The Profound Duality of Being: بنات اليمن

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Anysa Saleh’s photography challenges established methods around portraiture, but her practice is based largely around Yemeni cultural traditions, where it is taboo for women to be depicted photographically. In the bold black and white photographic series titled The Daughters of Yemen | بنات اليمن, Saleh explores a variety of profound dualities faced by Yemeni-Muslim women living in the United States.

“In front of the camera I am fully myself—the daughter my mom and dad raised me to be,” says Saleh, sitting comfortably yet poised, with her head high and shoulders back. That posture epitomizes the aspects of every woman she seeks to capture in her photographs.

Returning to her art practice after a five-year break, Saleh is positioning herself (and others) in front of her camera in order to confront the contradictions she experiences as a Yemeni-Muslim woman living in the United States, but also to harness the power of portraiture to capture a sitter’s essence without their actual visage.


Banat Al Yemen Two, Black and White Photograph
Banat Al Yemen Four, Black and White Photograph
The artist employs striking visual contrasts to speak to the tension between preserving elements of a culture and embracing the opposing progress that is inevitable and at times necessary.

For Saleh, each photographic portrayal is cultivated with love, respect, and pride at the forefront so that each image from the ongoing project subtly but courageously honors the untold truths and perspectives that many Arab women are familiar with. Rather than depicting their skin, hair, or physical features, Saleh emphasizes their individuality through aesthetic choices in clothing, jewelry, texture, and pattern while completely hiding their identity.

That sense of preservation is a form of care that the artist learned from her family. She has always mixed traditional and non-traditional clothing since her own childhood, and later in college realized that this was a common theme for Arab women. In this series, she captures this experience in the white highlighted elements of outfits that seamlessly blend traditional garments with Western contemporary pieces. And while she acknowledges the reality of assimilation and the possibility of accepting or even embracing it, Saleh recognizes a simultaneous responsibility to use her art practice against the erasure of these cultural references.

Captured in deep black and crisp white, the figures in her photos embody the complexities and contradictions that exist in the borders between Yemeni and US cultures. Her figures are both boldly present but also disappear into denim and silk, pattern and texture. The artist employs striking visual contrasts to speak to the tension between preserving elements of a culture and embracing the opposing progress that is inevitable and at times necessary.

“Anything that shows skin I take away; I want to keep their identities safe,” Saleh explains. “And safe isn’t the right word; protection isn’t either. English is a hard language to explain what I am trying to say, because when I say protection, it immediately goes to protection from what? Protection from whom? But it is more of a desire to preserve something.”


Banat Al Yemen Five, Black and White Photograph
Banat Al Yemen Seven, Black and White Photograph

In hiding the identities of her subjects, Saleh extends a sense of protection for the women she invites to pose. She offers them a refuge, allowing them to feel seen while still acknowledging the importance of privacy in the Yemeni community. In the darkness of her photographs, she shines light onto their stories without exposing them to any judgment or عيب –an Arabic word that loosely translates to “shame.”

Within Saleh’s photographic vocabulary, she brings special attention to new variations of Hijab stylings within the Yemeni community—and challenges outdated traditional ideas and philosophies surrounding these notions. To witness these photographs, it is important for unfamiliar audiences to understand that “hijab” is not a sole reference to the headscarf, but it rather refers to the way a person carries themselves. This body of work refers to it as a profound learned connection between family, land, and tradition.


Images courtesy of the artist

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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