Zaineb Abelque’s Tender Snapshot of Ramadan and Eid in South London

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Inside, Outside by Zaineb Abelque
Inside, OutsidePhotography by Zaineb Abelque

“It’s my truth and I’m not going to hide that I’m a Muslim,” says Zaineb Abelque of her new exhibition, which captures friends and family during the Ramadan and Eid celebration period in south London

With her first solo exhibition Inside, Outside opening at the Truman Brewery, Moroccan artist Zaineb Abelque presents a reflexive meditation on her personal life and the flesh that imbues it with meaning, which for Abelque is, “people, identity, religion”. Exploring the Ramadan and Eid celebration period – a time of year in Islamic faith centred on spiritual introspection, discipline and community – the three tenets come forth with touching clarity.

“I’m not creating paintings with my photos, I’m starting to see that my life is a painting and everything is beautiful and everything can be spoken about,” says the London-based photographer. “I want everything I do to be rooted in people and for it to be candid and honest.”

Unfolding over the course of a photo series, zine and short film, Abelque shoots her loved ones and wider community in south London. The images are tender and deeply personal, from her mother’s hands making dua (a prayer of divine invocation), to her father’s as he clutches folded sajdahs (prayer mats) against his chest, or a smiling portrait of her brother Waleed. “The exhibition is something that’s personal to me,“ she says. “I’m literally showing the outside what my inside is, that’s the reason behind the name,” she says.

Indeed, central to Inside, Outside is a way of seeing, of looking in and catching a small glimpse of an inside experience, brought forth by a voyeuristic approach guiding Abelque’s practice. “I’m really observant … it goes back to people watching and watching the true nature of man,” she explains, “I can be part of something and exist in it but I always want to have an element of observation, of being an observer.”

For Abelque, who runs an outdoor community initiative, nature is a connective space enforcing her faith – a theme poignantly expressed throughout the show. “I feel big and small when I’m in nature,” she says. “You get that feeling when you’re praying in the park.” Shots of people performing salah (prayer) in unison or mingling with one another among the greenery of Burgess Park during Eid evoke a profound sense of unity, highlighting an engagement with the outdoors that is restorative and gentle.

In contrast to the colourful movement of prayer observed in the park, there are smaller moments of solitude. Here, images express introspection, carrying a stillness which Abelque explains is a play with negative space used to convey a simple idea, that “you need a little bit of meaning not a lot … I hope people come and leave knowing [that] you take up space because you are who you are. You don’t need grand ideas, you just need to show something that has meaning to you.”

“I settled on this project because of honesty,” she says, “It’s my truth and I’m not going to hide that I’m a Muslim.” The series captures a journey through a period for re-centering the soul, for taking pause to re-consider the energy we receive and release into the world; the space we occupy and those we let share it. Not political nor an attempt to dissect religious meaning, Inside, Outside is fundamentally concerned with how we find truth, rejuvenation and joy in embodied spirituality, bringing us to universal questions of “who we are, who we want to be”.

Inside, Outside by Zaineb Abelque is on show at the Old Truman Brewery from 28-29 January 2023.