Face (January - March 2017)
Earlier in 2016, I received two grants (from AFAC and IWMF) to complete a project I'd begun research for in London. I'd set out to find the last generation of Muslim women with facial tattoos and tell their stories.
This project was inspired by my father's grandmother, Aisha. She practically raised my father, the oldest of fifteen children, because his own mother was too busy making them. He's told me stories of her brilliance and power and I was always fascinated with the fact that she had tattoos on her face. My father never knew much of them because it was such a normal occurrence on most of the elderly women around him.
This story rings true for almost every gidda (grandma) in the region, but is never really talked about. So I spent the first bit of the new year seeking them out in North Africa. I chose North Africa, because most other countries in the Middle East with the tattoos (Iraq, Yemen, Syria) are unfortunately in the midst of some heavy warfare, and I am not a conflict reporter.
What I eventually found was something I wasn't initially expecting when I pitched the project. These stories told such a heavy story of a matriarchal past in these regions, as well as one of magic. Uncovering this past is so important for us to remember that women of the region come from an incredibly long line of badassery. One that includes so much more than modern media would like us to have in our memory of her.
I am eternally grateful to the many souls who made this journey complete. I couldn't have done it without each and every one of your kind and smart souls helping me through your countries, villages, and guiding me in the right direction when I stopped you on the side of the road or knocked on your door. Without you, this would have been nothing.
On our drive through the practically empty Sahara in Morocco, we stopped for petrol and water, and Trump's inauguration was on the television. I was hoping my remoteness would enable me to forget that it was happening, but clearly, this was something the whole world had eyes on. Words could not describe my shame and embarrassment for my country, America.
A few days later, I arrived in Algeria, only to catch the news of Trump's executive order, the Muslim Ban. Things became very dark very fast. I felt helpless, distant, angry, and alone. All of my siblings back home were terrified of their own existence. My father overseas would no longer be able to come Stateside to see us and his grandchildren. Worst of all, we no longer had the possibility of providing our Yemeni family stuck in the conflict safe shelter.
The world quickly turned into a dreadful place.
Shedding Skin (March - June 2017)
I left North Africa for Europe, first flying to Paris to regather my thoughts and to process all of my film. I then flew to Berlin to see if it was a viable place to live. I was done with America. I didn't want to step foot on the land that was punishing my whole family and those like me because of an ugly xenophobia the country has been harboring against us for most of my life.
Berlin was lonely. I had a few friends, but it was cold, and I didn't feel entirely comfortable. I'm not sure if that was just because of my own state of mind or because of the internal frequency of the city. I felt betrayed and alone, afraid to trigger any red flags for my family by coming back to the US. I was stuck between hatred and fear and confusion.
One night, I was up late editing photos when I got a call from New York. A friend of a friend who works at an agency who is working with a big company who is looking for a female artist who has a dream project and something to say. A pitch. Needed by the next morning. London time. Less than 6 hours. I said "No problem."
On the last day of my trip in North Africa, me and my fixer went to the hammam. I was tired, emotionally drained, dirty, and in need of love. No matter where I am, bathhouses are my usual safe space for mending a broken heart and spirit. There's something about cleaning the body that actually helps to relieve the soul, to start anew. Combine it with a room of people doing the same thing, and you feel a little less alone in your misery. No wonder they've been around for centuries. This particular hammam was insane. It was packed. It was dirty. Women were fighting over buckets of water. Children were crying. Fruit peels were on the ground. And still, I felt at home. An old, toothless, curvaceous woman mercilessly scrubbed me down on a marble slab like I was her child, laughing at the dirt coming off of my skin as I hid my tears in the fold of my arm. Crying because, I don't know. Happiness, safety, sadness, comfort, uncertainty, relief, loneliness? I don't know. All those weeks on the road working, I ignored my emotions to get my work done. But in that moment, I just needed to cry.
And so I wanted to create a body of work visually reflecting upon the importance of these spaces for us. I wanted to speak my pains in this space. I wanted to create visuals of a space that has been orientalized by white men throughout history. I wanted to take ownership of these spaces for us.
Two days later, I received a call from ASOS, welcoming me on board, and agreeing to fund my project in full.
Not to sound like a tumblr meme, but life can really throw some powerful shit at you. Art can heal. In this moment, I realized how much I needed to make something about what I was dealing with, because I wasn't the only one dealing with it. It needed to be heard.
Soon I was off to Beirut to shoot this piece. It was a life changing experience.
My team at ASOS; none of this could have happened without you fighting for me and believing in me. Leroy, Jasmine, Rachel, you had my back through this whole thing. You paved the road for my vision to come to life, in all of its truth.
My team in Beirut. Damn. Where do I begin? You saw my vision, you were on my side since day one. My eternal gratitude for your talent, your persistence. I found the best group of women to make this a reality. Jinane, Pauline, you are my family forever. Thank you.
Solo Shows (June 2017)
The Hole, New York City
Jason Vass Gallery, Los Angeles
I was so blown away by the amount of people who came through. Friends, old and new. Seeing my work so large, my film screened. Arab women coming up to me and crying after watching my film. Everything that made the pain of the past heal.
Coming back for these shows was my first visit back to the US since I'd left the previous year. It was surreal to have gone back to the two cities that built me to share these works. Full circle.
Aside from my shows in New York and Los Angeles, this project has traveled all over the world; London, Mexico, and multiple independent screenings in New York.
Film - Shedding Skin
Lonely Lingerie Campaign - October 2017
Some images from my favorite campaign I photographed this year. Working with beautiful women in a dream space and for a dream company.
There are a few other projects I completed this year, which I'm so incredibly proud of, that haven't been released just yet. Things for a future newsletter :)
All in all, I'm eternally grateful for the opportunity and privilege I've had to create some of my favorite and most powerful works thus far. I feel gratitude for the support that I've been surrounded by to create art which means so much to me. I'm also forever glad that I can connect with those who view it, that my art can reach people all over the world who identify with it.
There have been times that I've felt ready to give up on what I do. Actually, to be honest, it is an almost regular feeling. But, this year gave me hope to keep pushing.