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Omani Women – Islington Gazette article

8th March, 2016

Artist shows true colours of Oman

Portraits aim to overturn misconceptions

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. 

by Sophie Inge, 3 March 2016

IGZ.2016-03-03.MAIN.ING.003.COL.pdf

Online, 8 March 2016:

Omani Women - 8th March 2016. Islington Gazette website home page

Islington Gazette online article - 8 March 2016

Omani women through the lens – Oman Observer

27th October, 2015

Oman Observer review, Omani Women by Helen Couchman, 27:10:15The 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.

Link to the article online