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.
For more information, visit helencouchman.com
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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.
For Expatriates in China, Creative Lives of Plenty
by Dan Levin. NY Times arts page, Sunday, 10th January 2010
THERE was a chill in the morning air in 2005 when dozens of artists from China, Europe and North America emerged from their red-brick studios here to find the police blocking the gates to Suojiacun, their compound on the city’s outskirts. They were told that the village of about 100 illegally built structures was to be demolished, and were given two hours to pack.
By noon bulldozers were smashing the walls of several studios, revealing ripped-apart canvases and half-glazed clay vases lying in the rubble. But then the machines ceased their pulverizing, and the police dispersed, leaving most of the buildings unscathed. It was not the first time the authorities had threatened to evict these artists, nor would it be the last. But it was still frightening.
“I had invested everything in my studio,” said Alessandro Rolandi, a sculptor and performance artist originally from Italy who had removed his belongings before the destruction commenced. “I was really worried about my work being destroyed.”
He eventually left Suojiacun, but he has remained in China. Like the artists’ colony, the country offers challenges, but expatriates here say that the rewards outweigh the hardships. Mr. Rolandi is one of many artists (five are profiled here) who have left the United States and Europe for China, seeking respite from tiny apartments, an insular art world and nagging doubts about whether it’s best to forgo art for a reliable office job. They have discovered a land of vast creative possibility, where scale is virtually limitless and costs are comically low. They can rent airy studios, hire assistants, experiment in costly mediums like bronze and fiberglass.
“Today China has become one of the most important places to create and invent,” said Jérôme Sans, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. “A lot of Western artists are coming here to live the dynamism and make especially crazy work they could never do anywhere else in the world.”
China popped onto Helen Couchman’s radar around 2000, when, she said, she “first saw gorgeous little tidbits of something far away”: glossy photos in British magazines of ice palaces in the northern city of Harbin and sweeping tales of the country’s frenetic experiment with modernization. In 2006 she stepped off the Trans-Siberian Railway and into the chaos of Beijing’s main train station, and after three days of wandering around she knew she wanted to live here.
As a photographer she found the manic pace of Olympic construction irresistible, along with the cost of living as compared with London, her home for 15 years. “A £4 tube ticket would buy my dinner here,” she said. Ms. Couchman, 36, who is British, moved to Beijing a year later, and though she sells most of her work in Europe, she said, the “shapes and designs here have completely saturated my work.”
In her most recent work, at right, she poses naked behind a large fan, a traditional Chinese accessory that serves as an emblem of the camera, behind which she is frequently shielded.
She is more than a documentarian. Her book “Workers” illustrates her personal engagement with China. In December 2007 she slipped behind the screens surrounding the construction of the Olympic park and shot portraits of 146 migrant laborers. She returned the next day with two sets of prints, giving each subject a copy to keep and having workers write their name and hometown on the other, which she compiled for the book. “Their families couldn’t afford to come to Beijing and see their role in history,” she said. “Now they have this document, like I would have a graduation or wedding photo…”
Article in full: www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/arts/design/10expatsweb.html
Also featured: Alessandro Rolandi (Italy), Alfredo Martinez (US), Rania Ho (US) and Joseph Ellis (US).