Yumna Al-Arashi is a London based photographer, filmmaker and writer, who’s work defies conventions and challenges cultural restraints. A woman of Yemeni-American heritage, many of Yumna’s personal projects take inspiration from her roots and explore themes surrounding sexuality, feminism and freedom, often highlighting the misrepresentation of Muslim women in society today. Now based in London, she has worked with a variety of publications and clients, from Apple to ASOS, along with multiple exhibitions taking place across the globe.
Scroll through her Instagram and you’ll find an eclectic mix of nude women and erotic art, aside politically charged captions and women draped in traditional Middle-Eastern dress. This is what Yumna’s work is about; showcasing multiple versions of female freedom and power, and creating a place where they can exist harmoniously.
After meeting Yumna on a recent shoot for Bug Clothing, we sat down with the artist to discuss her work and her thoughts on activism in art.
In your biography, alongside photographer, filmmaker and writer, you reference yourself as a human being. What is the reason for this?
Well, I feel like often times, creatives are exhausted as unlimited resource machines. I also don’t like a lot of the fluff that’s associated with professional interactions. I feel like if we can just be a bit more real and honest with one another, things can unfold more truthfully and smoothly.
Growing up as a Muslim woman in America, have you always embraced your heritage or was there ever a time you felt pressured to hide or change your identity?
I was totally ashamed of my identity when I was young. I felt like I had to be as “American” as possible. I feel that’s something a lot of immigrants face. People telling you to go back to your country when you have an accent, or you don’t dress like them, or have the same customs as them. It was a horrible environment for truly embracing where you’re from and your roots. I’m so glad I had a support system to grow out of that shame.
How does society’s portrayal of Arab women compare with what you are trying to showcase through your personal projects?
One dimensionally!!! The other day I spoke alongside Halima Aden and I couldn’t stop saying how much I’d been waiting for this moment. We always see the muslim woman as a one-dimensional person. Oppressed, hijabi, Arab. But it’s so wrong! We are from everywhere. We have different values, different customs, different cultures, different languages! We are so different from one another, just as every other person would be. I want so badly to share that with the world.
Across your work there is a beautiful contrast between the female nude and women who are covered head to toe. Do you feel that these are polar opposites, or are they part of the same narrative?
For me, they’re part of my narrative. I express myself with my work. I can be all of these things and still be one seamless human being. I can enjoy the nude figure and still be a Muslim woman. They’re not opposites to me. It’s part of one whole conversation.
How would you define activism in art?
Art is a way of speaking to the people. Art can be understood across countries, languages, and cultures. I believe using art to communicate and reflect on the world around us is powerful - that can be activism in itself.
Do you feel that access to the internet and social media has allowed for better political discussion between everyday people?
Absolutely. I’ve received so much from the internet. As much as I love to hate it, it’s an infinite resource.
Having experienced both Western and Middle Eastern cultures, how has this shaped your interpretation of ‘beauty’?
Beauty is not one thing. I’ve seen beauty in all shapes and forms, and can appreciate it on so many levels. I believe western culture really regards beauty as sensuality - which is not necessarily bad, but it also is limiting when we see and appreciate other culture’s beauties. Traveling helps to allow us to see other forms of beauty.
How important is art when it comes to equality?
I think the question is how important equality is when it comes to art. I believe we are only beginning a journey to diversify our art worlds. To hear from all types of voices. We have a huge responsibility to make sure our arts cultures are equal, representative, and fair.
What gives you strength when you face criticism or retaliation against your work?
I remember the support I have from my family and friends. I remember that criticism is good! And helpful.
What message do you hope to send to young women across the world, and more specifically, to young Muslim American women growing up in the current political climate?
I hope I can give them strength to overcome anything that would feel less than capable of doing whatever it is they want in the world. I hope I can inspire.
Browse Yumna’s work online here.
All images: Yumna Al-Arashi
Interview by Phoebe Grace Ede