Currently showing at Paris Photo, Eman Ali’s new series explores gender, religion, and socio-political norms throughout the Khaleej, Arab world and East Africa
Hymen pills, crystal bottles of menstrual blood, young women in wooden frames engraved with ancient Swahili poetry; these are just some of the scenes that come forth in Eman Ali’s portfolio of photographic dreamscapes.
“There is something about observing the world through a lens,” she says. “You’re connected to a moment, but really disconnected and that ‘in-between’ allows for an alternative reality for you to explore and dream. I live in that.” It is in these liminal moments that the Omani-Bahrani visual artist explores gender, religion, and socio-political norms throughout the Khaleej, Arab world and East Africa. In the process, universal questions about the human condition are brought to the fore.
Eman Ali’s latest body of work, The Earth Would Die If The Sun Stopped Kissing Her, is currently on display at the 25th edition of Paris Photo. Taking its name from The Sun Never Says, a poem by 12th-century Persian poet Hafez, it is the product of a month-long ‘Kerouacian’ journey in Oman in the spring of 2022. “As a people, we are very connected to the land. This project is definitely more personal, and much more instinctual,” she explains. “It was just me going on road trips and exploring different areas of the country. I took this opportunity to play, to discover and connect with people. It was a return to the explorative nature of photography.”
A sort of journal entry, the series is full of shadowy interior settings and arresting nature shots, capturing the peaks and valleys of life in Oman. There’s a portrait of a gaping valley giving way to Muscat’s white cement and Malak, standing ankles deep in a body of water; the two images depict the tension between nature and man, yet also portray a loving and tender connection – a softness to a source. “It’s about going back to ancestral history … listening to the land, hearing it speak.”
Indeed, the figures and voices that emanate from Eman’s work are often women. At the heart of her practice is a subversive critique of performances of gender and sexuality throughout the Arabian peninsula and beyond, and her latest project is no exception. Capturing Nusa, a professional hijabi pole dancer performing with Muscat in the background at once rejects the tendency to homogenise the Arab woman. “I explore the Arab woman because it’s what I experience and what I know. With my photography I want to offer an alternative representation of the Arab woman.”
Harnessing the beauty of the mundane, the images ask us to consider the ignored intricacies of our everyday lives. Eman describes this as an experimentation with “light [and] the poetry of colour to suggest a certain kind of mood and feeling in my imagery.” In this project, Eman’s propensity for meticulous portraiture shines through, a distinct part of her practice in which she places the everyday in an otherworldly context with stunning ease.