Thank you to arts and film students from Manchester Metropolitan University and University of Salford. The students interviewed very expertly for their assignment – short thirty second films of the artist interviewed about the exhibition, Epoch, Beijing 2006-2012.
THE BRAINCHILD OF BRITISH PHOTOGRAPHER AND ARTIST, HELEN COUCHMAN, THE OMANI WOMEN EXHIBITION IS AN ENLIGHTENING SERIES OF INTIMATE PORTRAITS, WRITES DEEBA HASAN
Fully veiled so her expression remains a mystery to observers, the image of a mother from the interiors of Oman holding her child in her arms offers a rare glimpse into a world that is usually closed to strangers.
But British photographer Helen Couchman was able to capture dozens of similar images after gaining the trust of the women. The result is a set of extraordinary photographs capturing Omani women in remote areas around the Sultanate, now on display at Gallery Sarah in Old Muscat.
Many of photographs show the women dressed in their traditional attire, vibrant colours of vivid red and saffron yellow, some with a veil or burqa on their faces, others fully covered from head to toe.
Armed with her camera and a 4×4, Helen went to great lengths to get the images, even camping out in the mountains and deserts. The hardest challenge, however, was breaking down cultural barriers and, as a lone Western woman, to gain acceptance from the communities she visited.
During her three expeditions into the interiors of Oman, Helen criss-crossed the Sultanate, journeying from the northern tip of Musandam and the southern border with Yemen, as well as the vast expanse of the Empty Quarter to Masirah Island on the east coast.
She managed to take a total of 146 pictures. They show women of different ages depicting the diversity of women, their self-expression, fashion, modesty and beauty in the environment that they feel most at home. “When I asked for permission to take pictures of these women, I told them to just pose how they wanted to represent themselves in the photograph,” says Helen.
Beginning in 2012, the task of taking all these photos was arduous but rewarding. “I would just drive in the Omani Interiors and pass through the market area and other public places. When I spotted a woman, either alone or with her family, I would introduced myself using some Arabic and explain what I am doing and ask them if I could take a photograph of them,” says Helen.
On most occasions, probably because Helen was a woman, she didn’t get no for an answer. “I think I was privileged being a woman with this series, as most women would have rejected [an approach] if I was a male photographer.” Surprisingly, it was the younger women who were more shy, often asking to be totally covered in the photo.
“Sometimes they would bring in a male member of the family and the male would normally say yes or no, after which the woman would speak, so that there is no contradiction,” reveals Helen.
Normally after her conversation with the family, they would ask Helen to go home with them, where sometimes the woman to be photographed would change her clothes into something more fancy and then pose for the photo. Occasionally, Helen managed to take more than one lady’s picture from the same family.
When she sat down with the families, they would talk to her about different topics. “They would speak to me about their children a bit, sometimes their careers and other things, at times they also asked a little bit about me. They often liked to dress me up and wanted me to try on their jewellery.”
On one occasion, when Helen was at a family home in Thumrait, one of the men spoke to her about the last British person who had entered their area. Although he didn’t remember his name, from the descriptions, Helen later figured out that it was Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer who crossed the Empty Quarter in the mid-1940s.
Helen was lucky to get a mix of everything in her photos – wealthy and poor women, girls aged 17 years to older women in their late 70s, and more modern women with their conservative counterparts.
Although she loves all the photos, Helen’s favourite is one in which there is a pregnant woman, wearing a long red dress and completely covered. “It’s the way she has her arms sort of holding on to her stomach, which makes it look like the baby is a prized trophy.”
All of the photos have been documented in a book, also titled Omani Women, and was launched along with the exhibition on October 12.
Omani Women will run until November 7 at Gallery Sarah, from 9.30am until 6pm, Sunday to Thursday.
It was amidst the vast expanse of Oman’s Sharqiyah Sands that British photographer Helen Couchman first drew inspiration for her project.
Helen, who was on a photography assignment in the region in 2012, was working with a group of men in the desert, when two Omani women suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the scorching mid-day heat. “Since I was the only woman in the group perhaps, they immediately took a shine to me and invited me over to their place,” she recalled. Helen remembers heading to their farm house soon after.
Helen with some of the women who were photographed for her book (Supplied photo)
“The interesting thing is that they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Arabic, but we still had dates, oranges and coffee together and somehow exchanged a lot.”
But what struck Helen most about this experience were the women. “The fact that they were so elegant and beautifully dressed, and were completely in-charge of their farm, made me realise that this wasn’t quite what I had imagined them to be,” she said. Despite the clothing that shielded them from the outside world, they still appeared to be fiercely strong and independent women.
Following her chance meeting with the two women, the UK-based photographer was incepted with the idea for her next project. Since then, she has visited the sultanate thrice, travelling across the length and breadth of Oman, capturing portraits of women willing to lend themselves to her camera.
The result is a diverse collection of 146 portraits, which Helen has compiled together in a book titled Omani Women, which will be unveiled at Gallery Sarah on Monday. Select works from this collection will also be on display at the gallery until November 5.
This is Helen’s third book of portraits. Her previous works
include Workers – portraits of migrant workers who participated in the construction of the Olympic Green in Beijing – and Mrs West’s Hats, which is a compilation of self-portraits, prom-pted by Helen’s memories of her grandmother’s love for hats.
“I found this project interesting for many reasons,” says Helen. For starters, there was very little photographic material available on Omani women. “While doing my research in England, I learnt that nobody had done portraits of them. All the people who had travelled here, usually photographed men, guns or camels. The little material that was available, either did not focus on women as the subject or exoticised them.”
As an artist, Helen felt that she had a mission at hand. What she didn’t realise was that it
wasn’t going to be very easy. But the photographer maintains that she was quite positive about her work from the very onset. “I did not go and knock on people’s doors because it would seem very impolite, but I approached women on the streets and many of them were very forthcoming, inviting me into their homes,” she said. “My plan was to get as many portraits I was allowed and to travel across the whole country to do it. I did not know how much I was going to get,” she says.
The language barrier was another hurdle that Helen encountered during her photography expeditions. Despite the many problems, she avoided taking a translator along. Instead, she carried notes in Arabic that highlighted the purpose of her visit. “When you have a translator, your subject no longer engages with you. As a photographer, I need them to be dealing with me directly. Though, I had some struggles communicating with the women while taking the pictures, the dialogue was still engaged with me on lots of levels. To be honest, there were very few occasions when I completely drew a blank.”
Helen, however, takes great pride in mentioning that her subjects had complete control over how the portraits eventually looked. “As I was working on my project, I realised that the wo-men were really taking ownership of the portrait very strongly. In the history of portraiture, generally the photographer or the artist tells the sitter what to do. But it’s really lovely how the portraits have come along, when I honestly wasn’t in charge. The women chose what they wanted to wear, how they wanted to stand, or whether they wanted to stay covered or not,” she says.
Her most treasured portrait from the collection is that of a woman, who she clicked on her first trip to Oman.
“There was this one particular portrait, where the woman had covered her face with a piece of cloth from the abundance wrapped around her. She was heavily pregnant and dressed in red. The woman was standing upright with her hands on her belly, with the fabric of her dress flowing freely. At one point she stood with a foot forward and a little to the side. The effect was one of confidence and something like a classical sculpture…almost an image like Venus. Despite her face not being visible, she looked like a goddess to me. This and the variety of different ways the women chose to engage for a portrait was very individual and of great interest to me.”
Helen’s portraits are as much about the women from Oman as it is about the strength of their character and personality, which comes shining through in these photographs.
“Your portraits change as you go along because you find out more about your subject,” she says, insisting that she has never been more impressed.
Omani Women – British Embassy in Oman Facebook announcement
Lured by the enchanting vistas of the country and the quaint lifestyle of women in the villages, British artist Helen Couchman toured the country to capture portraits of Omani women
When Helen Couchman, a London based artist, first visited Oman in 2012 and toured the country on a photographic assignment commissioned by a charity, she was privy to a mirage-like scene of two women in traditional attire, walking in the middle of a desert – an altogether commonplace event, but one that set the premise for her long tryst with the country and its people.
“This is quite normal in Oman…but not for me,” she says. “It was the middle of the day and the weather was really hot. They didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Arabic, but they invited me for coffee and I had a lovely time. It got me thinking about Omani women, their farm work and how beautifully they are dressed. They really struck me and I made up my mind to return back and take portraits of Omani women.”
That experience set the tempo for Helen’s consecutive trips to Oman, which has resulted in a colourful and vibrant compilation of portraits in a book titled ‘Omani Women’. Scheduled to be launched on October 15, on the sidelines of an exhibition of the same name at Bait Al Zubair’s Gallery Sarah, the book is a testament of her connect with Oman, established during her camping trips through the length and breadth of the country, as she captured portraits of women going about their work.
Talking to FACES, earlier this month, during a quick trip to the country to finalise the printing, she pointed out that the project took time to take off as she lacked the necessary fund. Nevertheless, on her return back home to London she initiated research on Oman and soon learnt that photographic work featuring Omani women was almost non-existent. “I am sure there are lots of reasons for this, but I just thought it was interesting to pursue it and that it would be an opportunity to try,” she notes. “I thought I will travel around the country, introduce myself to people and see what they say over cups of coffee,” she adds.
A map of Oman, inserted in the book, outlines the places Helen has travelled to and camped out along with a friend. She says she opted to camp out as it gave her the freedom to go to remote places while keeping the trip within the budget. In the three separate trips (the first one was from Haima and around the coast, the second around Salalah and the third to Musandam and the adjoining places) that she took to compile the book, she talked to about 300 people and captured 146 portraits. “Not everybody said ‘yes’ but that was expected; for me it was more about talking to women about their fashion, about Oman, about me…it was an exchange,” says Helen. Her Arabic is limited to casual greetings, but she managed with smiles and waves. “That helps a lot,” she muses.
Language, however, was not the only challenge, as the project required her to walk up to strangers in the streets. “I wasn’t just talking to the women; I was talking to their husbands, to their friends… I didn’t face any conflicts, but I know some people definitely didn’t agree, so I had to be quite brave to speak to people…” she notes.
‘Omani Women’ marks Helen’s third venture in the field of books; all of them portraitures, as she feels photography lends itself to books; she sees it as an art form rather than as a coffee table item. “The great thing about books for me is that when I make a series – I often work in series – it allows me to curate that series in a way that people can see the whole rather than the part… The concept is important for the collection that’s why books are handy for me as a structure. The drawings I have done so far didn’t need to be collated this way,” she maintains.
Her first book presents portraits of migrant workers preparing for the Olympics in Beijing; they are all taken in the same position and composition, unlike the current one, which is more focused on the individual. Her second book, titled Mrs. West’s Hats’, is a tribute to her memories of her grandmother. In it she has portrayed herself wearing her grandmother’s hats while depicting different emotions. “It is really about exploring my feelings for her,” she points out. Her latest venture is unlike the previous two, which had elements of uniformity about them. She celebrates variety in ‘Omani Women’, with regional differences in the traditional attire presenting a new perspective. It was, in effect, the layers of fabric in the traditional attire of women that held her fascination. The variety of choices it offers the wearer is what got her attention, she maintains.
In the book’s foreword, Sussan Babaie calls it a ‘rare privilege that afforded a woman artist to focus her camera lens on women of Oman’, making it an unusual venture. She writes about the collapsing of time that runs as a backdrop to Helen’s experience of Oman, one of which saw her conversing with a local man who connected her expedition to that of Wilfred Thesiger.
The exhibition of Helen’s works at Gallery Sarah (from October 15 to November 7) will feature 33 of the selected portraits from the book. Having exhibited her works (photography, drawing and print making) widely, both in the United Kingdom and internationally, often producing new bodies of work during her residencies, Helen’s rendition of ‘Omani Women’ will be a perfect gift to the nation as it observes Omani Women’s Day on October 17.
Following writing the tweet/FB update/Linkedin update above I was written to by Linkedin. They advised that my followers on Linkedin would not be able to see my updates. I responded:
Four journalists spoke to me about the story following my update above, Fergus Ryan at China Spectator, Tania Branigan at The Guardian, Austin Ramsey at The New York Times and Gwynn Guilford at Quartz.
“I’m very unhappy about it. I think it’s really unprofessional. Especially as I was only sharing things that are already in the public domain,” Ms Couchman told China Spectator.
LinkedIn said: ‘To create value for our members … we will need to implement the Chinese government’s restrictions on content.’
LinkedIn under fire for censoring Tiananmen Square posts
Networking site’s decision to stop members accessing prohibited content goes beyond Beijing’s strict web censorship rules
Tania Branigan in Beijing
Business networking site LinkedIn has said it will stop users seeing content posted from China that breaches the country’s strict censorship laws, after members complained that posts related to the Tiananmen anniversary had been blanked out.
LinkedIn is one of the few foreign social media services accessible from mainland China – where Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others are blocked – and launched a Chinese-language service earlier this year, but does not have servers on the mainland.
Its decision goes beyond Beijing’s requirements to restrict what users in China see and effectively exports some Chinese controls on content, though a spokesman said it was intended to protect users.
Artist Helen Couchman and journalist Fergus Ryan both reported receiving messages warning them that items they had posted would not be seen by LinkedIn members as they “contained content prohibited in China”.
Couchman, who lived in China for several years, said the decision to block articles she had shared about detained artist Guo Jian was outrageous. “I wasn’t even sharing an opinion,” she added.
Guo, who has Australian citizenship, was taken away by police in Beijing shortly after the publication of an interview in which he described participating in 1989’s pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and discussed a work he had created commemorating the bloody crackdown.
Ryan said in an article for the China Spectator site, for which he reports from China, that he too had posted pieces about Guo.
Roger Pua, director of corporate communications in the Asia-Pacific region for LinkedIn, said the company strongly supported freedom of expression, but added: “To create value for our members in China and around the world, we will need to implement the Chinese government’s restrictions on content, when and to the extent required … Members in China will not be able to access content that is prohibited in China.”
But the site is also preventing people outside China from seeing material that censors disapprove of if it was first posted from China.
Pua said: “Outside of China, members will be able to view content that is restricted in China, unless that content originated in China – this is to protect the privacy and security of the member who posted that content.
““LinkedIn, by its nature, is a professional network and not prone to conversations that are political in nature. We think the impact is very, very small.”
While most Chinese rely on heavily censored Chinese services – such as the Sina Weibo microblog – some, including many activists and dissidents, use VPNs or other methods to post material on Twitter and Facebook.
LinkedIn said in February that it was applying to set up operations in China, acknowledging it would need to comply with Chinese government demands to filter content.
Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that while she was not aware of the LinkedIn case, “the best practice that has emerged is that companies will not censor for the world”.
She added: “If there’s material that needs to be taken down in one jurisdiction, competitors will leave it up for the rest of the world – precisely for the reason that we should not allow the internet to go to the lowest common denominator; it should not be scrubbed of everything bar material acceptable to the least tolerant government out there.”
Michael Anti, a Chinese commentator, said: “It means Linkedin now publicly accepts Chinese censorship rule for anyone who is in mainland China, without any hesitation.”
He compared it to Microsoft’s decision to remove his Chinese-language blog in 2005 – a move that sparked international criticism.
In that case, he said, “the company felt wrong and shameful. So you know how much internet freedom we have lost worldwide in the past decade.”
LinkedIn is censoring posts about Tiananmen Square by Gwynn Guilford
…Another person to encounter LinkedIn’s censorship was Helen Couchman, an artist and longtime Beijing resident who moved to Britain in February 2013, according to the China Spectator. Couchman said that LinkedIn deleted her post linking to an article about the Chinese authorities’ detention of Guo Jian, a Chinese-Australian artist and friend of Couchman’s. (She shared the same article on Facebook and Twitter, where her posts are still available.) She subsequently tweeted her dismay at LinkedIn…
Couchman’s LinkedIn account appears to be hosted on the mainland China site, cn.linkedin.com, which might explain why her posts fell under its censorship…
Helen Couchman is an artist who first arrived in China via the trans-Mongolian railway from Moscow in February 2006. Since that time she has exhibited widely in China and other countries and published two books. Helen is based in Beijing and is continuously influenced by what she sees around her.
Welcome to Heartbeat, the show that gets to the centre of China’s ever-changing lifestyle, yet still manages to discover the country’s rich cultural heritage. I’m your host Man Ling.
Today we’ll introduce you to four people who are working in different fields but contributing to society in their own ways.
First up we’ll hear the story of a retired female worker who has committed herself to the task of cleaning up Tian’anmen Square for the past seventeen years without compensation. Then we’ll meet a young man who specializes in IT technology but chose to give up his reliable income and career prospects to become a farmer.
Later we’ll meet a photographer who hopes to show people the true spirit of China and Chinese people through his photographs. And last but not least, we’ll meet an expatriate living here in Beijing who, inspired by her life in China, continues to make exciting works of art.
China Radio International 1008AM, 846AM, 91.5FM. World service on London 558AM, Nairobi 91.5FM – Mongolia 103.7FM – Laos 93.0FM – Perth, Australia 104.9FM etc.