A Highbury artist is attempting to shed light on a little-known corner of the world with her unique portraits of Omani Women. Helen Couchman said the idea came to her after travelling to Oman for work four years ago. “I wanted to understand more about what we mean when we refer to the Middle East,” she said. “Its just so general and vague.”
It was while she was on assignment in the desert that she was first inspired; ” I was at the edge of what is known as The Empty Quarter when I met three women who appeared over the dunes in the middle of nowhere. The women – including a mother and her three daughters – took a shine to her and invited her to their farm. “I was struck by how brightly and confidently dresses the four women were,” Ms Couchman told the Gazette. “I began thinking about my expectations of them being more conservatively dressed.”
When she returned to the UK she searched through archives of Omani Women but found only portraits that were anthropological or of eroticised Persian beauty. Inspired by her own experiences she returned to the country to start her own project. Of course convincing strangers to pose for photos wasn’t easy. “I realised it might be quite a difficult question for people to consider so I approached people in the street rather than at their homes which I don’t think would have been very polite,” Ms Couchman said. Most families had at least on member who spoke English or else would invite a friend over who could. “I would ask them three questions,” she said. “Would they like to be in the portrait? What would they like to wear? And how would they like to present themselves?”
The result is a series of image published in her new book Omani Women. She will be giving a talk and signing at Waterstones at Islington Green on 9th March at 6pm.
The charming Muscat is where Gallery Sarah is located. It is right next to Bait al Zubair. With the sunlight giving a natural delight to the photographs, women adorning bright coloured garments come alive, the white colour of the wall making them appear even more vibrant and prominent. The photography exhibition is called Omani Women. It is a collection of images of Omani women taken by Helen Couchman over three years. The idea took form in February 2012. She flew in from Beijing, where she was stationed at that time, back to London where she continued with her research and planned out the journeys.
Asked what she felt when she began to visualise the concept, Helen said: “My first thoughts were the Omani hospitality and meeting Omani women and being really struck by the brightness of their clothing, their variety and individuality of their clothing. I realised that you cannot buy these clothes on the shelves because the ones I had seen were tailor made. So they struck me as special.”
Helen travelled throughout the country capturing special moments. From the desert to the city, from a mother with her toddler to a working woman — the images portray the subject’s world in a unique way. The women are in their natural surroundings, in clothes they wanted to wear with poses they wanted to strike.
Helen pointed out that one has to keep in mind that each image is a photograph. “I think it is interesting to consider the particularity of photography. Actually in my work as an artist I use mixed media. Sometimes I draw, I paint and sometimes make installations and so on. But when you photograph someone you have that moment when they are in your sight and it is about capturing that moment of time. In this project I deliberately asked the women, my sitters, if they would choose what they were going to wear and choose how they want to portray themselves with their hand gestures, how they would like to cover the faces or how they would like to present themselves, which is not necessarily typical often with artist’s portrait. The idea is that the artist chooses what the person wears or how the person sits and how he or she presents themselves because the artist has that vision. With this I wanted to collaborate with them and find out what they would like in terms of how they wanted to present themselves,” said Helen.
Helen took three expeditions of 10 days each time. She chose not to stay in hotels and instead camped out. And it is one of those locations that inspired her to design the cover of her book entitled Omani Women, which compiles all the portraits that are in the exhibition.
“Oman is a beautiful country and it is such a pleasure to camp here. I realised quite quickly that because of my funding, staying in hotels would make the project impossible for me. But I also wanted to reach far flung places and go to villages, mountains and the desert where it is not easy to find somewhere to stay. Camping gave me flexible time so I could spend time with women and follow each day as it played out. I would just camp wherever I reached. It was the most practical solution. It was a lovely way of spending my time in the evenings,” reflected Helen.
There were lots of interesting places but one that caught her imagination was Haima. “I camped at one place twice because it is in the middle of the country. On two occasions I crossed it. It was the area around Haima. It was very central and desert-like. There was very little but the desert is beautiful. I woke up there and looked out at dawn and the desert was pale pink with little white flaxes. It was beautiful. I thought how beautiful to have such harsh climate, arid and difficult to live and yet have such soft colours, which you can argue as feminine colours. The sky was powder blue. It struck me so much that it became the cover of the book, which accompanies the exhibition,” said the photographer.
There were more sceneries and landscapes that came across during Helen’s journey but she tried hard to concentrate on her project — Omani Women. “When you are pursuing something, you find yourself in situations which you may not have expected. It is easy to get distracted by the things you are learning and finding out. This project was no different. I came across food, met kids, people playing music, saw landscapes, houses, farming, animals, things normally I would not have expected. This happened all the way through the project. But I tried very consciously to keep my focus on the project at hand because it is so easy to get side tracked. I find that you get good results when you put a lot of energy and focus in what I am doing. I am happy I completed it,” said Helen looking content.
The three-week exhibition will conclude on November 5.
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
None of the British newspapers published the cartoons today. The Independent impressively skirted the issue with a fresh commission.
Today for one day satirical cartoons was the news and in the UK none were published. Today of all days. There will be many column inches written about Charlie Hebdo but in fact images are far more powerful.
RIP the cartoonists who died. May many young cartoonists go on to ridicule us all.
Note: Yesterday, 7th January 2015, 12 people were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
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…
China Daily, European Weekly. People 16-22 March 2012 feature, Helen Couchman
Feature in China Daily European Weekly, 16th – 22nd March. To download readable pdf version link here
By Zhang Xi (China Daily)
Last year, Helen Couchman armed herself with three mirrors and a camera and headed straight into the streets. The mirrors were placed in various positions to “fuse the different elements” of the scenes she took, as symbols to help express her feelings that subsequently resulted in a photo exhibition in the Chinese capital.
One of Couchman’s aims was to showcase the “multiple textures and vistas” of the traditional Beijing alleyways, or hutong, that faced new threats of being demolished to make way for new buildings.
“It has a performative angle: process, construction, dirt, proximity and distance are all evident in these images. This is what I am working with”, she says.
The In Beijing exhibition was one of the latest efforts by Couchman, who has lived in the capital for six years. Her work often explores a popular theme: a fast developing China.
The 38-year-old artist, whose primary medium is photography, sometimes also travels back to Britain to hold exhibitions or conduct research. She expects her In Beijing show to travel to London this year. Last week, Couchman was speaking at the popular Cambridge Science Week in a talk entitled Limits of Seeing.
In 2008, she published her first photographic collection Workers, to illustrate her personal engagement with China.
In the book, she showed photos of 143 migrant workers posed with the National Stadium and other key buildings within the Olympic Village constructed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In 2010, the artist also produced a linocut collection called Cloud series, Yellow lining, in which clouds and the sky were portrayed as a landscape.
She says her work was inspired by “a yellow line” she saw in the sky as her plane landed in Beijing in February that year.
Couchman, who has travelled to many places in China and produced considerable work here, was inspired to come to China a decade ago.
Images from the Harbin ice festival in northeastern Heilongjiang province on the back of a weekend magazine fascinated her. Even more compelling: stories about the planned flooding of the Yangtze valley. She felt she “needed to come here as soon as possible before China’s rapid changes and development swallowed these places”.
In 2006, she finally got to Beijing via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
“I first came to China on the train from Moscow in January 2006. I took the train as it was my first time coming to China and I wanted to see the distance coming across from Europe to Asia and I had, since I was a child, a fascination for the story of the last Tsar of Russia and his family’s demise in Siberia.
“I was born about an hour south of London and when I was 8 weeks old, my family moved to a ruined farmhouse in the Brecon Beacons National Park in the mountains of south Wales.
“My parents slowly did it up and learned farming. They bought a ruin because the area was beautiful, but at that time you could not build a new home in the national park,” she says. Now a professional artist and taking her works across the world, Couchman still reviews where she should be working every year.
“This year I have some research to pursue in London and projects to do in China.” But her current focus is Beijing.
“Heading to the parks or walking through the hutong in this city is one of my favourite things, “Couchman says. “One of the things I enjoy about China is that I learn something new everyday.”
Article also features in the China Daily (mainland newspaper)