Arts & Culture

How this storyteller connects with her Yemeni roots through photography

We speak with Shaima Al-Tamimi about her Yemeni Beauty Rituals photo series, which has helped her connect with a country she never got to call “home”.

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By Sekka Editorial

Yemeni-Kenyan photographer Shaima Al-Tamimi. Courtesy.

Shaima Al-Tamimi is a Yemeni-Kenyan visual storyteller whose work is inspired by social and cultural norms, stemming from her personal experience as a Yemeni in the diaspora. Her work in film, photography and writing explores different themes, from migration to culinary cultures. One of her most recent photography projects As If We Never Came, which explores the topics of migration , culture and identity amongst Yemeni diasporas, is currently being showcased in Madrid in Photo Espane/ Casa Arabe. Shaima is also the recipient of grants from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and the Women Photograph , and is a 2020 Social Justice and Photography fellow of the Magnum Foundation.

Having never lived in her home country, Shaima’s earliest connection to Yemen was when her mother introduced her to traditional Yemeni beauty rituals. We speak with the young creative about her Yemeni Beauty Rituals series, which celebrates traditions that Shaima hopes will never be forgotten, and which have also helped her connect to a country she never got to call “home”. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about your Yemeni Beauty Rituals series and what inspired it.

Shaima Al-Tamimi: This series is one that is very personal to me as it celebrates the shared connection of womanhood through Yemen’s prized local and medicinal herbs—henna and sedr leaves—as well as honey. The subjects in the photographs are my friends Mayar, Bayan and Iman, who I introduced this ritual to, and they absolutely loved the experience. It is fun, therapeutic, makes your skin glow, hair soft and forms the perfect home spa time with your friends or family.

How do Yemeni beauty rituals differ from those of other Arab countries, and what makes practicing them special?

Shaima Al-Tamimi:  What makes them special is the fact that the herbs used for them grow widely in certain parts of Yemen, and they have therefore become integral to the Yemeni household. It is probably fair to note these beauty rituals are common practice within some countries in the Arabian Gulf, and that can be due to the impact of migration.

Your work frequently reflects on your own personal experiences as a Yemeni in the diaspora. How did this photo series help connect you to Yemen, where you didn’t grow up?

Shaima Al-Tamimi: I have spent a large amount of time and mental capacity to try to understand what it means to be from a place that I wasn’t brought up in, nor were my parents (somewhat). 

In addition to that, Yemenis in the diaspora continue to face challenges with relation to their citizenship and lack of opportunities, which to me becomes an added layer of complexity when it comes to connecting to your identity. Tapping into memories and fantasies are some of the methods I use to portray this closeness to “home”. As Yemenis, we are tired of being represented as people who have only tasted the horror of war. Some of my work aims to [re]claim our narrative, and shed a light on the beauty of our culture and people. 

Shaima Al-Tamimi’s Yemeni Beauty Rituals photography series. The honey is used as a face mask, and the sedr leaves are grinded and mixed into a concoctions that are then used as conditioners for the hair. The henna decorates the hands of Shaima’s friends. Click on each photo to see it in a bigger size.

How do you use photography and film to communicate your experiences in the diaspora? 

Shaima Al-Tamimi: We come from a community that does not talk about pain publicly nor privately. 

Honestly, it is all about the experiences we have been through as a community. Being in touch with your emotions and connecting with everything that surfaces within you is something I am learning to detect. Growing up as a child of immigrants, more often than not, means being brought up in survival mode. The mentality of “You do what you have to do get by” is engrained in us. In many ways, it has toughened us, yet it has also traumatized us. Visual storytelling has allowed me to find a therapeutic way to deal with it all, and share it with my community. 

What first sparked your interest in photography?

Shaima Al-Tamimi: My father, bless his heart. He is a photographer and introduced me to this practice when I was 15 years old, during the summer holiday. Photography has grown on me in many different ways, and I love how it helps me understand myself and the environment around me.

What are you currently working, and what are some themes you would like to explore in the future?

Shaima Al-Tamimi: I am currently working on my next project “Don’t get too comfortable” as a result of my fellowship at the Magnum Foundation. Big shout to my wonderful team!

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