell,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That. Yumna’s art is not just an exercise of aesthetic style. It is an inquisitive study that delves deep into various societies and different cultures from around the world. This project is no different. Face documents and illustrates the alternative cosmetic norms and gender expectations of the Maghreb.
In order to carry out Face, Yumna received grants from The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and The International Women’s Media Foundation. This took the American photographer to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, all of which have pervasive cultures of facial tattoos among women. “All the women want to get tattooed as soon as they can. They wanted to look beautiful like the adults they admire, in the same way we play with make-up.” Tattoo culture is so pervasive, Yumna explains, that a man told her he would not even look at a woman until her face had been adorned.
The facial tattoos are often reflections of local astrological beliefs. The designs can be symbolic tributes to the stars, the moon or the sun depending on each woman’s personal preference. Although many women adorn their faces for cosmetic reasons, most believe that the intricate drawings connect them with the spiritual world and protect their households from evil forces. In either case, Yumna says, the tattoos are a manifestation of female strength: “These metaphysical connections translate as very powerful in these communities. Women are authoritative figures. They are the family’s decision-makers, they understand the land and animals’ needs best, they know how to use herbs to heal and they can cook. These are all essential survival skills.” The tattoos are symbols of matriarchal power in communities where women sustain the livelihood of their families. Men, Yumna says, are merely there to assist.
Face not only captures the Maghreb’s matriarchal communities, but also comments on the slow disappearance of female facial tattoos. “They started vanishing when capitalism was introduced to the region; corporate power is a dominantly male force. This in turn, saw the dissolution of the agricultural and natural power that women had controlled,” Yumna says. “It’s so easy for the media to tell people that these countries are backwards and that these women are repressed.” Yumna’s photography questions Western ‘progress’ and its orientalist preconceptions of Muslim communities by highlighting how the onset of capitalism has reorganised these traditional communities in line with a patriarchal social order.
“I think I am just interested in having a greater understanding of these regions. It is important to have these conversations in order to question the prejudices, stereotypes and biases that we have been fed.”